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How to prevent difficult behaviors - Part 1

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

What's the best way to manage challenging behaviours?

Prevent them from happening in the first place!

There are preventative measures being used all around us in our everyday lives. Often in our environment there are cues to help prevent us from getting injured (slippery surface), help us to cope with what to expect (knowing how long you will be on hold for) and reduce the chances of becoming frustrated (calming music and a free chocolate sample when you are waiting in a long line).

If we want to prevent our children from becoming overwhelmed, frustrated and have meltdowns, there are many different ways to prevent an escalation of difficult behaviours. This blog is going to give you a few tips (not all) for how to prevent tantrums and meltdowns (or at least reduce the likelihood that they will occur).


#1: Function

Function comes first. What do I mean by 'function'? Well, this refers to the reason as to why the behaviour is occurring. Often behaviours are occurring because the child or individual isn't able to communicate their needs appropriately. I'd like to encourage you to think "What is my child trying to communicate to me?". This can help guide you to figure out the function of the behaviour. The reason as to why the behaviour is occurring could also link to your child's difficulty with coping with different situations or changes that occur. You can also ask yourself these questions to help figure out why your child is engaging in the inappropriate behaviour:

  1. What is my child trying to GAIN or get when they display the difficult behaviour?

  2. What is my child trying to AVOID or ESCAPE when they display the difficult behaviour?

Keep in mind that behaviours can serve different functions at different times. The same inappropriate behaviour (e.g. screaming) could be used to get your attention one day, and then to avoid eating dinner the next day.

You might also see a number of different behaviours being used for the SAME function (e.g. your child will display screaming or crying or hitting to avoid going to the store).

Once you know the function of your child's behaviour, you can use the relevant preventative strategy BEFORE the behaviour would typically occur.

Understanding and determining the function of behaviours can sometimes be a tricky task, especially with children who don't have expressive language or whom have delayed language, a cognitive delay, autism or another disability. In some situations it can be helpful to seek further individualized support for you and your child.

#2: Visuals

A visual is simply a picture, photo, drawing or any type of image. Visuals are all around us - the stop sign, the toilet sign, arrows to direct us where to go, danger signs to warn us and help prevent us from getting injured. So, these can also help our children to understand expectations and prepare for what is happening (especially if it's something that is not preferred).

Why are visuals helpful?

Have you ever been to a foreign country where you can't speak the language? How did you figure out where the washroom was? You looked for the sign and arrows didn't you? Well, this is an example of how helpful visuals are when you don't yet understand language.

For children who are visual learners, the use of visuals will help them to more easily process the information that is given to them verbally. Visuals can also help to remove the demand or expectation from you as the caregiver and place it on something external. For example, the visual schedule says that it's bath time (rather than you being the one to give the instruction). Visuals are especially helpful for children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), developmental delays and language delays. Once again, the visual can help children understand language and remember what the expectations are.

You can use visuals in many different ways. Here are some examples:

  1. Visual schedule to show what tasks and activities will be happening for the day or week.

  2. A visual schedule for the steps involved in a specific task (e.g. morning routine)

  3. Visuals of 'no' or 'stop' signs to show children what they should not touch or open etc.

  4. Visuals to prompt children to use their language (e.g. a "Can I have" visual, a visual strip to show how to get attention)

  5. Use a visual social story to explain how to share toys with friends.

#3: Verbal/ Visual Forewarning

It is important for us to give our children time to process information and prepare for changes that are occurring. This is particularly crucial when transitioning from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity. By giving verbal forewarnings consistently and the following through when the time is up, your child will learn the boundaries that you are setting and that what you say is valuable to listen to.

  • Verbal forewarnings involves telling your child what will happen BEFORE it happens. Find the amount of time that your child needs to process a transition. This might involve some trial and error. You might start off giving your child a 10 minute warning before they have to turn the TV off, then again at 5 minutes, then again at 1 minute. Once your child is coping with the warning you are giving them, you can fade this out (i.e. reduce the amount of warning or the number of reminders you give them before transitioning).

  • Use a visual timer, a timer on your phone, a timer app on your phone (there are some great fun timer apps)

  • Use the 'magic 5' countdown strategy - this is where you tell your child "1 more minute, then finished" (or similar depending on what you are doing). After approximately 1 minute (it can be a little more or little less depending on what your child needs) hold up 5 finders so you child can see them and tell your child "5, 4, 3, 2, 1, finished". Then follow through with finishing the task/activity and transition to the next task. When used consistently, this is a fantastic strategy and helps children prepare for a transition.

Remember: "Function comes first". Determine what your child is trying to gain or escape by engaging in the behaviour.

#4: Give Choices

Having a choice is hugely empowering and can be very effective for children who like to have control of their environment. Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) can often display challenging behaviors because they want to control people and the environment around them. This is totally understandable when we consider that when a child feels they are in control they know what to expect and this can help reduce the anxiety they might be feeling. It is a human right for our children to have choice and control in their lives and ultimately we want to teach our children to make good choices. This doesn't mean you have to give your child a choice all of the time, however usually the more choice we have the more empowered we feel and therefore the more likely we are to do something.

When you give a choice it doesn't necessarily have to be something you don't really want your child to do. You can give choices within an instruction or expectation. Here are some examples:

  • You want your child to sit at the table to eat (rather than on the floor). Give them the choice to sit where they want at the table

  • You are working on writing skills but your child is resistant - give them the choice to write on the pavement with chalk or on a whiteboard

For more information and support to apply these strategies contact us now to book a free initial consultation!


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