Preventing Problem Behavior by Offering Choices by Alison Anderson, MA, BCBA

When we are working with children to build compliance, it is important to avoid going overboard by directing every little detail and moment of their lives.  No one likes feeling like they are at the constant mercy of others’ demands – with little to no control over their own lives.

Access the situation

Imagine what it would feel like if the people in your lives were constantly telling you what to do – how to dress, what to eat, when to take a break, who to interact with, where to go, and on and on.

This is certainly not the way that anyone wants to live – feeling like constant orders are being barked at them all day long.  This coupled with releasing reinforcers only when compliance occurs may set the stage for a “my way or the highway” feel to relationships between adults and children.

Foster a happy relationship through choice

Admittedly, there are rules that need to be followed, and children need guidance to grow up into safe, healthy, happy adults.  Certainly, we also want to make sure we are rewarding compliance when it occurs as well. However, a good working relationship with a child needs to be a two-way street that allows the child to express what they want for themselves as well.

Give multiple chances to make choices

Individuals that have frequent opportunities to make choices throughout their day are less prone to exhibit problematic behaviors to escape particular tasks or situations because they feel like they have more control and influence over their own lives.  This helps make them feel more motivated to engage in learning activities and to be open to new experiences because their thoughts and wishes are also being heard.

Let your child choose their rewards

Allowing children to tell us what reinforcers (i.e. rewards) they would like to work for is a good start, but it shouldn’t end here.

The more often and more varied of choices we can offer, the better the impact will be on their behavior.  Sometimes even the smallest and seemingly inconsequential choices can result in improvements in behavior.

Examples of choices that we may offer to children include:

  • What materials to use when completing a given task (i.e. do you want to color using markers or crayons?)
  • When to do particular tasks (i.e. should we get your haircut today or tomorrow?)
  • Which task to do right now (i.e. would you like to do your reading homework or your math homework first?)
  • Where to go to complete a particular task (i.e. we can go out to eat at Applebee’s or Olive Garden. What do you think?)
  • Who to play with (i.e. do you want to play this game with Jane or Sarah?)
  • How long an activity lasts (i.e. are you still playing with this or are you finished? Do you want a break now or later?)
  • Saying “no” to given activities (i.e. do you want to go to the pool today?)
  • How to get somewhere (i.e. which one do you want to use – the escalator or the elevator?)

It may be challenging at first

Children that haven’t had much opportunity to make choices in the past may find this difficult at first.  They may find a lot of options to be overwhelming and may take too long to make a choice.  Some children may get frustrated when they make unrealistic choices that can’t be granted (i.e. saying they want to go to Disney World when asked what they want to work for today).

Offer options and create opportunities

You can assist your child in beginning to make reasonable choices by offering just a couple of set options (i.e. do you want to use the red marker or the blue marker?) instead of leaving it open-ended (i.e. what color do you want to use?).  Likewise, providing visual supports, such as showing the child the actual red and blue markers or pictures representing the choices, can help facilitate the decision-making process as well.

When creating opportunities for your child to make choices, it is important to follow through on the choice they have made.  When their choices are not honored, it will make you appear to be unreliable and untrustworthy.  This will likely provoke problem behavior rather than prevent it, so be sure that you can grant the choice before you offer it.

Vary choices over time

Also, vary the opportunities for choices over time – so that the type of choices and presented options are constantly changing.  This will help keep things fresh and interesting for the child. Lastly, always present choices as a proactive strategy before any problematic behavior occurs.  Offering choices following problematic behavior may accidentally reward the problem behavior and make it more likely to be repeated in the future.

Following these tips may not only help prevent instances of problematic behavior but may help foster a warm, caring relationship with the child.

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