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  • Rachel Pessah, M.Cl.Sc., Reg. CASLPO

My 10 R's for Managing Challenging Behaviours


Ever have a morning when your child refuses to get dressed? Or when your child decides they don't want to sit in their carseat and you are in the middle of a road trip? As a mother to a highly independent and persistent preschooler, I sure have! As a speech-language pathologist, I often work with children who have no other way of communicating their emotions than to use "challenging behaviours." As a parent, when my child wants to "exert her independence" I am reminded that being a parent is sometimes hard, and that "real life" is different than a controlled therapy setting!

Why do I care about behaviour?

During my journey to become a speech-language pathologist, I completed an undergraduate degree in psychology, which led to an amazing opportunity to work as a behaviour therapy student and then later work as a behaviour therapy assistant. I also provided respite to children that were often not able to attend school due to behaviours. My background knowledge has shaped my approach as a speech-language pathologist.

As you may know, Bright Spot has been busy hiring new staff over the last year, so I thought it would be beneficial for me to pass on what I have learned to help the Bright Spot staff manage challenging behaviours, and I thought as a parent or as another professional, these strategies may prove useful to you as well!

1. Redirect

- This is usually my first response - and is most effective with younger children (under 2) and sometimes effective for children under 4. It certain situations it may be effective for older children as well.

- To accomplish the "redirect" you quickly change the topic or provide an enticing activity/toy/game, etc.

- The goal is NOT to reward the behaviour, rather it is to move quickly away from the behaviour before it becomes a bigger challenge

- The younger the child, the shorter their memory which you can use to work in your favour as they will quickly forget and move on to something else

- Example 1: A child wants something they cannot have at the time. You quickly show them something they can have and they are excited by the alternative and move on from the item they wanted.

- Example 2: A child puts their head down in frustration when they don't want to participate in a task. You quickly talk about something else (e.g., "Wow! I think I saw an elephant? Did you see that elephant?"). You can say something completely random (kids like this). The goal is to distract them from how hard the task is for them to return to feeling like they are having fun.

2. Replace the Behaviour

- Behaviours that happen often (habits) are difficult to get rid of (extinguish) without providing an alternative

- The key is to replace the challenging behaviour with a more functional behaviour

- Example 1: A child hits a peer in the classroom because they want to play with them but don't know how to ask. Potential Solution: Teach the child how to use PECS or a communication card to ask if they can play.

- Example 2: A child throws a chair in the classroom when the task became too difficult for them. Potential Solution: Teach the child to bring an "I need a break" card to his teacher or EA when tasks become too hard.

- Example 3: A child constantly puts toys and other objects into his/her mouth. Potential Solution: Model and say what they can do instead. (e.g., "Toys are for playing. You can roll the car.").

3. Rephrase

- Similar to replacing the behaviour (#2), the language we use about the behaviour is important.

- Instead of saying "don't do x," "you shouldn't do x," "you can't do x," "stop that," etc. use positive language.

- Use "You can..." statements to teach the child what they can do instead

Example 1: Child says, "I don't want to eat broccoli," Parent/professional says, "You can put it on this plate." or "You are just learning about the broccoli. You can smell it instead."

Example 2: Child says, "I'm not going to clean my room!" Parent says, "You can clean for 10 minutes and we will see how far you got! Let's set a timer."

Example 3: Child demonstrates inappropriate personal boundaries, such as hugging or kissing strangers. Parent can say, "You can give a high 5" or "You can say hello by waving."


4. Recommend choices

- The key to recommending choices is providing 2 choices where you are ok with either outcome

- This strategy works wonders with 2 and 3 year olds!

Example 1: Toddler says, "I don't want to go to bed!!" Parent says, "You get to pick. Would you like to go to bed now or in 5 minutes?" (then set a timer)

Example 2: Toddler/preschooler says, "I don't want to wear shoes." Parent says, "You can pick shoes or I can pick them for you." (then follow through)

5. Recognize their emotions & cognitive level

- It is important to recognize that the feelings your child has are valid, even if it doesn't make sense to you

Example: You cut a sandwich wrong and the world appears to be ending for your child. You can say, "Oh, that wasn't what you wanted, is it? It can be hard when things don't go the way we want. It can be scary to try new things."

- It is also ESSENTIAL that you understand your child's cognitive level, which I realize is difficult if you never had the opportunity to take a course in child development. Here is a super quick summary of each stage and what it means for behaviour:

Sensorimotor Stage (birth to 2-3) - They understand the world through their movements and sensations. They do not yet think in pictures or words. Memories are saved based on physical sensations.

- Much of the behaviour in this phase is a reaction to a sensation (e.g., need diaper changed, feeling hungry, etc.). Therefore managing the behaviour relies on determining the sensation to the child is reacting to.

- Reasoning is NOT an effective strategy during this stage

Pre-operational Stage (2-3 to 5-7) - Children start to think in words and pictures. They are just starting to realize that not everyone thinks the same way as they do, but this is still a really hard concept for them ("theory of mind"). They often have difficulty "inferring" or figuring out the cause of something. Children begin to develop their sense of imagination. They do not yet have logical thinking. They believe in magic and fairytales. Children at this age will believe that bad things happen because they were bad. They take most things literally at this age.

- Children believe in "Magical Thinking" -> you CANNOT fight magic with logic, you need to fight magic with magic. For example, if your child won't go to bed because of monsters, talking to them about how monsters do not exist will NOT work. What WILL work is spraying a pretend monster spray under the bed.

Concrete Operations Stage (5-7 to 9-11) - Children begin to think logically and are starting to think their way through a problem, however holding and manipulating information in their mind is still a challenge. Begin to see and understand other people's perspectives. Children is this stage are rule-based. They stop believing in fairytales and no longer believe everything they see on TV is real. They care about fairness.

- Because children in this stage can think logically and are starting to understand other people's perspectives, you can use reason and talking (once calm)

Formal Operations Stage (9-11+) - Children now have abstract thought and can manipulate concepts in their mind without having to use physical materials. Start to use deductive reasoning and think about hypothetical situations. This is when kids start to think more about morality, philosophy, and politics. Kids are starting to figure out who they are as an individual.

6. Find the Reason

Often challenging behaviour happens as a reaction to something or as a way to get something. You may have heard of the ABC's before - which includes looking at the antecedent (what happened before), the behaviour, and the consequences (what happened after). For example, if you notice your child is always getting upset during music class, you might be able to guess that the "reason" for the behaviour is that the noise is too much for them, or if your child gets to work in the hall when they throw their work on the floor, they may want to be in the hall and therefore they have learned that if they throw the paper they will get to go in the hall. Once you can guess the reason you can change the "antecedent" or the "consequence" to lessen the behaviour.


7. Reinforce Positive Behaviour

This is important for all children! Whenever your child is doing something you want to see more of, reinforce it immediately by praising them (e.g., "Wow! Nice sitting."). Even if they were acting out all day and they only did 1 thing that you could praise - make sure to praise that 1 thing. What you reinforce, they will do more of!


8. Get them Ready

Preparing children for what comes next or for changes in their day is helpful for all children, but particularly important for children with autism. If they know a change is coming they will be less likely to react negatively when the change comes. Likewise, warning children that it will be time to finish their preferred activity is important! Giving a 1 minute or a 10 second warning may help them to transition to the next activity easier than if they did not have a warning. For example, at bedtime at our house we always give our daughter a 5 minute warning. This gives her a chance to finish what she is doing before transitioning to her bedtime routine.

9. Follow Predictable Routines

Routines can reduce challenging behaviours because children will begin to learn what is expected. To start creating routines it can help to have a preferred activity after a less desired activity so that they are motivated to get to the next activity.


10. Role Model

The way that you react to frustrating situations will show your child how they can react! While it can be difficult to maintain your composure when you can't find your keys or you get a flat tire, it is crucial that you model a calm, cool, and collected response to the challenging situation to show your children how they can problem solve when frustrating situations come up for them.


If you lost your cool, it happens! Once you are calm, make sure to talk to your child about it and say how you wish you would have reacted. Talking about your feelings will encourage your child to share their feelings with you when the time comes.

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