Going out to eat is a fun pastime for many families, but behavioral challenges can sometimes get in the way of the fun or even worse, discourage parents from going out altogether. The following tips can help you and your family prevent behavior problems before they occur and tackle them when they do.
Tip 1: Come Prepared
Part of the enjoyment of going out to eat for adults comes from holding conversations, enjoying the atmosphere, and other activities that might not be your child’s idea of fun! Be sure to bring an activity from home your child can enjoy that will sustain his/her attention for 20-30 minutes, about how much time it takes to order and wait for food. Table activities such as coloring, drawing, reading, or tablet time can lessen the probability that your child will seek fun in less appropriate ways. If your child likes to leave right away, having a fun activity can lessen the probability that he/she will engage in challenging behavior to escape.
Many restaurants are accommodating to their patrons, especially children with special needs. You might try calling ahead and requesting a seating arrangement, or making a reservation to avoid a long wait.
Tip 2: Consider the Seating Arrangement
Think about how likely your child might engage in challenging behavior when being seated. If you think your child is likely to elope, consider requesting a booth and having him/her sit inside. If you think your child is likely to throw items, consider moving silverware, condiments, and menus out of his/her reach.
Tip 3: Set Clear, Positive Expectations
Most adults learn over time that being a restaurant means following certain rules. Sitting nicely, using manners, and speaking quietly are just some of the courtesies we’ve learned. It is important to remember that young children and children on the spectrum do not yet have the same experience with these environments as we do, and that learning the rules takes reminding and patience.
Before walking into a restaurant, set aside a quiet moment with your child to tell them the rules. If your child can follow complex instructions, state expectations in clear and positive terms they can understand. For example, say, “Sit in your seat and speak with a quiet voice,” instead of “Don’t run around or yell.”
If your child is still learning how to follow complex instructions or rules, using a visual aid, or a first/then board, can help make expectations clearer. Place pictures of what to do in the “First” section and pictures of a promise reinforcer in the “Then” section (see below).
Tip 4: Offer a Promise Reinforcer
To make tracking the rules even more effective, offer a reward in exchange for following them. Rewards that fit the context, such as getting dessert at the end of the meal or visiting a special spot in the restaurant like a fish tank, can help your child to follow the rules and find the restaurant experience valuable. Just be sure that you are promising something your child truly prefers, is a treat he/she would not have otherwise, and something that is “worth it” to him/her. Lastly, make sure your child understands the rules by asking clarification questions.
We are going to sit down and eat. I want you to stay seated in your chair and talk in a quiet voice. If you stay in your seat and speak in a quiet voice, you can have ice cream for dessert. If you break the rules and get out of your seat or yell, you cannot have ice cream.
What will happen if you sit nicely in your seat and talk quietly?
What will happen if you get out of your seat or yell?
Good job. Let’s go eat!
Tip 5: Reward Good Behavior
Practice preventing problem behavior using the strategies above, and use positive reinforcement in conjunction with these. Reward your child throughout the meal for following dining rules. Provide plenty of attention for following rules and consider using more tangible items, if necessary (small bits of preferred food in addition to their meal, favorite small toys, etc.). A token system might also be effective when going out to eat—see our blog on token economies here on how to implement this.
Tip 6: Provide Appropriate Consequences for Challenging Behavior
If your child breaks a dining rule or behaves inappropriately, try to address this behavior without providing too strong of an emotional reaction, as this can sometimes make challenging behavior more likely to occur again. If you promised a reward in exchange for good behavior and your child breaks a rule, stay cool and follow through. Remove rewarding items and attention while problem behavior is occurring, and block your child from continuing to engage in any challenging behavior whenever possible.
Tip 7: Practice, practice, practice
If you are concerned your child might not be ready to go out to eat, practicing good behavior at the dinner table can be good preparation for dinner in public. If your child understands and can repeat back instructions, you can use Behavior Skills Training to instruct, model, rehearse, and correct/reward appropriate behavior. Contact one of our certified behavior analysts for consultation on how to do BST with your child. You can also read our blog on how to use BST with social skills for a snapshot of this steps that can be adapted to good behavior while eating out.
If your child still presents challenging behavior while dining out, our certifieds are here to help with additional tips and strategies specific to your child.