There are many misconceptions about the use of applied behavior analysis to help change behavior. This blog series will address these misconceptions so that you as a parent can make informed decisions about ABA treatment for your child.
One very common misunderstanding of the field concerns attention-maintained problem behaviors. An attention-maintained problem behavior is a socially unacceptable or harmful behavior that occurs because it gets a reaction from others. This reaction/attention from others is said to reinforce this behavior if the behavior continues in the future and is usually followed by attention. Some minor examples may include calling another person silly names to get him or her to smile or laugh, repeatedly singing the same song so that another person scolds you, or repeatedly poking another person while he or she is busy so that you get a look of disapproval.
When a behavior analyst evaluates a behavior problem, one of the many things he or she considers is the immediate consequence of the behavior. Although many consequences are long-delayed (e.g., the consequences of smoking and eating healthy), the most powerful consequences are the immediate ones that directly follow a behavior. Attention as a consequence can be in many forms: reprimands, praise, looks of disapproval/approval, head nods, touches, kind words, tone of voice, discussions, sighs, laughs, etc. Attention does not have to be pleasant, fun, or good to reinforce a child’s behavior. Although you might dislike being yelled at and consider that attention to be negative, your child might find that kind of attention to be exciting.
Think about the physiological reaction your child may have when you yell at or scold him or her. This kind of negative attention can cause a rush of adrenaline. Regardless of how attention in these situations makes your child feel, it functions as a reinforcer for whichever behavior it reliably follows. As behavior analysts, we try to eliminate problematic behaviors maintained by attention by minimizing the attention that follows these behaviors. Without a proper understanding of behavioral psychology, withholding attention can look like the child is “getting away with it,” allowed to be “out of control,” or has “no consequences.” However, withholding attention is a consequence; and if the behavior is maintained by attention, it is the most effective consequence for behavior change.
Behavior analysts do not ignore all problem behaviors. Behaviors are reinforced by attention, access to tangible items, escape from non–preferred activities/events, and self-stimulatory consequences. Behavior analysts either minimize or completely withhold attention for those behaviors that are maintained by attention. Why do we do this? If the behavior no longer produces attention, there is no reason to keep behaving that way. The problematic behavior becomes ineffective at gaining the desired consequence.
Behavior analysts recognize that behaviors—even problematic ones—serve needs. Therefore, behavior analysts also help teach replacement behaviors to replace the socially unacceptable behavior. Some replacement behaviors for attention might be to raise one’s hand, to pat someone of the back, to say “hello,” to say, “watch me,” to give a hug or high-five, etc. Replacement behaviors are unique to each child’s needs and situation. Over time, the child learns that his or her problematic behaviors no longer result in attention, but these new replacement behaviors do gain them access to attention. For more information about this process, see our blog about differential reinforcement.
The next time your child is engaging in a problematic behavior ask yourself, “What is he/she getting right now?” If you notice that your child is often getting a lot of attention for his or her difficult behavior, you may be dealing with an attention-maintained problem behavior. Feel free to ask one of our analysts for tips on how to handle these behaviors and teach replacement behaviors.