Tantrum. What’s the Big Deal About Reinforcement Anyway?

Tantrum Aba Article - Child Throwing a tantrum outside

Tantrum. What’s the Big Deal About Reinforcement Anyway?

By: Kristin Bain, Senior Therapist, AlphaBee ABA Services.

Published in Autism Matters Magazine, Winter 2019, Volume 16, Number 1.

Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often engage in a variety of negative behaviours alongside their characteristic language and social skills deficits, and parents and teachers are often left wondering, why? All too often families are told that, “Your child is having a tantrum because they have ASD” or “Your child has ASD therefore they tantrum”. Not only is this illogical, but circular reasoning provides families with no answers and few solutions to the questions being asked. Your child with ASD may engage in challenging behaviour, but there is always a reason for this, and though it may not be easy, there are also effective solutions. The following article will discuss a few of the primary reasons children on the spectrum engage in negative behaviours and a few tips from Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), on how to address these behaviours.

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is anything that increases a behaviour and is often different for everyone. Everyone experiences reinforcement including you and I. How does it feel when a friend laughs at your jokes? How does it feel after an intense workout when you drink a cold glass of water? What about when you are cold, and you put on a jacket, yes this is reinforcement!  In short, reinforcement is receiving good things (food, toys, attention, etc.) or removing bad things (feeling cold, school work, vegetables, bedtime, etc.) (Sundberg, 2007).

As stated above, reinforcement is anything that increases a behaviour. When we tell our friends a joke and they laugh, it will increase the likelihood of us telling that joke again. When a child raises his/her hand in class and the teacher praises his/her answer, it will increase the likelihood of raising their hand again. However, reinforcement can increase good and bad behaviour (Sundberg, 2007). If a child with ASD suddenly begins to tantrum and Mom gets off the phone to rub his back, and give him squeezes to, “calm down” this may actually increase the likelihood of the child tantrumming when mom is on the phone. This is because the child has received reinforcement for tantrumming in the form of physical attention from Mom. These apparent, “out of the blue” behaviours are not as spontaneous as they may appear to be, there is always something reinforcing these behaviours, even if it is not entirely obvious.

What causes negative behaviour?

Some of the most common reasons children engage in negative behaviours include: to access positive attention (e.g. cuddles, hugs, talking, eye contact, etc.), to access negative attention (e.g. getting in trouble,  reprimands, being yelled at), to escape a situation they do not enjoy (e.g. eating vegetables at dinner, school work, chores), to access items (e.g. toys, food, IPad, etc.) or because it is fun (e.g. hand flapping, destruction, vocal sounds, stimming). Often and unintentionally, these negative behaviours are reinforced without a person realizing they have done so. (Sundberg, 2007).

Little Boy holding red rectangular block

Dad is sitting at the dinner table with a plate of pasta and broccoli and asks Stephanie to, “eat broccoli” when suddenly she begins to scream and cry. Immediately dad removes the broccoli and allows Stephanie to eat the same pasta that she eats every day, Stephanie stops screaming and eats the pasta. The removal of the, “big bad broccoli” is actually unintentionally reinforcing the behaviour of screaming and crying.

Sally’s Dad enters the room and she begins to hit her head, Dad believes the only thing that will, “calm her down” is to give her the IPad. As soon as dad gives Sally the IPad she immediately stops head banging. Despite Dad’s best intention of calming down his daughter, he is reinforcing her head banging by giving her the IPad. Sally has learned that when she sees dad and she hits her head it is the easiest way to gain access to the IPad.

Often, when Mom is busy cooking Liam will hit his little brother, making him cry. Mom scolds Liam, “It’s not nice to hit others! Keep hands to yourself!”. Liam often begins to laugh hysterically and then escalate to throwing objects after mom reprimands him. Liam finds negative attention (getting in trouble) to be reinforcing and hitting his brother had granted him access to negative attention from mom. Often when these children demonstrate negative behaviour it may be because positive behaviours do not have the same effect. If we look within a school environment, teachers often do not remember to take a few moments to praise good behaviour, yet they have to stop what they are doing to address problem behaviour.

How do I pinpoint what’s reinforcing my child’s behaviour?

The first thing you can do at home is to begin to keep track of these behaviours using an, “ABC Analysis”. An ABC analysis will allow you to pinpoint what the possible reinforcer is for your child’s behaviour. The above examples were broken down into the following ABC analysis:

ABCPossible Reinforcer
What happened right before?
What did the child do?
What happened immediately after the behaviour?
What good thing was given, or what bad thing was removed for the child?
Mom is talking on the phoneChild begins to tantrumMom gets off the phone to sooth and calm down the childMom’s physical attention
(Good thing given)
Dad enters the roomSally hits her head repeatedlySally is given the IPadGiving Sally the IPad
(Good thing given)
Mom is cooking dinnerLiam hits his brotherMom reprimands Liam/ gives him troubleMoms negative attention
(For Liam, this is a good thing given)
Broccoli is presented at dinnerStephanie screams and cries.Broccoli is removedRemoving the broccoli
(Bad thing removed)

As you can see, once we use the ABC analysis it becomes easier to identify the possible reinforcer for a specific challenging behaviour.

How can we reduce challenging behaviour?

After you have completed several ABC analyses and have identified a possible reinforcer there are 3 main steps that practitioners take when intervening on challenging behaviour. It is highly recommended that challenging behaviour should be addressed with the support of a Behaviour Analyst to ensure safe and effective behavioural intervention.

Preventative strategies (Sundberg, 2007)

  • Give yourself and family extra time to minimize frustration during transitions.
  • Break down a difficult task into small steps and reinforce each step.
  • Provide more reinforcement when your child tries harder at a task.
  • Use first and then, “first put on socks, then you can have IPad” and honour this.
  • Keep to your word! If you say, “after 1-minute IPad is all done”, Follow through. If you say, “Eat one more bite and then all done” keep to your word.
  • Bring favourite items with you and use them to transition to new environments.
  • Give your child attention when they are demonstrating good behaviour!

Teach positive replacement behaviours and reinforce them (Sundberg, 2007)

  • Ensure your child has an effective communication system.
  • Select a strong reinforcer for your child and provide it immediately after positive behaviour.
  • Teach your child to ask for the items/ toys that they use daily
  • Teach your child to ask when they want you to stop or need a break.
  • Teach your child to ask you to play with them instead of engaging in problem behaviour to seek attention.
  • Teach your child to complete a variety of activities (puzzles, matching, tracing, etc.) to ensure they are engaged in appropriate activities and will not require your attention for a short period of time.

Change the consequence after the behaviour (Sundberg, 2007)

  • Up until now the consequence following the problem behavior has been teaching the child to engage in that behaviour to get what he /she wants (reinforcement). In order to change your child’s behaviour you need to change the consequence that up until now has typically followed that behaviour. Which also means no longer providing reinforcement (what he/she wants) for that particular behaviour.
  • Be prepared or an initial increase in behaviour once you stop providing the usual consequence, this means what you are doing is working, behaviour will decrease!
  • For attention seekers: Ignore minor behaviours (do not react, show anger, talk to, or provide eye contact, walk away if needed; ensure they are safe) once they are calm and quiet, provide them with attention.
  • For children escaping tasks: Follow through with demands, pick your battles wisely, behaviours will increase when you do this, you may help them complete the task if needed. When helping them complete the task use hand over hand guidance, so they are still primarily completing the task. Do not do it for them while they watch, they must complete the task themselves.
  • For children wanting items: Do not give items or bribe with favourite items during problem behaviour, instead, have your child follow a few simple instructions and then if they ask for the item without engaging in problem behaviour, present the item. Do not give the item if your child is demonstrating problem behaviour, this will only reinforce the behaviour.
  • If the task is difficult you may need to help or prompt the child to complete it before they can have access to an item, it is okay to provide hand over hand guidance to help your child complete an activity and then provide the reinforcing item after the child has completed the specified task.
  • Most importantly remain calm, do not get caught in a power struggle, you are the parent and you are in charge!

My child is engaging in severe problem behaviour, what can I do?

For severe behaviours, families should always seek guidance from a Behaviour Analyst to ensure safe and effective intervention. However, these resources are not always immediately available. Please see below for a list of resources that may help your family better support your child during this time. AlphaBee is a provider of evidence-based ABA services including intensive behavioural intervention, and behavioural consultation, follow this link to our website to learn more: https://alphabee.com