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Part Two: Managing Problem Behaviors in the Community (Reinforcement & Function)

Joshua Sleeper June 26, 2015

Managing Problem Behaviors in the Community is a 3-part series focused on providing resources for families of an individual with special needs. 


Click here to read Part One! 

Step 3 – Understanding Reinforcement & Function

Reinforcement immediately follows a behavior and increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur in the future. Think of reinforcement as “strengthening” the behavior.

Two Key Points

1) Reinforcement occurs for desired behavior and challenging behavioriStock_000015071320_XXXLarge

2) It does not matter if YOU think the consequence is desirable or undesirable; only what the individual presenting the behavior thinks


Four main functions for a behavior are as follows:

  • Attention: from parents, peers, siblings, etc
  • Tangibles: food, toys, activities
  • Escape: work, social situations, things that are “hard”
  • Automatic/Sensory: something that relieves pain or discomfort

Why not just guess the function?

If we don’t know the function, we might respond in ways that make the challenging situation even worse! Example: the function of the child’s behavior is to get attention. As a parent, you sit down and discuss the situation with the child, thereby giving them the attention they seek. In this example, you’ve accidentally reinforced the function, making it more likely for the situation to reoccur in the future!

Step 4 – Identifying Ways to Prevent the Challenging Behavior from Occurring

Below we will offer a variety of strategies for each of the functions of behavior.

Be sure to start out by using antecedent information to come up with strategies. General strategies include:

  • Identifying reinforcers ahead of time
  • Offering choices
  • Catching your child doing something good and providing reinforcement

Strategies for Attention/Tangible Maintained Behavior:

  • Give lots of attention for appropriate behavior
  • Point out good behavior to others
  • “First this, then that.”
  • Follow the current activity with a high attention activity
  • Identify ways for the child to be a helperYoung Girl Yummy Cake
  • Give warning/countdown for transitions between activities

Strategies for Escape/Delay Maintained Behavior:

  • Give clear instructions, review the rules
  • “First this, then that”
  • Offer choices
  • Offer help or breaks
  • Provide more rewards for completing tasks
  • Give warnings and count downs
  • Use a timer or visual schedules
  • Break work up into chunks
  • Provide a break or end the activity early BEFORE challenging behavior starts. Gradually increase the amount of work/tasks completed before giving a break.

Stay tuned for Part Three of ‘Managing Problem Behavior in the Community’ which we will share on the TBH blog Wednesday, July 1st.