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Replacement Behaviors- What are we teaching?

Recently we discussed how to identify the functions of your child’s behavior... figuring out the why behind the behavior. Once we figure out the why, we need to start looking at what your child can do instead to meet the same function. We call this a replacement behavior. A replacement behavior is a behavior that we want to teach that serves the same function as the target behavior, but is more socially acceptable than the maladaptive behavior we are attempting to eliminate. The replacement behavior is a really crucial piece of the intervention puzzle. We can use antecedent strategies to avoid the behavior, or reactive strategies as a consequence, but that does not change the fact that the child STILL wants or needs something. So how do we go about getting those wants or needs met? We want to take a look at what we can teach them to do instead.

Going back to the function is still a really important factor for determining a replacement behavior. We always want to make sure that the replacement behavior aligns with the function. For example, if we discover that our child is running away to get us to chase them (i.e. Function: Attention), and we decide to teach a replacement behavior of requesting a break, it will probably not help. There is no way that asking for a break is going to meet the child's want or need for attention and chase. Getting a break (escaping a task) is not the same as getting Mom to chase (attention). They need to be able to functionally ask for chase, so we need to teach them! A great replacement behavior would be teaching the child to ask for chase, whether it is a verbal request, sign, verbal approximation, or visual. Whatever works for your child!


There are a couple of things that are extremely important when it comes to replacement behaviors. We just reviewed the first thing, they need to relate to the function. Secondly, the replacement behaviors need to be super easy for your child to do. They should be easier to do than the problem behavior itself. For example, if a child struggles with verbal communication uses a communication device- and it easier to hit than to find their communication device, navigate to the page that they need, look through it to find the right vocabulary, and then hit the button to request the item/activity they need…hitting is going to prevail. That is NOT to say that using an communication device, or any communication system, is not extremely important. However, when we are replacing a maladaptive behavior we have to have something that is extremely easy for our child. We can move this skill over to their communication device at a later time, or speak with their speech pathologist about having quick access to the button that they need.


In addition to being easy a replacement should be extremely reliable, especially in the beginning. The replacement behavior has to access the reinforcement more frequently and more consistently than the challenging behavior. This means that every time that they engage in the new skill/behavior that we are teaching them that they need to get their want/need met. We need to meet that function! We want to overload the reinforcement and make it easier to use this cool new skill that we are teaching instead of engaging in the challenging behavior that we were seeing previously. When the behavior that you are replacing is easy and quickly results in the thing that the child is trying to obtain, there is no longer going to be a need to engage in that problem behavior.


That leads us to the final important factor of the replacement behavior- it needs to be fast! It needs to access attention, access, escape, stimulation, etc. faster than the challenging behavior can. If a child asks for ‘chase’ and Mom says “hold on a minute, let me finish this…” what is going to happen? The child is going to take off running so that Mom chases! The child is going to just take off running more often! Or if hitting Mom gets the child out of their homework for a period of time, but asking for a break requires that he does “two more problems and then you get a break” the child is going to engage in hitting more frequently than asking for a break. Remember, we only have to be super-fast with the reinforcement in the beginning, as the child is learning the new replacement behavior and decreasing the challenging behavior. Once we have eliminated the maladaptive behaviors we can begin shaping these new replacement behaviors to having longer wait times, less visuals, etc. This is just a step towards the goal!

Now keep in mind that we need to TEACH the replacement behavior. We should not rely on attempting to get our child to engage in these new skills during times that they are already escalated and engaging in challenging behaviors. Instead, we should be teaching them and practicing during various times of the day when they are calm. You can teach through direct instruction, prompting, modeling, role playing, providing visuals, etc. Whatever works best for your child. If you skip this step (of teaching) and decide that you will just no longer reinforce the problem behavior, you are most likely going to see a new and probably more problematic behaviors emerge. For example, if you decide that you are going to ignore your child running away because you know they are being reinforced with attention, but you haven’t taught them to request an appropriate way to get this attention, they are going to find a more dangerous way to get your participation! Like running out the front door!


To recap everything… Replacement Behaviors MUST:

  1. Match the function (a new way to satisfy what the behavior is attempting to gain)

  2. Be easy to do (otherwise it’s easier to engage in the problem behavior)

  3. Be reliable (otherwise why use this new skill?)

  4. Be taught and in the child’s repertoire (otherwise how will they do it?)

See below for examples of replacement behaviors for specific functions, but realize that these are just examples! Every behavior is attempting to meet a specific function and need, and your replacement behaviors, teaching strategies, etc. should be individualized to meet the needs of your child.




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