Behavior Issues
Crystal Covington

Behavior Issues and Parenting

Behavior Issues
Crystal Covington

Behavior Issues and Parenting

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Recently, I have seen many parents ask me about behavior issues and how to understand and manage them better.  We often think of bad behavior & how to stop the behavior. In this article, I will describe how to analyze behavior & how to use a chart to address behavior issues.

Is all behavior a form of communication?

Before thinking of how to change behavior, there are many key points that a person must consider. The first concept is that behavior is a form of communication. There is a reason why a person may yell, bang their head, run away or have a meltdown! Every child has their own way of communicating.

Why do certain behaviors trigger us as parents?

Next, we have to examine our own thoughts and feelings when it comes to behavior. What sets us off? How do we view behaviors? Is it a sign of disrespect? I lose my cool when my son makes a high-pitched scream (yes, I can admit I lose my cool). This type of scream causes me such physical pain in my ears that all knowledge & patience goes out the window! Before we can address behavior, we have to manage our own emotions. Remember, behavior is not about you, so try not to take it personally.

All behavior is communication, its not about you, so don’t take it personally!

What are the common triggers for behaviors?

We must think about the triggers of the behaviors. Here is a general list of possible triggers to consider when assessing behavior:

1. Internal Issues: hunger, pain, illness, tiredness, etc.
2. Sensory Concerns: noise, light, touch, boredom, overstimulation, etc.
3. Lack of structure
4. Challenging or new work
5. Fearful situation
6. Change in schedule or routine/disappointments
7. Delay gratification: having to wait; not getting what is wanted immediately
8. Self Esteem: criticism, making mistakes, losing a game, etc.

What are the ABCs and MEAT of behaviors?

First, we need to select a behavior issue to examine. Make sure the behavior is observable and is something you can describe. Now, we will examine the ABCs of behavior in order to understand its purpose.

The ABC strategy stands for the following:
A-Antecedent(s): What occurs before the person acts
B-Behavior: What does the person do
C-Consequence(s): What happens after the person acts out; consequence can be viewed as positive or negative

Once we have described the behavior, we can dive deeper into the possible reasons or MEAT of the behavior. There are 5 functions of behavior:

M-Medical: pain, sick, toothache, etc. For example, a person may have a stomachache and may not want to use the bathroom. If you and your medical provider have ruled out medical reasons, you can consider the following…

E-Escape: A person may want to avoid a stressful situation, a task/chore, etc. Escape also includes avoiding tasks/school work that is too hard. Getting away from an overwhelming sensory environment is a form of escape that overlaps with another function of behavior (listed below).

A-Attention: Displaying disruptive behavior may be a way to obtain someone else’s attention. For example, a child may scream because they have learned that an adult will pull them aside to have a conversation.

T-Tangible: A child/adult may want a toy, food, etc. An example of tangible behavior is the following: a child may hit a peer on the playground to access the swing. The swing is the object of desire.

S-Sensory: Disruptive behaviors may be displayed as a mechanism for self-stimulation or self-calming methods. A person may also want to ESCAPE a sensory overloading environment.

How to apply ABC to analyze the behavior?

Now that we have all the background information let’s apply what we have learned to an example from my own household…My son (EJ) asks for a treat. I explained that he could get a treat after dinner. EJ begins to scream and cry. I yell at him to stop screaming. So, what are the ABCs of this scenario?

ANTECEDENT: I said EJ can have a treat after dinner

BEHAVIOR (Tangible): EJ screams & cries (he wants the treat)


By understanding the ABCs and MEAT of behavior, we can provide appropriate strategies to address the behavior. In my personal example, I can teach EJ to express himself instead of screaming and crying.

How to use a behavioral chart or token economy?

There are 4 steps to developing a behavioral chart:

  1. Change the triggers-model visual supports, change the demand of the task, etc.
  2. Teach a skill to deal with triggers – teach the strategy to use instead of having the behavior
  3. Reward new skills-this is when the chart/token economy is used
  4. Loss system if not frustrated, anxious, etc. The response is a cost. For example, 5 minutes of computer time is lost if the bed isn’t made.

From my perspective, there is a slight difference between a token economy and a chart. A token economy is based on the idea that a child earns tokens (i.e., stickers, stars, etc.) on a chart for positive behaviors and receives a reward after a certain amount of tokens have been earned. One behavior is the target of the chart. A behavior chart is similar, except you can track behavior throughout the day/week. Behavior charts use the token economy principle, but it is set over a longer period of time.

5 tips for setting up a token economy

  1. Decide which behavior you would like to strengthen. Remember, don’t state what you don’t want to see. For example, my son (EJ) throws his body on the floor when upset or frustrated. The goal isn’t for EJ to stop throwing his body on the floor. The goal would be for EJ to use his words to communicate his feelings.
  2. Allow the child/adult to choose the reinforcers and what they want to earn. Reinforces can be stickers, stars, stamps, poker chips, etc. They can earn extra tv time, special toys, etc. I would not use food as a reinforcer. Food is a necessity and shouldn’t be used as a reward. Candy is not a necessity and, therefore, can be used as a reward. I would still be careful with this type of reward & limit the amount (i.e., 1 lollipop).
  3. Set up a reinforcement schedule that shows when tokens are given. For example, your child will sit at the table for ___ minutes or try to complete math homework independently for ___ minutes. Remember, the behavior must be observable and understandable.
  4. Decide how many tokens the child needs to earn in order to receive the reward. Usually, a child will need to earn at least 5 tokens before receiving a reward. This depends on the person’s age, cognitive ability, and frustration level.
  5. Choose a time & place where the child/adult can exchange the reward.
    *Sometimes, a “fine” or response cost is added in which tokens are taken away for disruptive behaviors. It is important that children have the ability ONLY to earn tokens at the beginning. This strategy helps them feel successful and motivates them to earn tokens. If you impose a “fine,” again, make sure the person isn’t anxious or frustrated. Implementing a “fine” when they are in this state may increase disruptive behavior.

Here are some sample behavior charts you can use.

About the Author

With over 14 years of experience as an Occupational Therapist, I have a wealth of experience working in my field. After graduating with a BA from Bucknell University in Animal Behavior & Spanish, I researched various ways to work with animals & became interested in occupational therapy. I graduated from Long Island University (Brooklyn Campus) where I earned a BS/MS in Occupational Therapy. Currently, I am a Certified Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinical Specialist (ASDCS). Currently, I work with the New York City Department of Education as a Senior Occupational Therapist. I have experience collaborating with families to fulfill Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), providing treatment, and conducting evaluations. Previously, I worked with the Young Adult Institute (YAI) for approximately 8 years to help adults with developmental disabilities function & participate in their residential setting and community. Not only is my passion my profession, it is also personal. I have been featured in the OT Practice Magazine, discussing my unique perspective of having a brother with autism & choosing to become an occupational therapist. I have also participated in presentations & a workshop for the American Occupational Therapy Association Conferences. Although I do not work with animals directly, I still have a goal of bringing my dog to work with me in the future!

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