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The ABC's of Behavior (How to handle a tantrum) Part 1


When my mother was asked how her three young kids, one with Downs Syndrome, were so well behaved, she summed up a whole chapter of the behaviorist textbook with this soundbite: "I just never took them somewhere that I couldn't expect them to behave."

When academics and educational professionals talk about behavior, we tend to use jargon and convoluted sentence construction in the interest of being precise. This post is the first in a series translating the science of behavior change into the common-sense terms. I believe there’s a power in “just-enough” understanding. With a common-sense understanding of the principles behind behavior change principles, you can take small actions to drastically reduce problem behaviors.

We begin, as we should, alphabetically. A stands for Antecedent. Literally, it means the environment and circumstances that immediately precede a problem behavior. How to find the antecedents? In that dreaded moment when you realize that a problem behavior has just begun, stop, look around you and ask: “What just happened here?” Simply note 1) the time of day, 2) where you are, 3) who is present, and 4) what events happened immediately before the behavior. These questions will help you to piece together an idea of which circumstances are most likely to precede a problem behavior. Then, armed with this new information, you can spot potential circumstances which are likely to trigger the problem behavior in the future. Understand that under similar circumstances, the behavior is more likely to recur.

When you recognize the antecedents, you can pay extra attention to how your child is handling the situation. If they need extra support to keep it together, by all means provide it. Most of the time, this involves teaching the child appropriate alternative behaviors to help them handle difficult situations. For example, if I child throws a tantrum at dinnertime, an appropriate alternative could look like: "Instead of throwing your dinner on the floor, ask me nicely for something else to eat". Eventually you might want to work on making the child's diet more diverse, but this strategy is for avoiding tantrums. When a child is tantruming, no learning is occuring.

Learning opportunities are much more effective when they can be rewarded, instead of punished. In the world of behavior, we learn better from success rather than failure. You can then work with your child to develop appropriate behaviors under those sets of circumstances that will satisfy the child’s needs that they are communicating through tantrum.

Tomorrow's post will cover more information about Behavior and what to do when challenging behaviors occur.

What antecedents cause trouble for your little one? What sorts of behaviors do you deal with? How to you get your children to follow expectations? Share in the comments below!

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