Did you know that I used to be a giraffe keeper? One of the parts of my job was to train the giraffe. No, not to do tricks, but rather to participate in medical care, stand still during hoof trimmings, come to us when called. Wait a second….am I talking about giraffe or my toddlers? Similar, right? Very. Training children is no different than training animals! I know some moms will be reading this with horror on their faces that someone would dare to say that children are no different than animals. Hear me out. My son was diagnosed with autism this spring. At the time we were eyeballs deep in emotions, tantrums, public meltdowns, aggression towards his younger sister and our family pet, and inappropriate requesting for desired items or activities. I’m here today to show you how positive reinforcement and implementing a token board has changed our lives.
After James was diagnosed, I had a long list of things to do and therapies to get started. ABA was on the top of that list. ABA (applied behavior analysis) is scientifically proven to increase desired behaviors by using positive reinforcement. When good behavior is observed, a reward is provided. Instantly. Bad behavior is ignored. The reward can be anything that motivates the child. High fives and enthusiastic praise, a cookie, time on the iPad, stickers, Hershey kisses, etc.
Let’s talk about behavior.
There is no such thing as, “This behavior just came out of no where!” No. It didn’t. Every single behavior happens for a reason. Find out what is happening before, during, and after your child’s undesired behavior. This takes a lot of work, but it is worth it. Buy yourself a notebook, and at the top of every page write “A B C” spaced out. The A stands for antecedent, the B for behavior and the C for consequence. Then start collecting data. When an undesired behavior happens, make a tic mark and a note of (A) what happened before the behavior — where you were, who was around, etc (B) what the behavior was, and (C) what was the consequence — what did you say, do, etc. It’s exhausting to do this, but it’s the only way to find out why your child is acting out. When I started tracking behaviors, I was specifically tracking tantrums and physical aggression toward siblings and our family pet.
After about two weeks of collecting data, you should start to get an idea of why behaviors are happening. Is the child throwing a fit to get something? Do they want attention? Are they trying to escape something that is happening? The Four Functions of Behavior Chart above can help you determine why your child is acting out and gives you instructions on how to respond when a behavior happens. For example, we determined that James was hitting our dog for attention. He had learned that when he was aggressive to her, he would get a slew of attention from mom and dad.
Introduce the token board.
Start by offering tokens often and for practically anything. You want your child to catch on fast. It took James one token to understand this new “game.” Our board has five tokens James has to earn. You can buy token boards online, make one yourself, or visit Therapy in a Bin in South Nashville. When a desired behavior was observed, I would go up to him, pat him on the pack, tell him what he was doing that was good and give him a token. Sing and dance and make a big deal out of it! He puts the token on the board, and then we count how many more he needs for his reward. At home, his reward is a pocky chocolate stick. I found these in the Asian food section of Kroger. In the car, his reward is a Pez candy. It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. BUT. The child must be motivated for the reward, and it can only be given for the token board. They can never have access to it otherwise.
Tokens in the home.
I’ll give a few examples of how and when I hand out a token. As mentioned, James was having a lot of trouble with tantrums in the home and in public and being physically aggressive toward his sister and our dog. When we were at home, if James was sitting quietly in his room playing, Igave him a token and told him how happy it made me when he played nicely. If his sister was playing next to him—or even better—WITH him, I handed a token out. If he walked past our dog and didn’t lash out at her, I made a big deal out of how much I loved when he was so sweet with Olive. When he asked me to do something rather than whining about it, I gave him a token.
Tokens in the car.
Car rides used to be very stressful. James screamed at his sister almost the entire ride. Hello, nerves!!! We have a separate reward chart for the car with Pez as a reward. In the beginning, if he climbed into his car seat without a fuss? Token. If I could back out of the driveway without him screaming? Token. If he would look at Anna and not yell? Token. If he smiled or talked with her? I basically threw all the tokens at him! Now, before we go into the garage to get in the car, I remind him that we are working for Pez and he needs to have nice hands, nice feet, and a nice mouth. This same reminder is given before we get out of the car to go in public. He knows if he has good behavior wherever we are, as soon as we get back to the car, a Pez will be waiting for him. You can also continue this in a store or wherever you might be.
In the beginning, find every opportunity to hand out a token. Reward the desired behavior.
Ignoring the undesired.
This is hard. Really hard. It’s important to keep in mind that if any person or animal is at risk of being harmed, the behavior can’t be completely ignored. Remove animals or persons from potential harm, and do so while making zero eye contact, minimal talking, and minimal touching. If he hit his sister, I picked her up and left the room without saying a word. Tantrums, outbursts, etc must be ignored. There is no point in trying to talk or reason with the child in the middle of a tantrum. It’s like talking to an angry drunk person. Am I right? I also want to mention that if tantrums have, in the past, gotten your child attention or what they wanted, expect the behavior to get worse before it gets better. It’s like having a light switch that has always worked suddenly not work. What do you do? Flick it on and off ten times in a row to see what will happen. Expect the same.
In the heat of a tantrum.
During a tantrum, do not give your child attention. When there is a sliver of quiet? Tell your child to do a small, simple task. Tell. Don’t ask. When I started this, I was thinking, “Ok. Yeah, right. You’ve never seen my child in the middle of a tantrum.” I’m happy to say I ATE MY WORDS. I’ll never forget the first time I actually tried this. James was having one of the worst meltdowns I’d ever seen. He was practically choking, he was screaming and crying so hard. Then I remembered: tell him to do a small task. I was unloading the dishwasher, so I told him to put a cup away. He instantly stopped crying and complied. OMG. I gave him another cup. “Put this away.” He did, and this time I praised him. Another cup, more praise. This continued until the dishwasher was empty, and he was calm. I could hardly believe it. The task can be anything. “Hand me ____,” “Touch your nose,” “Set this on the table,” etc. Make it short, simple, and easy to complete.
Is this bribing?
No. Not if you use it correctly. If your child is in the middle of a behavior, you cannot say to them, “If you stop I’ll give you ____”. That is bribing. Reminding your child what they are working for throughout the day? Not bribery. The epic tantrum mentioned above started because we were all playing outside when he kicked his sister to the ground. I picked him up and brought him inside without a word. He wanted to go back outside. After we emptied the dishwasher and he was calm, I told him he could work to go back outside. He was already calm and being compliant. Bribing would have been, “Stop crying, and you can go back outside.” Be consistent, and follow through. My son knows that good behavior in a store means he gets a Pez when he gets to the car. If he acts out in public, we do not give him the candy. He knows that.
Does it work?
We’ve been using the token board and positive reinforcement since June, and I cannot begin to tell you what a difference it has made in our lives. James almost never lashes out at our dog anymore. Episodes with his sister used to be tracked at 15+ times a day. Now? He is learning to say to her, “I’m playing with that,” instead of hitting her. They can play in the same room together without anything happening. He almost never yells at her in the car. I used to have to feed them in separate rooms to keep him from yelling at her, and now they share a table. His public meltdowns are almost non-existent. Tantrums at home have improved significantly. Rather than a 15 minute screaming fit, it’s a quick high pitched scream. When that happens, we remind him what he is working for and prompt him to ask for help. We don’t expect or want perfection. He’s three. Getting upset when his baby sister knocks over a tower he built is to be expected and understood. Slapping her in the face is not. Have realistic expectations.
I hope this post can give you an idea as to what may or may not work for your family. Each child is different, and what works for my child may not work for yours. Please let me know if you have any questions, and I will answer to the best of my ability! Stay strong, momma! You can do it!