Reduce Problem Behaviors by Teaching Replacement Behaviors

Categories: Applied Behavior Analysis; ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused; Brain Injury

Children and adults with autism and other special needs learn that engaging in problem behaviors such as screaming is an effective way to get someone to react. For an individual who has difficulty communicating, it is often a method that works quite well to get the attention, item, or activity he wants.

How can family members and teachers discourage the children and adults in their care from screaming, hitting or biting themselves or others, or engaging in any form of disruptive behavior?

Behavior analysts know that the best way to reduce an individual’s problem behavior is to find out what that individual wants. Then, the challenge is to teach him how to get what he wants by engaging in a more appropriate behavior.

If the goal (or function) of screaming is to get attention, then the individual (let’s call him John) can be taught that raising his hand or lightly tapping someone on the shoulder results in more attention than disruptive behavior. For this to occur, you must ignore the screaming and reinforce the replacement behavior. This means turning away from John whenever he screams, prompting him to tap you on the shoulder, then quickly turning back toward him, and positively reinforcing the shoulder tap with lots of attention and praise. If the reinforcement is effective, then the frequency of the shoulder tapping or hand raising should increase, and John will likely use it to get attention in the future. Likewise, if you ignore the screaming, then John will learn that screaming is an ineffective way to get attention. Shoulder tapping or hand raising will then replace screaming, and become John’s behavior of choice when he wants attention.

If John is engaging in problem behavior to avoid or “escape” a task or demand, then the replacement behavior would enable him to escape the task in a more socially appropriate way. In this case, he could be taught to verbally request a break or to demonstrate a hand sign for “later” before he is allowed to take a break.

When teaching replacement behaviors in the training setting (in a school or adult day program, for example), it is important to remember that these new behaviors should be easy to generalize. This means that the individual should be able to perform the behavior in other settings, at different times, and in the presence of someone other than the trainer. Replacement behaviors should not appear strange in social settings and should be behaviors that are likely to be reinforced in the home environment.

It is also important to remember to honor each request for attention or for a break during the first phase of replacement behavior training. However, after a while you will need to back off and honor every second or third request, as it would be unrealistic to assume that each request would be honored in other settings.

Helping an individual with special needs replace a problem behavior with an acceptable behavior ensures that he will be able to get what he wants or needs in an appropriate way. The result will be happier students, teachers, and family members, and calmer, more peaceful school and home environments.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and those with other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit