Dealing with Tantrums, ABA style

We’ve all seen it. We’ve all heard it. Some of us have experienced it directly.   In the grocery store.  In the library.  In the restaurant.  The dreaded screaming, kicking, crying child. 

As a behavior analyst, tantrums are the number one complaint that I hear from parents.  What can make them go away?  First of all, patience and remaining calm is the first recommendation that I give parents.  Behavior change takes time.  The behavior will not resolve overnight.  Even when you implement a plan to reduce the tantrum, you need to follow through with the plan and remain consistent with your response.  Though tempting, you cannot scream or threaten away a tantrum.   Sometimes, it can make it worse. 

The next recommendation is to consult a certified behavior analyst to determine the tantrum’s function and recommend a plan of action to reduce the behavior.  Determining the function of the behavior is not guesswork. Certified behavior analysts (BCBA) are trained to identify the function of behaviors.  There are significant dangers attached to an inaccurate diagnosis of the function of a problem behavior. A wrong diagnosis can lead to a worsening of the behavior, wasted time and resources, or an addition of a new problem behavior.  It is critical to be a proactive parent and make sure that the professional who is working with your child has the right credentials. 

My final recommendation is to remember that a child and his/her problem behavior is not one in the same.  Your child is not a problem child.  He is a child with a behavior problem. 

What is ABA?

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA is a science similar psychology or medicine.  In this type of science, the principles of behavior are applied in order to change and improve behavior.  ABA is recognized as the most effective strategies to reduce problem behaviors and increase positive, age-appropriate behaviors. 

One of the focuses of ABA is the environment and its effect on human behavior.  The environment is constantly shaping our behavior.  For example, you wake up late for work.  As a result, your boss yells at you for your tardiness.  You probably will be more likely to wake up on time the next day, or at least set two alarms. Another focus of ABA is the function of the behavior.  All of our behaviors have functions, whether it is to gain attention, escape an unpleasant task, or gain access to a desired item.  

In a typical ABA session, a behavior analyst determines what factors may attribute to the problem behavior and the possible function of the behavior.  With this information, the behavior analyst modifies the environment and teaches the child alternative and positive behaviors such as self-help, social and communication skills.

The behavior analyst uses items that the child enjoys to reinforce, or increase positive behaviors.  If a child engages in a problem behavior, the behavior analyst withholds preferred items to decrease the behavior.  Prompts such as pointing or mouthing words may also be used to help the child engage in the correct behavior, though in time, these prompts will be faded.   In essence, the behavior analyst is “shaping” the child’s behavior from a problem behavior to a positive behavior.

Allison Hughes, MS, BCBA, LBS
Pittsburgh Behavioral Consulting, LLC
CEO/Managing Member