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The Natural Way to Behavior Management

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The Natural Way to Behavior Management

By David F. Freschi

Autism Asperger’s Digest | May/June 2009


In the last two columns we’ve looked at some of the reasons punishment is an ineffective behavior strategy when used with students with ASD. Today let’s look at natural consequences and positive alternatives as better teaching strategies. Yes, both involve teaching. Our goal, after all, is positive improvement in the child’s behavior…not just “getting through the day”, right? Let’s look at natural consequences first.

Natural consequences are those that occur as a result of a natural event delayed or postponed by the child’s challenging behavior. Charlie throws a tantrum over putting his shoes on before recess. It takes him 15 minutes or so before he finally gets his shoes on. Guess what? Recess is over. The opportunity for learning is not, however. Your response is a simple, “Oh well.” That makes a nice clean connection between the problem behavior and the result. Charlie will start to make the connection quickly. What if Charlie throws another tantrum over missing recess? That’s Charlie’s choice, not yours. Let him expend the energy; it doesn’t have anything to do with you. But what’s our common response? We do things that I guarantee make these tantrums last longer and repeated themselves. We launch into an explanation of why he didn’t get to go to recess. Now you’re crowding the connection between behavior and consequence with language; that won’t help. You are also providing Charlie with lots of attention for his inappropriate behavior. That feeds him. When tantrums become useless they generally die off and disappear. Don’t feed this type of behavior.

Here’s another example. Roscoe predictably runs away from morning meeting or circle. The (wise) teacher immediately hands out a tiny reinforcer to all the other children for good sitting, attending, etc. Roscoe sees this and dashes over to the circle and wants his reinforcer also. “I’m sorry Roscoe, you weren’t here.” Roscoe immediately has a meltdown. Good! That’s learning through natural consequences. Don’t get involved in the tantrum. Let Roscoe expend the energy. It’s his tantrum after all. (Oh, by the way, that group activity you’re doing has to be worth staying in for the child. That’s your job. I know you never have a boring activity…right?)

And one more example that parents everywhere will recognize. Jasper starts a tantrum in the store. End the trip immediately. You don’t need an explanation and you surely don’t need a bunch of verbal warnings. Don’t try to negotiate in the store. You will probably lose, be exhausted by the struggle and end up bribing your way out of the situation. Remember that bribery is not positive reinforcement. It’s teaching a lesson you don’t want this child to learn. If Jasper had been promised a treat for behaving in the store, he doesn’t get it. This is a perfect time for another one of those great remarks that punctuate natural consequences: “Oh well!” Hint: If you want to teach a child to go shopping with you, don’t go when you need to go shopping. Start this lesson going to the store to buy one thing the child wants; get in and out of the store successfully. Then gradually expand the number of items purchased. Trust me, this strategy works.

Are you getting the picture of how powerful natural consequences can be and how different they are from punishment tactics? Natural consequences work because they are natural, and arise from the child’s own behavior. He did x and the result is y. Learn to use them consistently and you’ll see gains you didn’t expect. (Notice that emphasis on “consistently” – it’s there for a reason!)

A second effective alternative to punishment is teaching positive alternative behaviors and skills with this same group of children. These work because they give our kids real life tools and skills where they didn’t have them before. That’s progress!

Charlie has a big problem with putting on his shoes in time for recess. How can we help him? We can give him a visual schedule that shows Charlie putting on his shoes followed by recess, or a comic strip that shows Charlie successfully putting on his shoes and playing with his friends who are happy to see him. We can give him a little head start on getting ready. Try giving Charlie a chore to do just before recess that gets him out of the classroom ahead of time; then he’ll be ready to go when the bell rings. Watch for that first successful time when he goes to recess without the fuss over the shoes. Heap on the praise as additional reinforcement to the natural reinforcer recess provides.

Remember Roscoe, who runs out of circle? Does he have a visual schedule? Do you know how long Roscoe can last (on average) before he bolts from the circle? Do you know what his reinforcers are? Let’s say Roscoe stays in circle about five minutes before he bolts. Try bringing Roscoe into circle just for the last five minutes, and make sure there’s a great activity he loves. This allows Roscoe to be successful. You can gradually increase minutes until he’s in circle most of the time. Look carefully at your activities in circle. Which ones are essential for Roscoe? Where is he successful? Start his time in the circle with only those activities. A little extra time at this stage will pay off in huge bonuses later on. Does Roscoe have any sensory needs that affect his staying in circle? Try giving him a sensory fidget object to hold, or a stiff chair to sit on that provides support. Sometimes sitting on a ball will help maintain interest. Consider using a “working for card.” A “working for” card is basically a token card that provides the child with a clear indication of what the reinforcement is, what he has to do to earn it, and for how long. Sound familiar? It should; as a teacher you signed one with the school board before they hired you. The only difference is you have different tokens (paychecks) that only come every two weeks.

Natural consequences and positive replacement strategies are two mighty powerful teaching methods to use at school and at home. Educators can use them and parents can use them, with equal success. You want to increase or teach appropriate behaviors and provide the structure that makes the child successful in his endeavors. It takes a little thought and sometimes some measured calm, but in the long run it’s easier on the child and easier on the adult. When consequences are clearly connected to the behavior and the child can see the connection, positive results come.

One more hint for the day. When a child has a tantrum or meltdown avoid the temptation to have the child “process” it or make a confession/apology immediately after the event occurs. How rationally can you think when you are upset or stressed? Think how difficult this is for the student with ASD. Every event doesn’t need to be processed. If you want to use the event as a positive learning opportunity, allow the child the time and space to settle down. Then discuss and teach.

Finally, keep in mind that after every tantrum, after every meltdown, it’s a fresh start. Don’t take the tantrum personally, complain about it to everyone you see (especially in front of the child!) and constantly remind the child of what happened. That’s called being a pain and doling out punishment, and there we are, back to where we don’t want to be. It’s only you who can break the vicious cycle.



David Freschi, MA, operates Simple Good Ideas (www.sgilearn.com), a special education consultation and training service for school districts and organizations. He has more than 30 years of successful experience with children and adults with ASD.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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