How to Decrease Undesirable Behaviors in 7 Easy Steps

Recently, I observed an interaction between a mother and her son where the mother inadvertently reinforced some of her son’s poor behavior. Now, I’m not faulting this mother at all. I should probably make that VERY clear. But after observing this interaction, (where she rewarded her son’s bad behavior with hugs and kisses), I thought about how this pertains to an educational setting. We all are probably guilty of this. Reinforcing undesirable behavior happens quite often for several reasons. Sometimes, we misinterpret situations. Sometimes, we just don’t have the time, or energy to follow through. And sometimes, we just accidentally impose a “consequence” that turns out to be a reward for a particular student.

I want to make things easier for you. So I have come up with 7 Easy Steps to Decreasing Undesirable Behavior.

Step 1: Say What You Mean

One of the first steps towards decreasing poor behavior is to mean what you say and say what you mean. Try to make your words as clear as possible. Keep your sentences, short, sweet and direct. Don’t use idioms or sarcasm if you can help it. Students with autism tend to be very concrete and literal. Therefore, they tend to struggle with inferential language. When I student doesn’t understand the directions for a task, they may act out.

Step 2: Mean What You Say

It’s time to hold your ground. If you make touching a teacher’s desk always a no-no, then make sure you stick with that. It is all or nothing for many of these students, so try and make sure you are not changing your rules from day to day or week to week. This also goes with consequences. If going on YouTube on the iPad means no iPad for the rest of the day, then that is the consequence and will always be the consequence. Sometimes it easy to want to bend the rules, but it is better in the long run to stick by your words.

Step 3: Set Boundaries

Okay, well, it’s not fair to dole out consequences unless the students know what is expected from them. Teach them what is expected by setting boundaries. Set physical boundaries with signs, notes or symbols in order to indicate what is okay, or not okay to touch. Other boundaries, such as personal space or boundaries involving other students or things, write and review a social story with a student. Make these boundaries clear and direct, and teach and reteach these ideals often.

Step 4: Make Sure the Consequence is Salient

This means that the consequence must be something that that student does not prefer. I once worked with a student hat hated recess. He enjoyed staying inside and conversing with adults. He used to act out or do whatever he could just so he could stay inside. He knew that if he didn’t do his work, he would have to stay in and do it during recess. Sneaky, right? Well, it didn’t take long to realize his antics and now he must do his make-up work outside at a picnic table. So, needless to say, you need to check to make sure that the consequence you are imposing is something that the student will find aversive. It is also important to note, that consequence need to be appropriate. Do your best to give consequence that are equal to the bad behavior. For example, if a student tries to hit a teacher, it would probably be appropriate to ask (or assist) him to the safety room. But, conversely, you probably wouldn’t send a student to the safety room for calling another student, “stupid.” So stick with what makes sense and check with your administration for the protocol in your district for when students get too unsafe for the classroom.

Step 5: Reinforce the Desirable Behavior

One great way to decrease bad behavior is to do the opposite. Reinforce the good behavior. Placing emphasis on the desirable behavior will typically decrease the rate of the poor behavior. This is especially true when you have a student that acts out for attention. So do your best to find times when your student is demonstrating desirable behavior and reinforce them.

Step 6: Make the Reinforcer Desirable

Let’s face it. If I told you that you had to go to work today and get paid only in rice cakes, would you do it? Would you go to work? Probably not. Of course, unless you love rice cakes, in which case, good for you, because you are probably SUPER healthy… But for me, I don’t think I would show up just to work for circles of tasteless cardboard… (so sorry if you love rice cakes, not trying to offend). It just wouldn’t happen. So, think of your students in the same light. Find something that they want to work for and use that.

Step 7: Ignore

Ignore the behaviors that are safe to ignore. Ignoring attention seeking behaviors can be an effective way of decreasing undesirable behaviors. If you need help with ignoring behaviors check out my previous post, The Art of Ignoring in 5 Steps.