5 Tips for Identifying What Might Be Triggering Problem Behavior

Once again your child did that thing that drives you nuts. Maybe she stood in her room banging the door over and over. Maybe he came in and wiped all of his cousin’s Legos off the table, ruining a work in progress. Maybe it was a meltdown right during the middle of class, while everyone else sat quietly reading their assignment.

Whatever the event, these problem behaviors don’t simply explode out of a vacuum…be assured there was some kind of trigger.

However, finding that trigger can take a bit of sleuthing. In the ABA world we look at something known as the ABC’s of behavior: Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequences.

From there we can move on to discover likely triggers and then do something about them.

  1. Identify the Antecedent: What Came First?

    Write down everything that happened in the minutes immediately BEFORE the problem behavior occurred.

    To do this you will want to consider the following questions:

    • Who is around when the behavior occurs?
    • What activities/events were in process directly before the behavior?
    • What are others in the room doing directly before the behavior?
    • What is the environment like? (Lighting, noise level, smells, etc.)
    • Where does the behavior usually occur?
    • When does the behavior happen?

    Make sure your notes and clear and actionable, including enough details for you to work it back over time and isolate clues that might tell you what led to the problem…

    Not Like This… Mom gives Emma a puzzle and goes to make dinner.

    More like This… Emma and Mom were sitting at the table. Emma was coloring and Mom was working on her laptop. Mom puts the laptop away and gives Emma her favorite puzzle, while also leaving the crayons and paper available. Then Mom goes into the kitchen. David is in the living room watching TV. Mom opens the refrigerator and pulls out meat and vegetables. She starts water boiling and turns on the exhaust fan. She begins chopping vegetables.

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  1. Describe the Behavior: What is the Problem Behavior, Specifically?

    Write down everything that happened DURING the episode of problem behavior.

    Describe the behavior without making value judgments or assumptions…simply record what you see.

    Not like this… Emma was angry so she threw a temper tantrum.

    More like this… Emma scrunched up her face and started making loud noises. She grabbed puzzle pieces and threw them from her spot at the table towards mom in the kitchen. She kicked the leg of the table repeatedly while she was throwing puzzle pieces.

  1. Describe the Consequence: What Resulted from the Behavior?

    Describe what happened immediately AFTER the behavior occurred.

    Consequences can either increase or decrease the likelihood of the behavior happening again, but as a parent it can be hard to know how to enforce consequences as part of a discipline strategy. It can be hard enough when you have a neurotypical child, with a child on the spectrum you may be at a total loss for what to do. Keeping a record of what specific consequences were enforced and how you enforced them will help you establish a baseline for what is effective and what isn’t.

    Not like this… Mom stops cooking and talks to Emma. Emma calms down until Mom starts cooking again. Mom punishes Emma but things get worse.

    More like this… Mom stops chopping and turns off the stove and the exhaust fan. She sits down at the table with Emma and asks her to please stop throwing puzzle pieces. Emma sits quietly while mom is at the table, but as soon as mom enters the kitchen she starts throwing pieces again. Mom finally takes the puzzle and crayons away, but this time when she goes into the kitchen Emma screams and hits the table repeatedly.

    If a consequence Mom or Dad sets in place doesn’t decrease the behavior, it will need to be replaced.

    To get a free chart that can help you keep track of the ABC’s (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence), check out Behaviorbabe’s website. She also offers a link to a sample of what the chart might look like when filled out.

  1. Analyze Your Notes to Determine How the Behavior Might Be Serving Your Child

    In children with ASD, there is almost always a reason for problem behaviors even if it isn’t immediately clear. A follows B… The antecedent (A) is usually the reason for that problem behavior (B). However, the consequence (C) that comes on the heels of a behavior isn’t always a punishment. Sometimes it is purely maternal nurturing and empathy. This means it is possible to actually unwillingly reinforce problem behaviors if you’re not careful about the consequence.

    First, you need to identify what the child is looking to achieve with the problem behavior so you can initiate a strategy for providing a response that will not reinforce those behaviors.

    In ABA, we talk about the “4 A’s” as a way to determine what the child is trying to achieve with their behavior:

    Attention: If any time the child engages in the problem behavior she receives attention, the behavior will continue. For example, the child hits her head over and over and Mom or Dad comes and holds her tightly.

    This can also be true for negative attention since even negative feedback fills the child’s need for some kind of a response. For example, a child may deliberately antagonize her sibling in order to get Mom and Dad’s attention.

    Access: A child may be trying to get access to something. For example, a child acts out when company is over because he knows Mom will give him the iPad to quiet him down.

    Avoidance: A child may be trying to avoid something she doesn’t like. The classic example is that if every time a child slams his textbooks on the desk he is sent to the principal’s office, he gets to avoid being in class for a while.

    Automatic: At times a child will engage in some sort of repetitive sensory behavior because it feels good or calms them. Hand flapping, head banging, rocking, blinking, and tapping are just a few examples of what is know as “stimming,” or self-stimulating behavior. So, every time a child gets in the car he may hum to calm the anxiety in his mind over the speed of things going by outside.

    So, now it’s time to analyze, which of these things might be happening for Emma?

    Attention? Maybe. Every time she engages in the behavior Mom comes to join her.

    Access? Probably not…Mom isn’t giving her anything at this time.

    Avoidance? Possibly. When she engages in the behavior a number of sounds stop: the chopping, the boiling water, the exhaust fan. Maybe she doesn’t want to eat dinner. (Some children find eating a difficult sensory experience.)

    Automatic? Probably not this either. Although she might be trying to soothe herself by kicking her leg, the throwing of puzzle pieces directly towards mom suggests otherwise.

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  1. Process of Elimination and Experimentation: Narrowing it Down to Identify the Trigger?

    Because there are a few possible triggers, Mom will need to experiment with altering the variables and through a process of elimination determine what is causing Emma to act out.

    Does the behavior still happen when Mom doesn’t give attention?

    Does anything change if Mom doesn’t turn on the exhaust fan? Or does the behavior start as soon as the fan comes on?

    Sometimes the trigger becomes clear almost immediately, but sometimes it will take a bit of work.

    Once you’ve discovered your trigger, it’s time to put together a Behavior Intervention Plan.