Five Top Tips for Designing an Intervention for Problem Behaviours

A summary of the Greg Hanley presentation on designing intervention for problem behaviours

Following conducting IISCA, the next step is to design an intervention. Dr. Hanley has provided us with five top tips:


1. Provide function based reinforcers

This is the utmost important element in the intervention. We need to find out what the person is trying to achieve through problem behaviours, and provide them with the same or similar outcome through appropriate and socially acceptable behaviours. Traditionally in ABA, the “distraction tactic” was employed. For example, if the child is running away from the table during learning time, sweets and chocolates were offered to them to keep them sitting at the table and do work. The underlying message we are sending to the child is that “what you really want does not matter, I am offering you something else to make you forget about it”. Therefore, if escape is the reinforcer for problem behaviours, we also need to use escape as a reinforcer when teaching appropriate alternative behaviours. 


2. Reinforce precursors, not problem behaviours

The same rule applies when conducting IISCA as well. Since the problem behaviours concerned involve risks of someone getting hurt, it is unethical for an assessment or intervention to deliberately evoke these behaviours and reinforce them. The alternative is to provide reinforcement for precursor behaviours. This means, before the individual displays the problem behaviour, there is usually an escalation process, starting from some form of protest, then physical communication and if these were ignored, eventually aggression or self-injury. The key is to provide reinforcement during the protest stage, or the earliest sign of escalation. This cluster of behaviours that escalate is called a response class, indicating that all behaviours in this group are trying to achieve the same purpose.  


3. Teach a whole response class, instead of a single response

Continuing from the point above, if the problem behaviour comes as a whole response class with an escalation hierarchy, when teaching the appropriate, replacement behaviours, we need to teach a cluster of behaviours (response class) as well. This is because in real life, sometimes a behaviour is not reinforced, and the individual needs to know what else they could do to achieve the same result, rather than immediately resolving to problem behaviours. For example, if we teach a child to tap someone's shoulder to gain attention and it did not work because the person is busy talking to someone else, instead of immediately pinching that person to gain attention, we need to teach the child to wave in front of that person's eyes, say their name, and tap a bit harder on their shoulder repeatedly.


4. Surprise shorties

In addition to reinforcing appropriate alternative behaviours, teaching a child to accept their request being denied and following instructions are also part of the intervention. While these demands are introduced gradually, and eventually the child may have to follow a series of instructions before getting what they want, research shows that if these demands are dropped or shortened every now and then, it is an effective way of motivating the child to follow the instructions the next time. Another advantage of dropping or shortening demand is that it promotes eye contact and joint attention, because the child does not know when to expect instruction or reinforcer, so they will watch your reaction intently and anticipate your response. The recommended ratio of dropping demand is 20% of the time, and surprise shorties another 20% of the time (leaving 60% of the time following instructions or accepting request denial). 


5. Set high expectations

Contrary to the majority of opinion in special needs education, we need to set the expectations high for the children we work with. Here we don't mean they have to get 10 A*s for their GCSEs, but rather, when teaching delay reinforcement or accepting request denial, we can expect a child to say “alright” and do what is appropriate at that moment without shouting, giving attitude to teachers or parents, or doing a job poorly. Personally, I would recommendthis at the beginning of the intervention, but as a child grows older and moving on to adolescence, it is also important to teach them to negotiate, as well as discerning if a request from an adult or a peer is reasonable. Otherwise they will be prone to bullying and being manipulated.


Do you find these tips helpful? Comment below and share them with someone who you think will benefit from them!

If you need help with problem behaviours, contact us for a free initial consultation.

Written by Danthy Lo Leça, a Behaviour Analyst who is passionate about training, working with schools and being creativity in her practice

Sian Vermaut