Saturday 13 January 2018

What are Positive Behaviour Support Strategies?

Prior to gaining L's autism diagnosis one of the issues that we struggled with on a daily basis was his challenging behaviour, more to the point we struggled to understand why he did the things that he did. Over time we have tried various strategies, some failed dramatically and some were brilliant. Last year I attended a workshop titled "Positive Behaviour Support" for children with autism so as to gain more skills to assist me to understand L's behaviour.

Prior to attending the workshop I had begun to implement various strategies both at home and in my work place to assist in supporting L and other children with their challenging behaviour. I was very pleased during the workshop to hear that they recommended some of the strategies that we had already implemented. After the workshop I had a whole new set of skills to implement with L and with the children in my care at my last workplace.

Now before I go on, I know that a few eyebrows are probably going to be raised by that statement .... with the children in my care ... as questions begin to run through your heads. How do I know this? Well ....

When I have mentioned the concept of positive behaviour support strategies in the past to those who work with children, and people become aware of where and why I have learnt my strategies, they have always said statements along the lines of ....

"But they are for children with autism!" or "Do you have a room full of autistic children in your workplace? No? Well they won't work on normal children!"

And at that point my blood generally begins to boil.

Yes, I do have two children who are on the spectrum. No, I didn't have a kindy room in which every child was on the spectrum. And, pray do tell, what is a "normal" child?

But, all children at some point in time, regardless of if they have an ASD diagnosis or not, need assistance to regulate their own emotions and as such will generally act out through their behaviour. It does not matter if they have a diagnosis or not, behaviour is behaviour. The fact that a strategy may have been developed to assist children who are on the spectrum shouldn't matter. There aren't guidelines, or not that I'm aware of, that states that the strategies developed for children with autism shouldn't be implemented with children who aren't on the spectrum.

All children at some point in time, need guidance and assistance to understand their behaviour.

I have been asked many questions on why we have implemented the strategies that we currently use and also what strategies would I suggest to families who may be struggling to understand challenging behaviour.

So without any further ado, here is my list of tried and tested Positive Behaviour Support Strategies, all of which I have found to be effective for both of my children as well as for children who are not on the spectrum.

First up what does positive behaviour support mean?

For children to feel safe and secure, be it at home, at school or in a day care facility, they need to feel loved. Children also need to know that at any point in time they won't be judged for their behaviour. But on the same hand, we as parents need to provide boundaries, we need to be supportive, we need to provide guidance so that our children can learn how to manage and take responsibility for their own behaviour.

Positive Behaviour Support Strategies aim to promote positive behaviour from children in environments that are positive (a no brainer) and that are also supportive. Positive Behaviour Support Strategies also aim to build skills in children so that they can start to take ownership for their behaviour. All children need to, at least by the time they reach their teenage years, become accountable for their own actions - they need to understand that there are consequences that come with behaving inappropriately. They also need to understand that appropriate behaviour means that they are rewarded in some way. The reward doesn't necessarily have to be a toy, the reward could simply be through praise.

Positive Behaviour Support Strategies also aim to take away the perceived negative language - "stop," "don't," "no" and so on. Have you ever noticed that if you say "stop standing on the table" to a child, they will generally keep doing the behaviour. At times, the child may keep doing it just to annoy you but generally children, especially young children, filter out the "stop, no, don't" and just hear "stand on the table." It is part of their development. By taking away the negative language and using positive language instead, you can start to teach your children what to do instead!

The very first thing that you NEED to know and remember about challenging behaviour is that behaviour is not done on purpose, behaviour is done for a purpose. Our role as a parent, or a carer or teacher, is to figure out what that purpose is.

All behaviour is done for a purpose - it may seem at the time that your child IS doing the behaviour on purpose but are they doing it to simply gain attention or is there another underlying reason. Doing behaviour simply to gain attention is still doing behaviour for a purpose. Do they want your attention? Is the child tired? Are they hungry? Are they in pain? Are they frustrated and unable to verbally express their needs or wants? Are they entering into sensory overload by what is occurring around them?

This has become one of my catch phrases with my own children and with those that I have worked with. Once we, parents, teachers and carers, figure out what the purpose of the behaviour is for, we can then start to work on strategies to prevent the behaviour from occurring in future.

The strategies could be as simple as ignoring the child's behaviour - yes it may be annoying to us but if you give the child attention does the behaviour stop? Generally not. Or you may need to delve further and find a different strategy to implement.

And if you implement a positive behaviour strategy only to find that it does not work, it is NOT the child's fault. All children learn in different ways. Different strategies will work for some and not for others. What we need to do is work out how to come at the challenging behaviour from a different angle. The child is not at fault, we have chosen the wrong strategy.

This next strategy is very much common sense but we all do the opposite from time to time. 

Have you ever found yourself telling your child NOT to do something and then they just keep on doing the original behaviour?

How do we learn what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour? This comes back to the unwritten social rules of society and how we learn these unwritten rules. The unwritten rules were once explained to me like this ....

.... Imagine you are a male going to a public toilet for the very first time. You see the urinal and there is another male standing at one end of the urinal. Where would you stand? Would you look at them while you were both using the urinal? How would you know what to do? ....

The common sense answer is that you'd most likely stand at the other end of the urinal and no you wouldn't stare or look at the other person. But how do children learn these things?

With a lot of unwritten rules, we need to explain and teach our children what the right way is. We need to tell them what they can do, rather than what not to do.

"We sit at the tables, can you show me how to sit on the chair?"

It sounds much nicer then "don't sit on the table!" And then there is that word "don't!" As I mentioned above, children tend to filter out the words "don't, stop, no" and so on and only hear "sit on the table." Hence why they may continue with the challenging behaviour.

We also need to model this behaviour to our children. I am the first to admit that I have sat on a table in front of my children and even in front of children that I have worked with. If they see me sitting on a table, then of course they are going to do it as well.

Children are not born with the inherent ability to know what is appropriate behaviour, we need to teach them this.

And when we are talking with and modelling positive behaviour to our children, we need to talk with our children rather than talking to them or at them. And don't forget to remain calm. A calm parent or carer will generally mean a calm child.

In our house, we pick the battles in which we need to enter into. There are some battles that are just not worth fighting over.

And this is the same in relation to challenging behaviour. Is the behaviour unsafe? Is the behaviour hurting anyone else? Is the child damaging property or belongings? Or is the behaviour simply annoying to us?

If the answer to the first three questions above is yes, then of course the behaviour needs to be stopped. However if the behaviour is simply annoying to us, do we really need to stop the child from doing the behaviour? Is this a battle that you really want to fight?

If you do need to stop a child from doing a particular challenging behaviour, give them a reason why and something to replace the behaviour. If you are going to take away a behaviour, you need to give the child something to replace the behaviour with, otherwise the original behaviour is just going to continue!

.... Jumping on the table is not safe, you could hurt yourself. If you need to jump, why don't you go outside and jump around on the grass ....

The next strategy that we have implemented, and that I have also implemented with children at my last workplace, is that we label why the behaviour is occurring rather than labelling the child.

.... L is crying/yelling/throwing toys because he is upset that his sister won't share with him ....

If we label why L, or another child, is crying then we can figure out the cause of the distress and in turn come up with a  solution. Do we need to practice turn taking or sharing skills? By labelling why the behaviour is occurring you will find it easier to find the purpose in their behaviour.

Labelling a child with "L is crying" is not particularly useful in determining why the behaviour is occurring. If you're not sure why your child is distressed, you may need to do a little detective work.

The final strategy that I am going to mention may cause a little controversy and the controversy lies in the fact that some either don't understand the why behind how this works or don't want to understand the how and why it works. Or they think the strategy is so out there that they don't believe it will work.

I have used the Green/Happy and Red/Sad Choices strategy with my own children and also with those who are not on the spectrum and it has been successful with all children. I've also used this strategy with success with children who range in age from 18 month year olds right through to school age children.

Green/Happy and Red/Sad Choices puts some of the ownership of behaviour back onto the child. A child can begin to learn about appropriate choices from a very young age - this could be as simple as understanding that they need to wear a hat when playing in the sun.

The Green/Happy and Red/Sad Choice strategy allows children to begin to understand that they are in control of the choices that they make. If they choose to make a happy choice there is a reward for that choice. Again the reward doesn't necessarily need to be a tangible reward. It could be that the child can play outside or continue playing with a particular game or toy. If the child chooses to make a sad choice then they begin to understand that there are consequences for those choices. And that they are in control of the choices that they make. The outcome is generally one that you want - they need to wear hats in the sun - but the child feels as though they are in control!

If L or O are behaving in a challenging way, we show them the choice board and ask them what choice are they going to make. For example, L detests putting sunscreen on due to his sensory processing difficulties. But living in a state where the sun is shining most of the time and combined with L's very fair skin, sunscreen is a must. So ....

.... L, if you make a happy choice and put some sunscreen on, or let me put it on you, you can go to the beach with everyone else. If you make a sad choice and don't put sunscreen on, you will miss out and will have to stay inside. Remember the last time you didn't wear sunscreen and you got burnt. That hurt didn't it? What do you want to do? ....

If the behaviour is unsafe to themselves or to others then we put a stop to the behaviour immediately and again explain why, so that L or O understand why they can not keep doing what they were doing.

.... O that was very unsafe. That was a red choice because you could have hurt yourself or your brother. You need to go and have some quiet time for 5 minutes ....

The children that I have used this strategy with at my last work place responded incredibly well to it. To the point that the children were reminding each other of their choices as they were playing throughout the day.

.... You made me sad because you made a sad choice and hit me. That really hurt me ....

Children usually don't like making their friends sad! The fact that there is a visual that is used to explain this concept to children, makes it even more powerful.

All we have to do now is ask L, is this is a happy choice or a sad choice and he will respond immediately and usually change his behaviour. The only time that this strategy does not work is when he is entering into sensory overload.

This strategy also means that it is not the adult telling the child what they can or can't do, the child is in control of their actions. And if they continue to make red/sad choices, they very quickly understand that there are consequences for those actions. The number of times when I have begun to say "oh if you don't keep your hat on, you're going to have to go on the verandah" and the child has very rapidly changed their mind as to what they are going to do, I've lost count of. Using this strategy, very rarely do we have inappropriate behaviours occurring in superhero headquarters.

There are many other strategies that we utilise and I am sure that there are many others that I am not aware of but these are the main ones that we use on a regular basis.

Please keep in mind that not all strategies may work for every child and that you do need to try a strategy more than once to see if it will work. If it doesn't work the first time, it does not mean that it won't work the next time.

And please remember - behaviour is not done on purpose, it is done for a purpose. We just need to work out what the purpose is.

Told you it was my catch phrase!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this! My mom works with elementary school students with autism and I can't wait to share this with her.

  2. As a teacher, I think your suggestions make total sense! Admittedly, as a mom and a middle school teacher, I can see where I still phrase a lot of things in the negative. I definitely need to work on that!

  3. So well written post with a lot of positive information. A lot of advices you wrote about will work for my son too, I think the basic feature is love.

  4. We chose to attend a learning intervention to improve my child’s work behavior. He wasn’t diagnosed with any at all but we are glad to have the kind of support that he needs from special education teachers. And yes, we have to make positive approach to get positive results. I was advised to focus more on my child’s accomplishments and progress and learn not to compare.

  5. Such an informative post! I'm familiar with a lot of these strategies being a former teacher, but it's nice to see them again as the mom of a 2-year old! I'm always picking battles with 3 under 3!


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