Beautiful Minds Blog

Using Reinforcement To Help With Behavioral Problems


Sometimes behavior problems arise in children that can be difficult for many parents to deal with. When this happens, it is always good to know which reinforcement strategies work best on your kids. 

Since different situations call for different reinforcers, it is always good to first assess the situation and then figure out which of the above strategies to put into play in order to help your child decrease behavior problems. Many times parents turn to primary reinforcers, which are snacks or favorite foods. Although this is a good way to start reinforcing behavioral changes, it is important to find different things your child is interested in so that increased amounts of junk food or snacks are not introduced into your child’s diet, which can create other problems down the line. Take the time to find out what types of secondary or positive reinforcers your child likes.

What are their hobbies? Are there specific games or toys they like to play with, etc. Also pay attention to things that may irritate your child and cause negative behaviors to come out; and try to either avoid these items or situations, or work with your child to help them become acclimated to them. Once you find reinforcers that work, make sure they are ONLY available to your child when working with them on behavior modification techniques. Allowing your children to have access to reinforcers all the time decreases the effects of the reinforcer until it no longer serves its purpose. By keeping it locked away and out of site, the reinforcer becomes a powerful tool for a parent.

Another great strategy to use to get your child to participate in activities they are not fond of, such as cleaning up, homework, therapy, etc., is it use what professionals call the Premack Principle. Simply stated the Premack Principle is a reinforcement strategy that places a preferred activity after a non-preferred activity. For example,” first you finish your homework and then we can play video games”. By enforcing this strategy in your home, your child learns that once they are finished doing what they have to do, they get to do something they like.

There are several ways to make reinforcers applicable and different ways will work for different people. By using various methods that you find helpful, you will be able to start working with your child on ways to modify their behavior and increase their tolerance for less preferred activities.

Calm Your Child’s Anxiety Over Trying New Foods

First and foremost, it’s important to rule out any medical drivers or food allergies that could be causing a dislike of particular flavors or food groups.  Your child on the spectrum may avoid particular foods because they upset their stomachs.

However, they may not be able to describe or identify this connection. Consult your pediatrician to investigate possible allergies or complicating medical conditions before starting any new food regime.

Once you confirm that medical issues aren’t behind your child’s picky eating, you should keep one basic rule in mind: Avoid making food a source of conflict within your family.

It is very common for picky eating to lead to dinner table arguments and battles of will between children and parents. Arguing or trying to force a child to eat usually makes the situation worse. Instead, take a moment to think creatively and try to explore the possible causes behind your child’s dislike of new or particular foods.

Many children with autism dislike trying new things.  If your child with autism seems afraid or wary of new foods, think of ways to manage this anxiety.

Instead of asking your child to taste the new food outright, try to look at the new food together. From there, you could suggest that the two of you smell it and/or touch it. These are great opportunities for playing games and having fun with food.

Sometimes it helps to have your child mix the new food with a familiar and preferred food for this first taste. We’ve seen this gradual approach decrease anxiety about new foods by increasing familiarity.

It’s also important to give your child as many choices as possible so they can feel in control of their meals. You can present a wide array of food options at mealtime, and then invite your child to choose three foods to put on his plate. This approach will help your child with autism know that it’s okay to have preferences around food and that variety is important.

Encouraging choice and control within a defined window can help avoid arguments, tears and meltdowns at the dinner table. At the same time, it encourages a more varied and well-formed diet. Some kids on the autism spectrum have sensory difficulties with food that go beyond flavor. For example, a child may dislike the way a cherry tomato turns from solid to squishy in her mouth, though she likes the flavor. It can be difficult for children to separate out that good taste from the disturbing texture.

One pitfall we’ve see many parents succumbing to is the reward system. Yes, the age-old “if you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” Though this trick may work as a quick fix, it won’t produce the desired results in the long run. Your child with autism may choke down the broccoli to get the reward, but this plan is not likely to increase his preference for eating broccoli. Instead, we want your kids to enjoy new foods and form more flexible, healthy eating habits. So it’s important to help him find solutions. Most importantly, the more fun, the better!

Bowl with watermelons. Make faces on pizzas with vegetables or pepperoni. Paint with pasta sauce. Experiment with how ingredients change color or consistency when mixed together. Each of these activities will help a child become more comfortable around new and different foods, create opportunities for trying new tastes and keep food discussions positive.

Make mealtime an opportunity for flexibility, education, choices and – most of all – fun. This is one time that it’s okay to play with your food!

Tips for Outtings and Errands

Going out with a child that has been diagnosed with autism can be overwhelming for the child and the parent. The child may not feel comfortable in their environment and that may cause them to panic or have a tantrum and their parents are constantly worried about what they will do if their child breaks down in public. Outings don’t have to be scary or cause stress. In fact with the right preparation, outings can be a lot of fun. Here are some tips on what you can do to decrease the level of anxiety in your child when planning an outing.

  1. Let them know what to expect – Setting expectations for your child is a great way to minimize stress and increase awareness of what is happening around them. Start off by letting your child know where you are going and give them visuals so they can better understand what to expect to see when they get there. Take pictures of the places you visit frequently like the park, your favorite restaurant, the mall, your family and friend’s homes etc. Providing this type of support will allow your child to manage outings more successfully.
  2. Involve your child in planning the day – Often parents drag their children with them on errand after errand without allowing them to participate in activities their kids find entertaining. Start your day by letting your child know what you need to do, but don’t forget to allow them to pick a few activities they want to do as well. This way you can get your errands done and your children will be happy because they can (A) be part of the planning process and (B) participate in some fun activities that they enjoy.
  3. What happens if things don’t go as planned – It is important to understand that at times things won’t go exactly as planned. Sometimes your plans will change, other times you will experience delays…It is also important to let your child know if there are changes made to your plans and to help them understand that delays and changes tend to happen. It is always good to have a back-up activity that your child will enjoy in case something like this occurs during your day out.
  4. Ask for assistance/Bring an activity with you– Your child is less likely to break the rules if they are busy. When you are shopping, have them help you pick things out (such as groceries, gifts, clothes etc.)If you are looking for something specific, let them know what it is and have them help you find it. Bring reinforcers, games and toys that they enjoy playing with along with you so that you can distract them or keep them occupied if they start to get fussy. Keeping them occupied and keeping them focused on something decreases boredom and allows for a parent to have additional tome to complete an errand.
  5. GREAT JOB is something all children like to hear – Don’t forget to praise your child for their good behavior. Telling your child they are doing a great job listening, following directions, being kind to others etc. shows them that their good behavior gets rewarded.

Whatever it is that you decide to do with your children, make sure they know what to expect and that they understand that sometimes things change. Involve them in your activities and reward them for good behavior. Most of all learn to be consistent with them so they know that you mean what you say and do what you say. Teaching your child to trust your word is important to a successful day out with your child.