It’s a brand new year, time to take a deep breath and face a clean slate. All the past charts and behavior strategies that have fallen by the wayside are left behind, and you have the opportunity to begin again, getting 2019 off on the right foot.
Where to begin? My advice is to start with less. Fewer items on your to-do list means fewer opportunities for disappointment. But, how do you determine which things are most important to work on?
Focus on pivotal behaviors. These are behaviors that, when learned, support change in different behaviors without additional teaching. It’s like opening a door. One example is observational learning. When a child is taught to figure out what to do by watching what other students are doing in the classroom, they can then watch what other kids are doing on the playground or at the park or library, putting the skill to work in other settings.
Other pivotal behaviors include asking for help, self-regulating, and compliance. Let’s look at compliance for a moment, because it is important to teachers as well as parents, but we need to be careful not to misuse it.
Learning compliance is an important safety behavior. If our child is wandering out into the street when a car is coming and we say, “Stop!” we don’t want them to take it as a suggestion. They might believe that their desire to cross the street is greater than whatever it is we want them to stop for, and make their own executive decision to override our command. They might believe they can put off responding to us until after they get the ball that’s rolling in front of a car. They may even have been trained that they don’t really have to respond the first 3 times we call them, only to the fourth call when we use their full name or start to count to 3. When we’re calling them to dinner or to pick up their toys or get ready to bed, it’s not a life-and-death situation, and many parents find we become lax in expecting or insisting on immediate compliance. We get used to having to call them 4 times, too, so it has become our new normal. If this sounds like something that goes on in your household, as it does in many, this may be the time to make some changes.
The first thing to do is take a good, hard look at how often your child responds the first time you call their name, and how many times you have to repeat yourself to get their attention. Try taking a day, or just an afternoon, and keep track of the number of times you call their name for each interaction. Be sure to count times that they turn towards you at their name but then quickly turn away again before you have finished what you were saying to them.
Now think about how you call them. Do you find yourself shouting or using an angry or stern tone of voice before they finally respond? You probably don’t like being that way with your child, but may feel that the only way to get their attention is to yell at them. If so, let 2019 be the year that you reduce yelling and increase compliance. Here’s how to start.
You may have already found something that works for your child as a reward they really want to work for or a consequence they really want to avoid. Some parents let their kids earn extra screen time or pocket money. Some parents take away minutes from time allotted to play a video game after homework when their child does something inappropriate or ignores a parent. If you use a system of taking away points or minutes, here are some tips on how to use it most effectively:
1. BE CLEAR Make sure your child knows exactly what behavior will result in loss of points, and let them know when they are about to lose a one. For example, you could hold up ten fingers and say, “Right now you have 10 minutes to play your game. Come here. . . You did not listen, so now you have 9 minutes,” as you put down one finger. If they still don’t respond, they may lose more points or minutes. It’s important that they know this is happening, and holding up fingers is a good visual image which can get their attention. If they are too far from you to hear a quiet voice, you can raise the volume of your voice without sounding angry, just to be sure they hear you. Go through the point loss slowly so that they have a chance to make a better choice before they lose all their points and you have nothing left to bargain with.
2. BE CALM When you’re taking away points, or counting, or whatever you do to let them know they are on thin ice, do not yell or use an angry voice. This can be difficult if they’re getting on your last nerve, but you can do it because you’re the grown up. When you’re calm, they can be calmer, too, so lead the way and model the behavior you want them to mimic. Remember, the loss of points is the thing you’re using to change their behavior, not the act of shouting at them or losing your own temper.
3. BE CONSISTENT When you take away a point or minute, do not let them talk you into giving it back. Once you give in to that, they will never again need to pay attention when you start counting. They will know it’s not real if they can get minutes back later and still do whatever they want now. The first few times you follow through, be prepared for them to get upset, whine, beg, cry, or have a tantrum. Stand your ground, calmly but firmly. You can remind them that they will have a new chance tomorrow, but for today the points are gone because they did not come when you called them. This will be hard, but no one said parenting was going to be easy. Sometimes the most important things are also the most difficult, but remember the value of this pivotal behavior. When they have learned to come to you the first time you call them at home, and this new behavior is deeply ingrained, they will also come when you call them in the yard, at the mall, or in a park. You’re aiming at the end-goal of having a child who will stop running into the street the first time you say, “Stop,” and not the third or fourth time you call.
There is an exception you may need to make. If you have a child who becomes overwhelmed by sensory overload or who has chemical imbalances usually addressed by medication, you will need to determine whether a behavior is a sensory meltdown or a response to not having their medication, rather than a willful tantrum. Sometimes a behavior is truly outside of their own control and they need help to calm themselves down. If they are having a sensory meltdown, focus on getting them out of the stressful area to a quiet place where they can calm down at their own pace. If due to unforeseen circumstances your child was unable to take their medication at the usual time, and now they are pushing the behavioral boundaries and bouncing off the walls, this may not be something they can easily control. They may need to be held tightly, or not touched at all, or given an appropriate way to spend excess energy such as doing jumping jacks; you know your child’s needs and limits.
But sometimes it is a behavioral tantrum, not a meltdown that they can’t control. How do you know the difference? A meltdown and a tantrum can look very similar. However, if your child is able to pause and ask, “Did I lose another point?” or “Can I earn that point back?” and then resume screaming when they get an answer they don’t like, that is a tantrum. They are using screaming to try to get what they want. Be strong! No tantrum lasts forever, it only feels like it. But if you give in to it you can expect the same pattern to repeat every time you take away a point in the future. Behaviors that have been proven to be effective, such as screaming to get a lost point returned, will be called into play again and again, because the behavior worked.
If you can say your child is compliant except when he’s doing something he’s really into, or except when he’s focused on his interest, or only after you call three times, then your child is probably not truly compliant. Being compliant when it’s convenient for them is not enough. Learning to stop what they’re doing and shift their attention to you the first time you call them is an important pivotal behavior that will translate into the classroom and beyond. It’s worth the time and effort to get it handled this year.
I said before that compliance is important, but that we have to be careful not to misuse it. Here’s what I meant.
We don’t want to train our children that they must always comply with anything that any adult tells them to do in any situation. This is setting them up for potential abuse. They need to know that they are in charge of their bodies and there are times when they can say No and have their preference honored and respected. Answering your mom or teacher when they call you is not one of those things, but there is a line. For example, if we tell children to hug everyone at the party before they go to bed, we are telling them that the parent is in charge of their hugs and what they do with their body. Rather, ask them, “Do you want to give anyone a hug before you go to bed, or a wave, or a high five?” Let it be entirely acceptable that they choose to hug only some people, or no one at all. They may love hugs and always want to hug everyone. This is great, but it’s always their choice. You can also teach them to ask the adult if they want a hug or a wave or a high five. Not all adults are equally comfortable with hugs from children they may not know well, and having your child ask first is a good way of reinforcing the idea that hugs are given and received by choice, not on command. Providing a socially appropriate alternate greeting they can choose, like a wave or a high five, puts them in control of how they interact with the adults at the party, while still reinforcing the concept of socially appropriate leave-taking rather than just disappearing to their room with no good-byes. Don’t let the adults try to coerce the child into giving a hug when the child has offered a wave; gently remind them that your child isn’t always in the mood for a hug and the choice is theirs. This gives the child control over their body, and the power to say No to unwanted touch even if the unwanted touch is in the form of a perfumed hug from a great aunt.
I want to encourage you to make 2019 the year for supporting important new pivotal behaviors for your child. If you have any questions for me, or if there’s any way I can help you on this journey, please feel free to email me at DrWendy@AdultAutismAssessment.com.