There can be multiple reasons for why a child may engage in problem behaviors. In ABA, the reason behind the behavior is also known as the “function”. By knowing the function, one can utilize strategies to prevent or act as a replacement for behaviors that may be considered socially inappropriate.

Today we will be discussing one of the four functions of behavior “automatic”. What exactly is considered an “automatic” behavior? Automatic behaviors can include repetitive movements or sounds. Automatic behavior looks different for each child, and can include:

  • Hand Flapping
  • Repetitive finger movements
  • Repeated vocalizations
  • Toe walking
  • Spinning objects

These behaviors are considered to be an automatic function as each child may receive sensory stimulation from engaging in behaviors. The behavior itself is reinforcing to the child. These behaviors are often considered to be automatic as they occur when your child is alone, or no demand has been placed on them.

How does one handle automatic reinforced behaviors? There are several strategies that can be utilized to help with reducing this behavior. Some of those strategies include: Teaching replacement behaviors for automatic reinforcement is key to reducing these behaviors.

  • Ignoring/blocking the behavior
  • Teaching the child a socially acceptable behavior

The following scenario is an example of how these strategies can be applied to helping decrease automatic maintained behaviors:

A child is engaging in hitting tables or hard surfaces due to receiving reinforcement from the sound of the banging. While ignoring the behavior, provide a replacement behavior of giving your child an appropriate instrument to play or perhaps a toy to kick or bounce.

Your child can be taught this skill by modeling how to properly engage in the replacement behavior. This is just one example of how replacement behaviors can be taught to your child that is engaging in automatic behavior.

Being able to find socially appropriate reinforcers that are functionally equivalent to their automatic behaviors can be challenging at times. What is considered to be a functionally equivalent behavior?

This is considered to be actions or activities that are similar to the automatic behavior that your child is engaging in. It is important to remember to pick out activities that are similar to the behaviors your child is engaging so they receive the same sensory input they get from engaging in the socially inappropriate behaviors.

For example, giving your child a puzzle to complete as a replacement behavior when they are banging their hands on the table would not be considered functionally equivalent. Providing them an instrument to engage with would be more appropriate as it is a similar activity to hitting their hands on the table (both provide auditory stimulation).

One strategy that I have used in the past is write down a list of behaviors that a child engages in for automatic reinforcement that we are wanting to find a replacement behavior for. This will look different for each child. Some of these behaviors could look like:

  • Staring at lights
  • Staring at objects lined up
  • Squeezing hands together

Once I have identified these behaviors, I then write down a list of possible replacement behaviors for the automatic reinforcement. These replacement behaviors can be simple, however have to be functionally equivalent to the behaviors your child is receiving automatic reinforcement.

Some of these replacement behaviors can include:

  • Looking into a kaleidoscope (replacement behavior for staring at lights)
  • Lining up trains, pushing the trains (replacement behavior for lining up objects to stare at)
  • Giving your child play doh or a stress ball (replacement behavior for squeezing hands together)

Identifying and reducing automatic maintained behaviors for your child can be difficult. At JoyBridge Kids, partnering with parents through parent training, we focus on how to identify the function of your child’s behaviors.

Our mission is to create and deliver life transforming experiences for the kids and families that we serve. We believe that by utilizing these strategies to redirect these automatic behaviors, we can make a huge positive impact on your child’s life!

By: Nick Sobieralski, BCBA, LBA

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