I am always looking for new ideas for behavior management. Have you ever had a session where the student screamed the entire time? I have. I’ve also been hit, spit on, kicked, pushed, and more. It’s kind of the unspoken terrible part of the job of working with students with disabilities. While I don’t love talking about that aspect, it’s often a reality, especially in the schools.
Luckily, most of my dealings have been with preschoolers and elementary aged students. It’s a lot easier when they are small. Lol. As Lead SPED teacher at my school, I help teachers with this topic A LOT. Let’s talk about some tips on managing those problem behaviors in preschoolers. These tips are especially useful for your little ones with autism or limited verbal abilities. (You can check out more general tips for any age in this blog post.)
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1. Establish instructional control and build rapport
The first thing I try to do when a kid is acting less than desirable is make sure I stay in control of the situation. Here are a few ways to build instructional control:
- Remain calm.
- Pair yourself with reinforcement – Make sure they know you are fun!
- Be consistent with giving them reinforcement for desired behaviors.
- Make sure they understand that their negative behavior won’t get them the reinforcer they want.
I pull out all of my fun balls and bubbles and toys that first session. We sing and play and dance. It’s super important to build rapport in preschoolers. I don’t place a lot of demands on them at first. I just want to build that rapport and for them to know that speech is fun!
2. Understand the function of the behavior
Just like with any student, it’s important to know the function of the behavior your preschooler may be exhibiting. The 4 main functions are:
- Attention seeking
- Sensory stimulation
- Access to materials
Some functions are obvious, like if he wants something he can’t have (access). Others are not so easy to pinpoint, like sensory issues. There can also be multiple functions at the same time. I know, so confusing. If you need help, I’d encourage you to get a functional behavioral analysis (FBA) or at least input from a psychologist or other professional.
3. Token boards are your friend
Even some of my youngest students can understand token boards. They earn 3 or 5 or 10 stars and get a reward. If they have a hard time with this concept, go to number 5 on this list. Some of my littles might need more immediate reinforcement. Do you need a token board? Grab one for free in my resource library.
4. Timers are also your friend
A lot of times my little kids have trouble transitioning from an activity they enjoy. Timers are really helpful. You can say, “Ok, when the timer goes off, it’s time to put the toy away.” Then, be sure to follow through. If they still have trouble, you can even set the timer again and say, “When the timer goes off, you can have the toy back.” This gives them reassurance and teaches them how to wait. I love visual timers and mostly use this one.
5. Create a first/then chart for your sessions
Visuals are very important for preschoolers. Most of them can’t read, so pictures can really help them understand different concepts. I love using first/then charts. First, we’re going to read the book. Then, we can blow the bubbles. It’s really helpful to use if they need more immediate reinforcement.
6. Put everything out of reach or take them to a smaller area
If your little friend is hard to contain in your speech room or classroom, you made need to rethink your space. If all the things they love are easily accessible, they’ll probably just go for the toys and ignore you. You’ll be trying to coax them to your not-as-fun activity, and they will already have what they want. Make them need you. Set your room up to where things are out of reach. Or put all your fun toys in a bag and go to a smaller area or room. I promise, it’ll encourage so much more communication, and you’ll feel much more in control of the situation.
7. Find out what is reinforcing for them and use it
Do some digging to find out what they like. Talk to their family members or teachers. Try out different toys or trinkets during your session. Maybe they’re obsessed with skittles or Thomas the Train or (like one of my students) Easter eggs! Save these things as the special reinforcers they get only when they’re with you. They can earn their tokens for it or use the first/then chart.
8. Be engaging
You might be surprised how often I have to explain this to teachers. Kids are more likely to respond better if they see you as fun and engaging. Take time to talk to them, love on them, play with them, sing with them. Smile and use big expressions. When you praise them, use exaggerated tones. Try to make them laugh. If this isn’t your personality, it might feel awkward at first. But trust me, it’s worth it.
Some final thoughts: Kids are complex. We don’t always know what to do in every specific meltdown situation or tantrum. And that’s ok! Trial and error is ok! Seek out support if you need it. Two heads are better than one. Just make sure you do your part to remain calm and in control. I’ve become a pro at ignoring many negative behaviors, though it’s not always easy. And it definitely takes practice.
Also, when you start to implement a new behavior system or become more consistent with a reinforcement schedule, behaviors often get worse before they get better! Don’t be discouraged. Keep at it!
Don’t forget to grab your free token boards and visuals! Follow me on Instagram for more strategies and ideas.
Hopefully, you will find some of these tips useful. I’d love to hear from you and am always looking for new ideas in this area too! Let me know what you think!