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Challenging Behaviour: Teaching Alternative Behaviours

Improved Communication Through Alternative Behaviours

Many young people I have taught have found efficient and effective ways of communicating a need or a want at some point in the past. That then becomes their primary way of communicating. Unfortunately, as they grow and develop into young adults, this communicative behavior becomes a barrier to so many aspects of life.

What was once the easiest way to get a need met becomes a behavior that challenges both those supporting the young person, their friends, and family. It’s crucial for educators, caregivers, and mentors to recognise and address this issue, as it can hinder the individual’s development.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that these efficient communication strategies may have been shaped and reinforced by specific circumstances or environments. For example, a child who uses aggressive behavior to express their needs may have learned that it garners quick attention and response in a chaotic or neglectful environment. Without proper guidance and support, they may continue to rely on this approach even as they transition into adulthood.

Developing Healthy Communication Skills

As a society, it’s imperative that we provide young people with the necessary tools to develop healthy and effective communication skills. By promoting empathy, active listening, and clear expression of emotions, we can empower them to navigate their relationships, education, and career paths more successfully. To create this we may need to teach alternative behaviours.

Moreover, it’s crucial to create an inclusive and supportive environment that encourages open dialogue and understanding. Allowing young individuals to express their needs and wants in a safe and non-judgmental space can help them develop alternative and healthier communication strategies.

While it can be challenging for young people to outgrow the communication styles they have relied on in the past, it is not impossible. With the guidance and support of educators, caregivers, and mentors, these individuals can learn new ways of expressing themselves and overcome the barriers that their previous communication behaviours may present. By fostering a culture of empathy, understanding, and effective communication, we can help young adults thrive in all aspects of their lives.

Failure to communicate gif

How To Teach Alternative Behaviours.

I work with a number of young people that communicate in ways we struggle to interpret and understand. A high priority for all those who work with and raise young people who communicate differently should be to teach them ways to communicate that increase their independence, and ultimately raise quality of life. Challenging behaviour is the primary reason for young people being excluded from school. From my experience it is the reason for many students with SEN losing or not being accepted into adult placements.

What we need to do, and this is often a long term goal is to introduce alternative behaviours. This is not a “how to” guide as each young person needs an individualised plan based on the function of their behaviour etc etc. The only advice I would give is – build a trusting and positive relationship first and foremost.

This is an outline of 5 criteria the alternative behaviour must meet. 

Simple: The alternative behaviour (AB) must be easy and have as few steps as possible. For example an AB for asking to leave the room must be easier or as simple than screaming loudly.  For example tapping a symbol, or pressing a big mac.*

Effective: The emphasis is put on those supporting to immediately acknowledge the AB once used. In the example above screaming gets your attention immediately. Staff must be vigilant in noticing and reacting to the tapping of the symbol when used or it will fail.

Clear: The meaning of the AB must be obvious to all those supporting the young person. At home, at school, in the residential provision. Even better if peers can respond to it as well (do not underestimate the power of a communicative partner of the same age).

Exclusive: In a busy school or home environment this is tricky, a behaviour is likely to be used to meet more than one need when teaching an AB I believe that you need to focus just on that behaviour initially. If a kicking the door is used both to go to the garden and the toilet I would say focus on the toilet first (a symbol by the door is simplest) the introduce the garden symbol or object later.

Compatible: The chosen technique must fit in with both the young persons level of understanding and the ethos of the placement – if you don’t use symbols don’t introduce them for this. If you can’t easily produce images or keep objects of reference on hand choose a different strategy.

On a final point as with any behaviour support strategy ensure it is used consistently over at least a few weeks. It should be the priority over curriculum or anything else during this time.

Modern Family Thumbs Up GIF

*Now you may ask why not PECS? at this stage we need as few steps as possible for some a high level of PECS use will be part of their communication plan but at this point we want immediate recognition with minimal input – the task of finding the symbol and exchanging it may be too much at this stage.

Challenging Behaviour: Teaching Alternative Behaviours
Challenging Behaviour: Teaching Alternative Behaviours

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  1. Totally agree, so often challenging behaviour can be attributed to lack of functional communication. In some cases would you consider teaching sign to learners instead of picture selection?

  2. Hi Joe,

    This is from a blog I wrote last year. I think we have had lots of the same thoughts about this issue.

    “Blog: replacement behaviours pt2.

    I finished part 1 of this blog by saying that a ‘systematic ‘push / pull’ approach is how persistent challenging behaviours change – we make the replacement behaviour easy and effective and the challenging behaviour much less so – we reinforce the helpful behaviour and try not to reinforce the behaviour of concern.’ I promised that we talk more than theory but about a real world practical application.

    Many replacement behaviours, especially for non-verbal people, are essential everyday communication skills. I wanted to focus this blog on these skills but hope that it is clear that the issues apply to many different types of replacement behaviour.

    If you want to feel what’s it’s like to have people not understand you when it’s really urgent, try playing Pictionary and having that total idiot of a partner not understand that AMAZINGLY CLEAR picture you have just drawn (but are not allowed to speak about). Imagine that frustration every day, for the rest of your life. Communication is such an important skill to teach. I often wonder, what percentage of non-verbal people with Autism leave school without the basic functional communication skills they need to get by? Anecdotally, I’d say at least 80% many of whom would be subsequently labelled ‘challenging’. To me this represents a huge crisis in support for people with disabilities and a failure to teach replacement behaviours.

    I worked with a client quite a few years ago. When we met him, he was being taught to use the key word sign for mummy, instead to dragging his mum from place to place by the wrist. The first time we all sat at a table together, we realised his school & home had been teaching him different versions of the same key word sign for months.

    Only a few weeks ago, a different non-verbal adolescent ‘K’ was reported by his school to have quickly learned to ask for a break (as per the team’s support plan) and was using it spontaneously as needed throughout the day! This begs the question

    ‘Why are some behaviours or skills learned in some situations and not in others?’

    The Aspect PBS team reviewed a range of replacement behaviours & found the following 13 enablers (the things that make it more likely for the behaviour to be taught and used successfully).

    In 2014 Aspect worked with a young man on the Autism Spectrum who learned to use a BIGmack at home & school to ask to go to the toilet. He has no other consistent functional communication skills, despite many years of different approaches being tried. When we look at why this might have been a success using the above criteria (in the table below) it is clear why it became a success.

    But we know all this don’t we??? Unfortunately, this is not always the case and there are many barriers to teaching replacement behaviours and skills. I’ve added a few notes (and gripes) below:

    Useful and important from the person’s point of view. We sometimes choose behaviours that are more useful from our perspective than the person’s and as a result not motivating (and sometimes confusing the person’s voice with our own). This includes: saying ‘please’ & ‘thank you’, sitting still, being quiet or saying news at morning circle. I have seem a person’s communication board remain unused as it was full of pictures of school work, not any of the items they would ordinarily want (toilet, food, drink, break outside, walk, swing etc). Who of us would talk if we could only ask for work?!

    Useful and important from other’s point of view. Some behaviours might not seem like a priority for others or we might not think that it’s our job to teach that particular skill. At other times we use our amazing mind reading skills & when the person we support gives a known signal (e.g. a special noise or movement that we are familiar with) we respond to meet their needs so they don’t even have to practice the skill at all (perhaps they then think we can read their mind all the time?). I have had people tell me more than once ‘Why should I teach him to communicate, I already know what he wants’.

    Easy to understand how to do. Some behaviours are complex not taught to build success. As a result, when mistakes are made, frustration increases and old behaviours return. Some strategies such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) seem easy to use but rely on specific teaching strategies e.g. error correction that if not done correctly can result in poor skill development. See the note at the bottom of the image from the Research Autism website below:

    Taught be used spontaneously. Some behaviours are taught in a structured way to begin with but become rote learned and never used spontaneously. This may be that PECS is only used a mealtimes, ProLoQuo2Go is only prompted to be used at arrival time at the day program for coffee etc. Most basic needs and wants don’t occur at one time or in once place only, so communication should be able to occur anytime of the day.

    Consistently gets needs met (i.e. it is responded to positively) and the only one that gets the needs met (old behaviours don’t work). If we aim to get someone to use a replacement behaviour, the more the ‘new road’ works and the ‘old road’ doesn’t the faster and better change will be. However, our responses to behaviours are sometimes as habitual as the behaviours themselves and we continue to miss opportunities to respond to the replacement behaviour as much as we fall into old habits with the challenging ones. I had remind the J-man’s mum many times not to allow him to take her hand to lead her around the house (but to prompt the key word sign instead).

    In Aspect’s PBS workshops we recommend planning carefully to teach replacement behaviours (and any new skill) using 6 steps…

    If you are setting a goal to teach a replacement behaviour as part of someone’s IEP or PCP, I’d recommend a really clear goal and structured teaching plan for the behaviour and to use the list of enablers as a checklist to review the behaviour.

    There’s an interesting literature on embedding teaching opportunities into everyday routine activities, mealtimes, bedtimes or regular trips out. Families, teaching teams or support staff have an overwhelming amount of different things to do every day, one way to remember to do something is to embed it in an existing activity.

    I’ve started reading more about habits and how to form good habits to see if we can learn more about developing the teaching of replacement behaviours. We, the teachers need to learn good teaching habits as well as the learners needing to learn new communication or other behavioural habits. It’s clear that how often a skill is used and how useful it is, are key habit forming components.”

    I hope you find this interesting


  3. My apologies a few tables did not transfer!

    My list is

    useful and important from the person’s point of view
    useful and important from other’s point of view (family, school etc)
    easy to understand how to do by the learner
    easy to do immediately (e.g. any materials are at hand)
    highly motivating or additional reward is provided initially
    practiced regularly (many times each day) and maintained for many weeks
    taught to be used spontaneously (rather than only at certain times)
    practiced wherever the person is (not just in one setting)
    able to be taught by incorporating it into the person’s existing daily routine
    easily understood by others (no special knowledge required)
    consistently gets the persons needs met (i.e. it is responded to positively by others)
    the only one that gets the needs met (the old behaviours don’t work)
    age and community appropriate

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