Most of human activities can be seen as behaviors. Behaviours can be positives, neutral or negative within a given socio-cultural setting. Behaviours occur for a reason and are maintained because they are being reinforced. E.g. I get up at 7am, because I have set up my alarm clock at 7 am for me to get ready for work, and I do so because I need to work for my living.

We talk about challenging behaviour when a given person presents with a behaviour that is detrimental to his/her health, well being, safety, social inclusion, cultural insertions, etc. A positive behaviour is seen as a behaviour that helps the individual (or others) to feel better, learn, function together, give rise to independence, self awareness, assertion etc. There is obviously a personal and socio-cultural reference system to value a given behaviour as being positive or negative.

Education is about reducing unwanted behaviors and teaching appropriate behaviors. The end goals are to give an individual maturity, independence, self esteem, with suitable emotional support and stimulation.

When a child shows challenging behavior at home, traditional disciplinary approaches used by parents have relied on negative consequences, such as punishment.  However, Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is a much better way of looking at, thinking about, and solving difficult situations caused by challenging behavior. One of the main problems with negative consequences is that they don’t teach appropriate behaviour. Although punishment can stop a child’s behavior immediately, it doesn’t teach new skills that replace the problem behavior with more appropriate, positive behaviour.  Talking about what the parents wants will never be as effective as reinforcing the behaviour they want. This is even truer still for parents of a child with additional needs, children with language and communication difficulties inc. children with autism. PBS focuses on positive and educational approaches rather than negative consequence-based methods.  Understanding the child’s behaviour is the first and most important step. To understand a child’s behavior, it is recommended that parents observe challenging behavior carefully and think about the meaning of the behavior because every behavior occurs for a reason. In most cases, the child behavior serves as a communication tool, sending everyone a clear message about the child’s feelings, physical status, and needs. The message of the child’s behavior is called the “function” of the problem behaviour. More on functional behaviour analysis here.

Please note that there are 7 main strategies to reinforce or shape a behaviour- from the most drastic to the kinder we have:

1-    Punishment (everyone’s favorite despite little efficacy- usually people use punishment strategies because thy have received punishment themselves- It does not work well in most instances, see above).
2-    Negative reinforcement- removing something unpleasant when a desired behaviour occurs- e.g. an older mother nagging her son for not visiting her often stops when her son comes. This also rarely works, it only causes unhappiness, misunderstanding and feeling to continuously failing etc.
3-    Extinction- letting the behaviour go away by itself- This means not responding to the behaviour by ignoring it. This is fairly effective, but be careful, if you respond once in a while, this can cause stronger reinforcement e.g. money machines, gambling- in most instances, the behaviour, that is spending money with the view of winning is not rewarded, but because once in a while there is a response, people get really addicted to this. This applies to other forms of addiction, like e-mailing someone who answers once in a while!
4-    Train an incompatible behaviour- E.g. you are less likely to smoke if you cycle all day, or kids noisy in the car, have them singing.
5-    Put the behaviour on cue, then remove the cue- (e.g. if you want the kids to stop being noisy in the car, you can say, OK kids, now shout all at once for one minute starting now!  And stop. Thank you).
6-    Shape the absence- reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behaviour. E.g. reward a child every 20 min for not wetting himself, then every 30 minutes etc- use initially a time that is just shorter than the time you expect the child to display the unwanted behaviour.
7-    Change the motivation (this is the fundamental and most kind method of all).

Function of Behaviour and Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA).   A  Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is the process by which we engage in detective work in order to find the meaning contained in the message (function) that the child is communicating about her/his behavior. In other words, FBA is all about answering the question, “Why does a child keep doing the challenging behavior over and over?” The FBA provides the following information to help answer that question.

•    What is the problem behavior?
•    What does it look like?
•    When does it happen?
•    Where does it happen?
•    Are there any home or community routines when the problem behavior seems to consistently occur?
•    What people (family members, friends, neighbors, community members) seem to be involved in the problem behavior when it occurs?
•    What do people say or do, or what happens immediately BEFORE the problem behavior occurs?
•    What do people say or do, or what happens immediately AFTER the problem behavior occurs?
•    What are people’s reactions right after to the problem behavior occurs (e.g., do they give the child lots of attention, do they give him/her items or objects that he/she wants, do they stop asking him/her to do something, do they take things away from the child, do they ignore the child)?

When these questions are considered carefully and the answers connected to each other, it is possible to make a “best guess” about a function of behavior. We call this “best guess” a hypothesis (or a hunch) about the possible function of the child’s problem behavior.  There are several functions of behavior—both “good” and “bad” behavior.  In general, these are the functions of behavior:

•    Getting or obtaining attention from peers, family members or others
•    Getting or obtaining a desirable item or an object, or gaining access to a preferred activity
•    Getting or obtaining desired sensory input, feelings, sensations or physiological stimulation, such as by touching things, moving the body back and forth, tapping one’s leg, smelling things, or tasting/mouthing things
•    Avoiding or escaping  unwanted attention from peers, family members or others
•    Avoiding or escaping  non-preferred items or objects, or difficult tasks and/or non-preferred activities
•    Avoiding or escaping unpleasant, or unwanted sensory input, feelings, sensations or physiological stimulation, such as by hitting oneself, scratching oneself, or engaging in other self-injurious behaviors when something hurts, feels bad, is uncomfortable, etc.
A-B-C Chart in Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA).  The A-B-C chart can help summarize the sequence of events around the challenging behavior.  A, B, and C stand for the antecedent, behavior, and consequence of the challenging behavior.
•    Antecedent: An event that happens immediately before a challenging behavior. This can also act as a “fast trigger” for the challenging behavior
•    Behavior: Challenging behavior
•    Consequence: An event that immediately follows the challenging behavior.
One additional factor to consider is what is called a “setting event.” A setting event can be an important clue to investigate in order to reduce or eliminate the challenging behavior.
•    Setting Event:  Events or circumstances that affect the likelihood of the challenging behavior occurring at a later point in time.
Sometimes we think of setting events as those events or circumstances that act as “slow triggers” and set the stage for a behavior to be more (or less) likely to happen subsequently.  Common examples of setting events may include illness, lack of sleep, or a stressful experience. When the setting event seriously affects the challenging behavior, the challenging behavior is not always totally related only to events that happen immediately before or after the challenging behavior. For example, think about a child who has a painful headache and shows tantrum-type behavior because of the headache. No matter what antecedent precedes the behavior, the child might show tantrum-type behavior until the headache goes away.
The following figure shows an example of an A-B-C chart, including a setting event.

In this example of the A-B-C chart, Arnold’s challenging behavior resulted in a time-out. Arnold’s mom considers the time-out a punishment; however, this consequence actually may make it more likely that Arnold will engage in the same problem behavior again next time.  Why?  Recall that Arnold’s challenging behavior started to occur when he was told to do his math homework–something he does not like to do, nor does he know how to solve the math questions required in his homework assignment. He got punished because of the challenging behavior, yet at the same time by engaging in the problem behavior, Arnold was able to avoid doing his math homework.  Even though his mother thought she was punishing her son, Arnold was allowed to escape/avoid doing a really unpleasant and highly non-preferred task….and he was actually reinforced by getting to avoid this task.  The function of his problem behavior was to escape/avoid doing this unpleasant task, and his mother actually helped him avoid doing his homework by “allowing” him to go to time-out for the behavior.  Next time, he is quite likely to engage in the same problem behavior again, because he knows this is a way that he can successfully get out of doing his math homework (unless, of course, his mother is clever enough to require him to return to complete at least some of his math homework, after his time-out is over!).
Thus, A-B-C chart allows us to discover the function of behavior more conveniently. This approach is also applied extensively in school settings to reduce challenging behavior (“Individual PBS” in school settings).