Changing behavior in your child with special needs….

little kid crying lying on floor

Means changing behavior in yourself

How Do Skill Deficits Impact Behavior?
It is common for children with developmental disabilities to have problems with behavior.  The main reason why this occurs so frequently with children who have developmental disabilities is because of the deficits that they have.  If a child has deficits in language and social skills, that can significantly impact the way they need to be parented.  Not only is it important for their education that we understand their different ways of learning, but it is also important for managing their behavior.   Children with disabilities use different forms of behavior to communicate.  If a child has a difficult time telling you that they need or want something with language, they are likely to find another means for that communication.  Very often with children who have developmental disabilities that communication can be in the form of tantrums, aggression, self injury, or other problematic behaviors.  It is important to understand why the problem behavior is occurring so that we can identify ways to teach the child a new way to communicate their wants and needs.

Additionally, poorly developed social skills impact the way we correct the behavior of a child with developmental disabilities because natural social consequences that shape a typical child’s behavior sometimes are not effective.  A child with social skills deficits may not be as likely to feel embarrassed or remorse as other children might because they do not fully understand the social situation.  Therefore it might be ineffective to use the same type of correction that you might use for a child with typically developing social skills.  For example to ask him/her to apologize or ask them how another child felt when they took a cookie might not result in the child with a developmental disability wanting to change how they behave in the future.

How We Learn
People learn through interacting with their environment.  We often learn by observing others and doing what they do.  We call this modeling.  Everyone knows that you should model good behavior for your child so that they do not pick up behaviors that you don’t want to see them doing.  But this is not the only way we learn.  We learn through trial and error as well.  When we engage in a particular behavior something always follows that behavior.  That something might be something that we found to be pleasing and that could lead us to engage in that behavior again in the future.  It might be something that we found to be punishing and we would avoid doing that again in a similar situation.  It might even be something that is more neutral that didn’t really motivate us either way.  These consequences that follow our behavior are important in helping us decide whether we should act that way again in the future to get a desired response.  The other part of the environment that is important in identifying why we engage in behavior is the environmental event that occurs right before the behavior.  We call this the antecedent.

When trying to understand behavior we collect information about the antecedent, the behavior and the consequence.  We call this collecting ABC data.  The A is for antecedent, the event that occurs immediately before the behavior.  The B is for behavior, the observable behavior that we are assessing.  The C is for consequence, the event that occurs immediately after the behavior.  If you want to change behavior it is necessary to look at the interactions between the A, the B and the C (ABC’s).  It is also necessary to analyze several episodes of that behavior to draw a conclusion about why the behavior is occurring over time.  Often parents respond inconsistently, they might not provide the same consequences for each incidence of behavior.  Often mom and dad do things differently.  And sometimes there are other caregivers involved that might do things differently still such as grandparents, daycare providers and teachers.  It will be necessary to look at ABC examples from a variety of people who interact with your child to help draw a conclusion about why the problem behavior is occurring.

Change is HARD, but You Can Do It
So what the ABC’s help us to do is understand why the child is behaving in a certain way.  The goal for the parent in identifying what the child wants is to try to discourage the child from using problem behavior as communication.  It is so important to plan ahead when attempting to make changes in behavior.  Change is hard.  It is hard for us and it is hard for your child.  Once we have a good idea of what needs to be changed we then have to identify how we are going to accomplish this change.  This is where the planning comes in.  If you have collected information about how you and other caregivers are responding to certain behaviors in different situations then you can see how consistent all the caregivers are in dealing with your child’s behavior.  If caregivers are responding inconsistently having a plan ahead of time will help to increase consistency on how the behavior is dealt with.  Increasing consistency and collecting data on the ABC’s will provide information about what is working or not working.  This will then enable you to make better parenting choices in the future so that you can accomplish the changes in your child’s behavior that you are looking for.


Written on 2011/03/03 by:


Krista Kennedy is the Director of Behavioral Services at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Autism Center. She provides the training and supervision of the behavioral services staff, develops the behavioral intervention programs and conducts outreach seminars. Krista is a Limited Licensed Psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst with formal training from Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University. Visit for more information about services provided at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Autism Center.
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  • JessicaJ

    This was an interesting post. I was looking for information on child behavior and special needs children. The ABC method seems to show the reasoning behind the child’s behavior and how we can adapt and change towards their needs.
    I am further interested in this topic. Are there any good resources that I can look at to build my subject knowledge in this area?
    Author of 5 year old behavior problems