Saturday, January 3, 2015

Part 2: Now That I Know the Function, What Do I Do With It?

Once you decide what you think the function of the behavior is... either strengthen it or weaken it! Sometimes, as parents, we're tempted to use "blanket punishment"... sitting in "time out" or in the corner for offenses we "don't like" or even raising our voices or worse, spanking in order to "get rid" of a behavior. Or, when we see something we like, we fail to acknowledge it, believing that the desired behavior will always continue. When we know the function of the behavior, what is maintaining it, we can tailor our response to it, specifically.

Before "intervening", we need to do what we can to make sure that there are not "other" reasons for the behavior to be occurring.

If a child is instructed to sit down so his shoes can be put on and he runs away, and you determine he is avoiding putting his shoes on (if that is indeed the case... remember to look for patterns. It could be that he is running to get something. It could be that he likes the attention required to "chase" him. And so on...), you may first want to examine the situation and the shoes... Is it possible that he is running because there is something in his shoes and it hurts to have them on? Fix that, then re-evaluate. If you still determine that the little guy is still "avoiding" putting his shoes on, putting him in "time out" will most likely "strengthen" the behavior because he is still avoiding the task. However, if you believe that he is avoiding the task and you decide to follow through by helping him put his shoes on, then the behavior becomes fruitless. The child will stop running when he learns that it does him no good... the behavior is no longer functional.

If we determine that a child is hitting in order to gain access to something, we can stop the behavior by making it "useless". We make sure that when a child hits, he/she is unable to gain access to the item he wants. It may take a little time, but soon he/she will determine that the behavior "doesn't work" and the hitting to gain access to things will stop.

Very often, behaviors that we, as parents, are not that happy with are maintained by our attention to them. Whining, screaming (for no apparent reason :)), making noise as we try to read, crossing the imaginary "line" in the car and "touching" their sibling are common childhood behaviors sometimes maintained by attention. If we discover that a behavior is a result of attention and the behavior is not a safety hazard or likely to damage property... quickly determine whether or not you can stop paying attention to it. Literally ignore the behavior. It may seem silly, but as long as you react to attention-seeking behavior, it is likely to continue and even get "worse"!

REMEMBER, when implementing any intervention, CONSISTENCY is key! Look at it this way, if you only follow your planned intervention intermittently, your child will not have the opportunity to LEARN what you are trying to teach her. Instead, she will learn something else. She may learn to be more persistent with her own methods, knowing that "sometimes" you will reward her, making her less desirable behaviors functional ... even if only sometimes you don't (when you are implementing your intervention).

This, of course, simplifies the process of identifying/defining troubling behaviors, determining their function, and determining a plan to reduce them. Here are some terrific resources for more information:
The Power of Positive Parenting by Glenn Latham
Behavior Analysis of Child Development by Sidney W. Bijou

Video of Glenn Latham talking about teenagers.
Free online course materials for Glenn Latham's class on the Power of Positive Parenting at Utah State University.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What's the Function... of That Behavior?

Behavior Analysis has taught us to look for the "why's" behind behavior. We call this looking for the "function" of the behavior.

We are in a constant state of "behaving". We engage in sleeping behavior, eating behavior, running behavior, smiling behavior, driving behavior... it never stops and it always serves a purpose! Sometimes we even see behavior in ourselves and others that we would like to change. Whether it is a teenager neglecting their chores, a child biting or hitting, adults procrastinating getting work done at home, or even children, teenagers, and adults whining or raising their voices, the behavior always serves a function. A great reason for a parent to determine the "function" of a behavior (the why) is because the "function" is what maintains a behavior. If you are particularly fond of one, you'd want to do everything you could to keep it going. If you are not in favor of a behavior, you may want to figure out how to decrease it. If you determine the behavior's function, you'll be able to use that information to decide what you need to do.

Most often, the function of any behavior falls into one or several of the following categories:
Escape/Avoidance. Meaning the given behavior is exhibited in order to allow the person to escape or avoid a task, activity, or situation. E.g. The last time my daughter was supposed to have blood drawn she fought tooth and nail. She screamed, squirmed, she scratched. She told us that she didn't want to have her blood drawn. She even got very calm and said, "I want to be done, please."

Attention. Whether we like to admit it or not, research has shown that positive and even negative attention can strengthen wanted and unwanted behaviors. Very often, behaviors seen as positive or negative are functions of attention. E.g. My niece learned the ABC Song this year. My dad asked her to sing it and she did. Then he cheered and clapped. She proceeded to sing the song (spontaneously) at least 30 times that evening.

Access to preferred items/activities. I'm sure it is not surprising, many behaviors' functions are to gain access to something. We hit a button on a remote to turn the tv on. We put money into machines to get water, candy, chips, or gum, etc. My kids will clean up just about any room when their dad asks them... especially if he has offered them "quarters for cleaning" recently. They have also been known to push each other over to get the one toy that he/she can't live without.

Behavior analysts will most often take data to determine the function of a behavior in question. The best way to do this is to take "ABC" data.

A: Antecedent. Describe what happened immediately prior to the behavior and the setting. While standing at the checkout counter, a child was told "no" when he asked for gum? A man, late for work, rushed out of the house. Two children playing at home.

B: Behavior. Describe the behavior. Child crying. Man left box of cereal and cereal bowl on the counter. Child pushed and hit other child.

C: Consequence. What happened immediately following the behavior? The parent bought the child a candy. The man's wife put the box away and washed the bowl. The child that pushed and hit picked up the toy and continued to play.

Parents can sometimes avoid "taking data" and determine the function "on the fly". Look at the situation and analyze it. When the function is unknown, it's best to start keeping an ABC log. Be specific. After some time, look for patterns in your data. It should be easier to determine the "why" for the behavior in question.

My next post will be on what to do with the information you find when looking for the "functions" of behavior. In the meantime, practice a little. Look around you and see if you can find patterns in antecedents, behaviors, and consequences that lead you to determine what maintains the many behaviors around you.

No more whines now, I mean it! (Does anyone know the next line?)

Ah, the many, many joys of parenting preschoolers! On most days, I absolutely love it! They are so talkative and inquisitive and talkative. And did I mention that I love hearing them talk?

One thing we are tackling in my home is kind of like talking... usually it involves some kind of request... lately, I would call those requests: WHINING!

When Mia was 2-3, she started whining. We corrected her for a day or two, modeling how we wanted her requests to sound. She repeated us and then we "reinforced" the pleasant voice by listening attentively. After a couple of days, we started ignoring the whining all together. She usually started out whining, then self-corrected, making a request with a pleasant-to-listen-to voice. At that point we happily engaged with her. That procedure pretty much took care of whining... until now.

I know that as the whining has crept back into my home, my husband and I have not been as attentive to it as we were in the past. We "fell out of practice" and the whining bloomed into a new-found, steady form of communication... AND it was effective. First they whined quietly, then it got louder and louder until we responded. We have returned to what we know works. I've put a sign on our refrigerator to remind us to refrain from reacting to the whines and we are hopeful, if not sure that this will take care of the problem. Of course, this remains to be seen... again. I'll keep you posted. :)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Yesterday I had my 6-month cleaning at the dentist's office. While I was sitting there, I thought I would do a little research.  Here are the ADA's recommendations for toothbrushing.  :)

* The American Dental Association recommends that we begin brushing a child's teeth as soon as they first appear and that we "help" brush their teeth up to age 8. Did you know they also recommend that children see their dentist for the first visit at no later than 1 year of age?
* Use toothpaste that does not contain flouride until at least age 2 (or longer) to ensure the flouride is not swallowed.
* Brushing should occur at least 2 times a day, perferably 3 times per day, after meals/ before bed.
* We should spend at least 2 minutes brushing teeth each instance, spending equal time on all tooth surfaces.
* We should begin flossing our children's teeth as soon as they have 2 teeth that touch. (Yeah, I've gotta admit, I'm not the best at this one, here! But the individual flossers make a huge difference!)
* We should also brush gums, the roof of the mouth, and the tongue. (At our house, we call this, brushing "the pinks".)
* Brushing should be in a circular motion (if not using a specialized toothbrush, like Sonicare).
* The brush should be held at a 45 degree angle when brushing.

This post is my contribution to the conversation. Below is a task analysis and some suggestions for teaching your children to brush their teeth. For a reminder on how to teach steps in a task analysis, see the post I wrote here.

* Use full physical prompts when initially teaching your child to brush his/her teeth. Have him/her hold the toothbrush with the appropriate grip (probably the way you hold your toothbrush). Then place your hand over his/hers in the same position.
* Remember, make the task fun or at least appealing. Chances are, at bedtime you are stopping preferred activities such as playtime, movies, games, books, etc. to start the bedtime routine. Very few children are going to be excited for that! Use the Premack Principle (great article here), otherwise known as "Grandma's rule". Set up the schedule so the (probable) non-preferred or "less" preferred thing (toothbrushing) is followed by a preferred thing (bedtime stories, singing time, throwing a full water balloon in the tub, drawing pictures on the mirror with dry erase markers, etc.).

Task Analysis
1. Get toothbrush and toothpaste.
2. Open toothpaste.
3. Hold toothbrush in non-dominant hand. Put pea-sized amount (for young children) of toothpaste on tooth brush.
4. Put toothbrush down.
5. Close toothpaste and put it away.
6. Pick up toothbrush with dominant hand.
7. Turn on water (low).
8. Wet toothbrush.
9. Turn water off.
10. Using circular motions, brush top-front teeth (making sure to also brush gums) for 10 seconds. You can even count aloud. (In our house, we call brushing the front and side surfaces of the tops and bottom teeth "doing the eeee's".)

11. Using circular motions, brush top-right side teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds. Again, feel free to count!

12. Using circular motions, brush top-left side teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds. 

13. Brush top-left INSIDE teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds. (In our house, we call brushing all of the inside surfaces of our teeth "doing the ah's".)
14. Brush top-front INSIDE teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds.
15. Brush top-right INSIDE teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds.

16. Spit into sink.
17. Using circular motions, brush bottom-front teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds.
18. Using circular motions, brush bottom-right side teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds.

19. Using circular motions, brush bottom-left side teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds. 
20. Brush bottom-left INSIDE teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds. 

21. Brush bottom-front (middle) INSIDE teeth (making sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds.

22. Brush bottom-right INSIDE teeth (makin sure to brush gums) for 10 seconds.

23.  Spit into sink.
24. Fill cup with water and rinse out mouth (We call this the "swish and spit" step at our house.)
25. Rinse out tooth brush.
26. Turn water off.
27. Dry face.
28. Put tooth brush away.
29. Smile!

So at our house, when we're prompting our children to brush their teeth well, we tend to say, "Remember to do your ah's and eeee's and don't forget your pinks!"

Remember, you can add or take away steps as needed. Maybe your children don't need to be prompted to turn the water on/off or maybe they need an extra teaching step focusing on teaching them to hang the face towel back on the rack. When I wrote this post, I changed up the order of the steps at least 3 times. I'm not even sure that this is the order that my kids or I normally brush are teeth. :) Feel free to change the order to something that feels right for you. 

Now, since I started this post, my daughter (the one in the pics) has had a terrific report on her dental hygiene from our dentist. I take my other 2 children in for their 6-month check-ups tomorrow. I hope their report adds to my credibility!

**I get that the toothbrush my daughter is holding may seem too big for her. Normally we use an Oral-B electric toothbrush. However, she had just been to the dentist and this is the toothbrush they gave her. She was obsessed with using "the new one."

What do you think?  How do you teach your children how to brush their teeth?  What have you struggled with? Have you come across fantastic ideas that have helped you out in the past? Please share in the comments section! 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How Young is Too Young?

I have to admit, I was a "behavior analyst" long before I became a parent. When I started using ABA to teach children with autism in 1996 it just "made sense" to me. The data analysis, adjusting teaching based on performance, shaping, prompting, fading, all of it just made sense to me. I couldn't imagine teaching any other way. I earned my BCBA certification in 2002 and became a parent in 2003.

As you've probably heard (or learned from experience), children don't come with instruction manuals. I'd heard this many times before we brought our newborn home from the hospital but it still surprised me. We came home with a baby and literally no instruction AT ALL! I did what I knew how to do. We fed her, changed her and recorded everything! We wrote down when she drank every bottle, how much she drank, when she slept, and every diaper change. This just lasted for the first few days, I think (maybe the first week... or two?).  We got the hang of things. However, I didn't really know how to be around her without feeling like I needed to teach her. The only way I knew to teach was with ABA! No, I didn't take data on every nursery rhyme I taught her or when she started independently doing the actions with them. Though, I did keep track of all of her baby signs and every vocal mand/tact.  I taught her how to mand, with full sentences, purposefully, a step at a time. (Her first 3 word mand was, "I want [marsh]mellow!".  We quickly added, "please".) I remember thinking that maybe all parents didn't teach "that way" but I didn't really know how to do it differently. I started teaching her how to read at around age 3. I used a programmed reading primer developed by graduate students at the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) decades ago. We then used Programmed Reading until she started reading chapter books sometime in first grade.

The thing is, once she entered school, I started having more contact with other parents and with teachers.  Parents were pretty interesting. They said things like, "Oh, it's so silly when parents start teaching their kids to read so young! Wasted time! They all end up about the same in elementary school, anyway!"   Teachers said things like, "Don't worry, by the end of first grade, her peers will catch up to her." Right, just what I wanted to hear.  But it all did make me think. Was I pushing her (and eventually my son, as well) to do more than she was "supposed" to do?  Was I more rigid than most parents? We didn't have set times to read or "learn language". It was just built into every day.  But was I making it too important? Should we have just "played" more? I can't imagine we didn't play and sing and dance enough. We did a lot of that! And I have no voice and no moves!  I just wonder if they would have been the same or different either way? I happened to stumble upon the coolest, most fun, and scientific way of teaching children when I was 19 years old. What would have happened if I didn't? Would it have mattered? If teaching them early learning skills while they were "so young" was wrong, what was I supposed to do instead? What do other parents do?

Understand that I don't believe I did the wrong thing. I cannot parent another way because I don't know any other way to parent. But I tend to be pretty open to ideas from others and not very outspoken. I'm not a fan of conflict and would most of the time rather not respond when I feel another parent has a strong opinion about something. (This is not true in my "work" as a behavior analyst, however.) My kids read well. Math comes easily to them. I don't feel like it was wasted time.  But is there such a thing as teaching academics to children who are too young? It seems a bit relevant. I came across this movie, Nursery University on Netflix the other day. Does this seem too extreme? Would you feel differently depending on the teaching methods that are used to teach?  What about this story from NPR? Lots of parents are comfortable with "Baby Einstein". Why?  What's the difference between the Nursery University crowd and the Baby Einstein-ers?  What do you think about "teaching" babies?

My Memory of Dr. Donald Baer

I had the lovely opportunity of attending college and graduate school at the University of Kansas. I'm grateful I was able to attend when I did, when the program was small and the faculty were legends (Baer, Wolf, Morris, Bushell, Sherman, Sheldon, Miller, Semb, Cooper, and others!). And I think I would love to go back now, with the relatively new but also successful faculty and program. As an undergraduate in the program, I really had no idea how great the faculty at the University of Kansas was until I attended my first ABA Convention in Florida (1998, I think?). During the opening address, Don Baer was quoted and I thought, "Hey, is that our Don Baer?" What a newbie I was! 

My primary advisors in graduate school were David Born and Don Bushell (with Mark Matthews and Don Baer rounding out my committee). I started meeting with Don Bushell as an undergraduate, actually. I worked in a school he founded from my junior year of college through my time in graduate school. When I started graduate school he told me I needed to take as many classes with Don Baer as I could and I did! Every week we had research meeting. It was pretty magical. Don Bushell and  Don Baer attended each week and met with our research group, usually 3 to maybe 7 students would show up. Sometimes Dr. David Born would drop by, as well. I learned so much from Don and Don and the other students in the program on those Fridays!
I believe I took a class from Don Baer nearly every semester. When my first summer semester was coming up, I saw his name in the timetable but it said permission was required to join the class. I went to his corner office and knocked on his open door. He turned in his chair and greeted me with a classic, almost Santa Claus-like smile (very contagious). I asked him if I could take his summer class. The conversation we had was one I will never forget. First, he asked me why I wanted to be a behavior analyst. I thought I anwered his question but he had a way of teaching no matter what your answer was. He clarified and explained that as behavior analysts, we would be "outsiders" in the field of education. (Remember, this was in about 2000; a lot has changed since then.) He gave a few examples and seemed to question whether or not I was comfortable being on the outside. My response may not have been what other people would call "correct" but I felt comfortable enough... I responded with, "Oh, no problem there, I'm a Mormon!" To which he then flashed another terrific smile, put his hands together, and said, "Well, I'm a Jew!" He then filled me in on experiences he'd had when he was younger, his previous contact with "mormons" in Utah, and our "position" as behavior analysts/outsiders in the field of education. It was fantastic and led to one of my most stressful summers. You see, Don "let" me "take" "his" class. However, he stressed that he didn't typically teach in the summer. So, he told me what book we would be using and that he expected me to teach one or two chapters a week, complete with overhead projections. The first couple of weeks, it was just me and Don (in his gray gardening-type jumpsuit). Then another student enrolled and I was able to "teach" every other week. I remember being so nervous every week. He was just the type of person that brought out the best in people.  I wanted to impress him.... Not look stupid. I prepared the materials but Don taught me a lot that summer.. He didn't just teach "facts" he taught a way of thinking and of looking at things. I will always be grateful for being able to have that time with him. 

I've been thinking that I don't think I ever wrote this down. I'm not a "journal-er". But this is something I want to remember. I want to remember how if felt to be around people who just "taught".  I want to remember Don Baer and Don Bushell and research meetings. I don't want to forget my early days in the field and how they taught me to "think". And I thought maybe others might enjoy this memory of mine, as well. I mean really, he was just too cool to forget.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Shoe Tying

Okay, teaching children to tie their shoes does not have to be difficult. It usually just takes practice (lots of trials) and a consistent method. I've seen lots of different ways of tying shoes but this is the one with which I've had the most success.

A task-analysis for shoe tying:
Start with laces straight out to each side of the shoe. 

Take the right lace (A) and cross the front of the shoe.
Set it down on the left.

Take the left lace (B) and cross it over the shoe (and other lace).
Set it down on the right.

At the top of the shoe, pull up on lace (A) with your left hand to make a little tunnel (with B still on top of A). Hold on to it.

Pick up the end of lace (B) with your right hand (right side of the shoe) and drive it through the tunnel you are still holding with your left hand (sometimes this comes with train noises, "choo choo!").

Let go of lace (B) once it enters the tunnel, then grab it again with the same hand on the other side of the tunnel.
Let go of lace (A) and grab the end of lace (A), which should still be on the left side of the shoe. Now you are holding the ends of both laces.
Pull both laces.

Let go of both laces.
Make a loop on lace B (right lace) by touching the two dots together and pinching.

Do the same with lace A (left lace).

Cross the tops of both loops, with the right loop in front of the left.  Make sure there is a space under the loops.

Make 1 loop do a "flip", turning one loop completely under the other by pushing it over the other loop and through the space below the 2 loops.  Don't let go of either lace!

Pull them tight. The shoe is tied!

At this point you can pull on each lace until the ends are not dragging.

Keys to remember:
It is often helpful to start with extra-long shoe laces. You remember, right? Having laces that are too short can turn an otherwise successful attempt at tying shoes into a frustrating moment right at the end when you pull your loops and the end of the lace gets pulled out of the knot.  Start with long laces. It's also helpful to put 2 dots on the each lace where the points on the"loop" should touch. Kids can use them to learn how big the loop should be in order to tie successfully. (Most kids will start out using nearly the whole lace to make the initial loops.)

When teaching kids to tie their shoes, show them then physically help (prompt) them to do it. Don't be afraid to help until they don't need it anymore. Reduce the potential of frustration by practicing "success" (with you helping). This will help the activity become more reinforcing to them and will help them demonstrate persistence in learning the skill.

Demonstrate and Help/prompt from behind. Put the shoe in between their legs (right in front of them), facing the same direction it would be if it was on their foot. Initially, I wouldn't start with it on their foot simply because they will be putting a lot of effort into concentrating on completing the "right" steps (physically and mentally). We don't want to wear them out because it takes more effort to fold up their leg and keep it close to their body to reach the shoe in the first place. If you demonstrate how to tie the shoe from behind, they'll be looking at it from the same point of view as you. And when you help/physically prompt from behind, your fingers will be in the same positions their fingers should be in.

Follow the same task analysis every time. This is important as it will lead to mastery much quicker if the same steps are being practiced in the same order every time. If more than one person is teaching this skill to your child, make sure you are all on the same page.

Fade prompts (your help) gradually. Initially, physically help your child complete every step in the chain. Then fade how much you are physically helping (prompting) them. Normally, I like to teach skills by backward chaining. However, I've found that kids like to complete at least the first 3 steps in the shoe-tying chain independently pretty quickly. Just make sure that if they can complete a step independently, let them do it. If they are shaky or are not able to be independent, provide a prompt BEFORE they miss a step or complete an "error". This will reduce frustration and prevent practicing incorrect steps.

Initially, reinforce EVERY accomplishment, big or small. Tying shoes is hard. There are a lot of steps and most kids haven't had a ton of "that kind" of fine motor practice prior to learning how to tie their shoes. Reinforce independence as it happens (with each step). Make a big deal out of accomplishments at every level.

Let me know if this "makes sense". Are there other "tasks" you'd like to see "analyzed"?