As a general rule, if you want to reduce a problem behavior, you have to teach an appropriate replacement behavior that produces the same outcome. Too often, strategies to decrease problem behavior focus primarily on punishing the behavior in order to make it go away. However, simply punishing a behavior is not enough, and quite honestly, not fair.

A good consultant will focus on teaching an appropriate replacement behavior that produces the same outcome. Remember the example of the little boy I mentioned that went to the bathroom in his pants while hiding during a game of hide and go seek? He really didn’t know he could stop the game to take a bathroom break. It would have been unfair to punish him for having an accident in his pants by reprimanding him or giving him a time-out if he didn’t know there was an alternative. Instead, a replacement behavior was taught first, which in this case, was enough to solve the problem.

A few days ago, I was working with new family and their 5 year-old non-verbal son in their home. I was training his mother on how to teach her son to request using sign language, when his father walked into the room. The little boy was excited to see his father come home and went right over to him and started hitting his legs and laughing. His dad asked me how to get his son to stop doing this.

For this little guy, a great replacement behavior would be to teach a more appropriate “high five” instead of hitting his dad in excitement. This was a great start. I also began teaching his dad how to teach other positive interactions with his son, such as picking him up and spinning him around. The little boy quickly began to enjoy this activity. Because he liked it so much, we also began teaching him to sign “spin” in order to continue building on teaching important replacement behaviors that would help him learn to communicate effectively with others.