Why do children act out with maladaptive behaviors? Many factors contribute such as poor sensory processing, changes in the child's schedule, insufficient attention, feeling unwell — or simply enjoying the negative attention. It's important to pinpoint the root of the problem so the intervention can be targeted and effective. Often, poor behaviors are the result of sensory and behavioral factors, as the root of the problem might be sensory in nature but the behavior is ultimately reinforced by the response the child is receiving.

In assessing the trigger of a behavior, it's helpful for at least 2 people (parent, caregiver, teacher, therapist) to independently observe the child and identify:

  • the maladaptive behavior
  • what conditions or events preceded the behavior
  • the response to the behavior

If the root of the problem is sensory, such as the child has a need to move and fidget, address the situation with sensory interventions. For example, you can provide the child with a movement cushion, hand fidget or chewy during the activities that the child has a difficult time attending to. Perhaps the child needs a motor break before and during the task.

Aggressive behaviors should never be tolerated as they are not safe nor socially appropriate. Deal with the situation immediately. Target the issue with a behavioral approach once the sensory need has been addressed. In general, positive reinforcement is preferable to consequences and especially negative feedback. If necessary, create a behavior plan with a behavior specialist and implement in conjunction with sensory treatment.

Consistency is vital to ensure success, and all the individuals who interact with the child must commit to following the behavior plan. Also, it's helpful for the parents, therapists, teachers and/or caregivers to talk periodically and compare notes, sharing observations on what's working well and what isn't so the plan can be adjusted as needed.

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