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Teaching Replacement Behaviors – Get Better Behaved Kids Today!

The number one job of parents and educators is to teach their children how to succeed in life. We teach them the knowledge they need to grow up and get a job. Along the way, we teach them something that, in my opinion, is more important than what we read in books. We teach them proper behavior. Yes, having an understanding of the topics specifically taught in the classroom is important, but that knowledge means nothing if your child does not learn how to behave properly.

Young children will use any means necessary to get what they want and need. If it works, they will continue to use it. It is the job of parents and educators to make sure those behaviors are functional and not problematic. Nobody is perfect and raises a perfect child, so children will learn to use problem behaviors to get the things they want and need. That’s where teaching replacement behavior comes in.

What is a Replacement Behavior?

To answer that question, we need to take a step back and talk about what a problem behavior is. There’s nothing to replace without a problem behavior.

So, a problem behavior is just as it sounds, a behavior that is problematic. It is socially unacceptable or dangerous, but it still serves as a way for someone to get what they want. Screaming at a waiter because your food was incorrect is a problem behavior,

A replacement behavior is the socially acceptable, harmless version of the problem behavior. It’s the one that won’t get you fired, thrown in jail, punched in the face, what have you. It’s the one you definitely want your kids to learn how to use.

What You Need to Know

You can’t just go willy-nilly tossing in a non-problematic behavior where a problematic one once stood. It needs to serve the same function. In a previous article, I give an in-depth rundown of the four functions of behavior, but I will give a quick overview here.

The four functions include:

  • Escape: anything that gets us out of what we don’t want to do
  • Access to tangibles: anything that gets us something tangible that we want
  • Attention: anything that gets us someones attention
  • Automatic: anything that provides a positive internal sensation that is not mediated by the environment

So, the first thing you need to do when you’re trying to teach a replacement behavior is to determine the function of the problem behavior. Once you’ve determined that, you can decide on a good replacement.

Deciding on a Replacement

Let’s think of some problem behaviors, shall we…

Screaming to get your attention. Throwing a tantrum to get what they want. Grabbing something out of someones hands. Running away. Hitting. Biting, Scratching.

None of these behaviors are things we want to see kids do, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to replace them.

As I said before, when you’re trying to find a replacement behavior, you need to figure out what your child is getting from the problem behavior. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Replacement Behaviors Example Chart

Actually Replacing the Behavior

In order to do this, you can only provide the child with what they need when they display the replacement behavior of your choosing.

At first, your child will continue to attempt to use the method that they were using before. Be sure to block access to whatever it is they want and prompt them to use the replacement behavior.

Replacement behaviors prompting example chart

*Note that I used words like “calmly.” You never want to make a big deal out of the problem behavior, especially if it serves an attention function. Drawing attention and focus to the problem behavior can take away from the replacement behavior. You want all the focus to be on the replacement behavior, so it’s best to ignore the problem behavior and prompt the replacement behavior.

It is also crucial to reinforce the child for using the replacement behavior. If a child politely requests your attention, give it to them immediately, even if it is just to say, “I love how you asked for my attention so nicely. I will be able to talk to you in just a few minutes when I’m done this.” Even if you can’t provide them with what they ask for, you still need to reinforce the fact that they asked for it properly.

Functional Communication

If you notice, 3 out of the 4 suggestions for replacement behaviors include teaching your child to request what they want in a better way. This means teaching your child how to functionally communicate. Again, I have a more detailed overview of functional communication in another article, but I will give a brief explanation here.

There are many types of functional communication. The one that comes to mind first it talking, but that isn’t the only form of communication. There is sign language and picture exchange communication systems (PECS). Any type of communication that gets your point across unproblematically is functional communication. Hell, you could speak only in charades and that would still be a type of communication – probably not your best option though.

The Gist of it

So, when it comes down to it, kids don’t always use the best methods to get what they want. That’s where parents and educators come in.

You need to:

  • Determine what function the problem behavior is serving
  • Decide on a good replacement behavior
  • Ignore the problem behavior
  • Prompt the replacement behavior until they can emit it on their own
  • Reinforce for using the replacement behavior

Follow these steps diligently, you can have better behaved kids in no time!

If you need any suggestions on replacement behaviors, drop me a comment below!

Taylor

18 Comments

  1. One of the most complex parts of working with children is understanding their behavior. For many adults who are not initiated in this space, it can be very frustrating. If they do not understand, it could result in negative repercussions that might seem to solve the problem in the short term but create damaging long term situations. Replacing the behavior with a positive one is the only true way to success in this area.

    • Dave, very insightful and very true! Oftentimes, I see parents give in to the problem behavior because it makes it stop, but then they have done the exact opposite of what they want, which is ensuring that behavior happens again.

      Behavior is a hugely complex area that most struggle with. It is my hope to make things a little easier for them one post at a time!

  2. These are really great tips for teaching kids to behave. I’ve done something similar with mine. My middle child used to throw a LOT of tantrums and he would freak out and do things for attention. I started telling him that if he needed attention, he could ask. I would ask if he meant to ask for a hug and he would say yes, so I’d snuggle him. It only took a few times and he would come to me and say, “Mama, I need attention!” SO much easier to deal with.

    • That’s perfect! I love hearing stories like these! You did exactly what you needed to do for both you and your child. I’m sure teaching that one behavior generalized across other behaviors and he was better able to ask for other things he needed.

  3. I’ve never heard the term replacement behavior but I was definitely brought up in that environment where I was also ‘supposed’ to act a certain way. While I agree that problem behavior is problematic, I also think it’s not right to make your kids do exactly what your society does. I remember my mom always telling me to act a certain way because it was the ‘right’ thing to do in the society. But not giving out my opinion or not being myself when I was young created more problems later. Not saying all replacement behaviors don’t work, but I feel that certain replacement behavior hamper the kids learning.

    • Oh, absolutely Parmi! In no way do I condone replacing every behavior with something the adult sees as “better.” Sometimes the child needs to perform that behavior in that particular way. What I’m talking about here are behaviors that are going to make them struggle later in life.

      As kids, if they get what they want when they scream and shout, they will become adults that scream and shout to get what they want. Not exactly the best way to go about things.

      I aim to replace only those behaviors that will cause the person trouble later in life. That doesn’t mean I’m replacing a behavior because it is inconvenient. I suggest replacing behaviors that can cause harm or that will cause issues in the child’s ability to navigate the world successfully.

  4. So I came across the problem behavior and replacement behavior for the first time. And when you successfully education your children on these behavioral tips at this early stage, they tend to be more mature and self disciplined later on in like.

    What I particularly find very fascinating is the replacement behavior, and how you have to implement until they get it right. This particular discipline will help them become emotional and very reasonable towards other people, thereby helping them to be polite, as they would always looking for the best replacement behaviors, even in impossible circumstance.

    Great educative post on children Such a great read thanks for sharing.

    • So true! Teaching replacement behaviors early on leads to much better discipline and self-regulation in the future. When they are mature enough to replace their behaviors on their own, they will know how to recognize the problem and exactly how to fix it.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  5. This is a well written article on replacement behaviors. I work with those suffering from addiction, and addicts use all four functions of behavior. Not so much attention, but the other three are firmly in place. They need socially acceptable replacement behaviors to keep from getting repeatedly thrown in jail. It take them years to learn this, and I agree with you that you can’t just willy nilly replace the problematic behavior with a more appropriate one. You have to be strategic about it. 

    This applies to children, addicts, and those adults we’ve seen whose behavior needs an overhaul. For children, it’s especially important to replace the behavior that isn’t working with a replacement one, and then focus on reinforcing that, making sure it stick. Thanks for this informative post!

    • Teaching replacement behaviors is just as important for addicts as it is for children. Sure, they can get clean, but if they don’t learn how to replace the behaviors that got them to where they are now, they will just end up using again. It’s very sad.

      Catching these behaviors when kids are young is so important because it will set them up for a better handle on the future.

  6. Wow this is a great article. I spent years working in the retail space and you can totally see the difference between parents that have taught their children proper behavior when they are out in public and the kids that are just wild with no disipline. Many times I see parents giving into bad behavior and all that does is snowballs the issue. Looking forward to your future articles!

    • Huy, good on you for working in retail! That’s a tough go, in part because you’re dealing with misbehaved children. The retail setting is major when it comes to parents giving in. Their child sees something they want and throws a fit to get it. Now the parent is angry and embarrassed so they give in to make it stop. Unfortunately that’s the exact opposite of what you want to do.

  7. Anybody who has spent any time with a group of children lately can tell you that most parents don’t bother trying change their children’s bad behavior.  It is a shame too, some of these kids are going to not reach their full potential in life because they can’t behave properly.

    Access to tangibles is a real problem.  Too often I see kids just grab toys off of another one, without even asking.  I think the parents of the ill behaved child think that they are raising some go getter, who sees what they wants and grabs it.

    By the time they realize that their kid has some really undesirable traits, they may be in there pre teen years. I think it is important for people to realize that you need to teach replacement behaviors as soon as you see they need replaced, before it is too late!

    Great article, a definite must read for any parent. What do you do when the behaviors are not in your child, but in another persons kid? That can get touchy.

    • James, you’re so right, access to tangibles is a tough one. It’s so important to recognize and correct these problem behaviors quickly so that the child can reach their full potential and succeed in life.

      When it comes to other people’s children, it is certainly difficult to navigate. If they’re a close friend, and you feel comfortable talking to them, feel free, but be ready. Most parents are protective of their children and their parenting abilities.

      It can be helpful to talk in terms of your child. For example, if another person’s child just grabbed something from yours, you can tell the parent what happened. Hopefully they will step in and do what they need to.

      I don’t recommend ever trying to discipline another person’s child. Take it to the adult and let them handle it.

      You can also casually mention helpful articles like this one or others. Mention that it helped you so much and ask if they would be interested. You don’t need to say, “your child is awful, read this.” Just say your read an interesting article and ask if they would be interested in reading it too.

  8. As a grandma who is raising one of her grandchildren, I am always on the lookout for articles like these! As my granddaughter gets older and is now in school full-time (kindergarten), she has begun to exhibit some behaviors that definitely need to be replaced!

    I love how you broke it down into four behavior types and gave some great and positive ways to replace the negative behavior. I will be starting to incorporate some of them to introduce better behavior in her. She honestly wants to do the “right” thing. She tries hard, but can get frustrated when things don’t go exactly her way!

    Thank you for the very practical illustrations and guides for finding good replacement behaviors and knowing when to use them!

    Best wishes,Karin 🙂

    • Karin, congratulations on your little kindergartner! That’s so exciting! Heading off to school is so fun but it can cause an increase in problem behaviors because they’re surrounded by more peers with more behaviors to mimic.

      I’m glad I was able to break everything down for you in a way that makes sense. I wish you the best of luck with your granddaughter and I’m always here if you have any questions.

  9. This is a great article that offers some really good advice.  Parenting is hard work, and sometimes it is hard for parents to remain calm when their child is behaving badly.  I  think it is important as you mentioned for a parent to immediately respond to their child if their child asked politely, even if the parent is busy.  You really offer some good tips here, I will have to read your other articles as well.  Thanks for sharing.

    • Jenny, I’m glad you found my article interesting. Immediately responding to your child is critical, even if it is to let them know that you will pay attention to them in a minute. If you ignore them, they’re just going to get louder, and nobody wants that!

      Thanks for the compliment and I hope you like my other articles!

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