A large percentage of caregivers of children with autism will want (or need) to implement a behavior plan. When I ask a parent what he or she wants out of a behavior plan designed for his or her child the answer can usually be found among the following: “I want my child to be more compliant with requests. I want her to be less resistant to participating in tasks. I want her to develop more appropriate skills. I wish he could let me know what he wants so I don’t always have to be guessing. I want him to make better choices. I want her to give up her own desires and interests sometimes and engage in other activities.”
These are all worthy outcomes for behavior plans. For a child with autism who gets stuck in routines, responding to the requests that do not include reinforcing activities from his/her point of view, successfully communicating needs and learning skills that will help him/her be more effective in the environment are all important skills.
A successful behavior plan benefits the parent as well. A parent develops a more positive view of the child, gains confidence in parenting skills, feels more in control of the environment and achieves a healthy respect for the child and his/her abilities. A well implemented plan benefits all parties.
As the implementers of the plans, we are motivated for change with all of the benefits. But why are behavior plans so difficult to execute? Even the clearest written and detailed plan can be challenging to start, keep going and see through. The problem I have discovered – no discussion about the pre-plan preparation and overall planning.
Before a builder starts his construction, he surveys the land, develops the blue prints, looks at his budget and gets all his certifications. Before we implement a plan we also need to do some pre-planning. The writer of a behavior plan would have assessed the target behaviors, the learner’s skill set and the needs of the environment. The person who will implement the plan often does not properly assess his/her preparedness to put the plan in action. One of the things that we overlook is that a behavior plan for the child is also a behavior plan for the parent, caregiver or professional who will implement it.
Here are some important strategies to prepare for implementing a behavior plan:
- Acknowledge that you, as the implementer, are also on a behavior plan. A behavior plan has instructions for the implementer, as well as what is expected of the child. If a schedule is to be employed to produce specific actions, the instructor must abide by the timeframe for prompting appropriate behaviors. A behavior plan depends on the implementer’s ability to produce the right behavior at the right time. The person employing the plan must be able to change his or her behavior as needed. The child is not the only one who needs to do something different.
- Take the time to learn the basic theory on which the strategy or plan is based. The knowledge of why you perform a particular behavior at a specific time gives credibility to what you do and makes it easier. It will also help you avoid making “adjustments” to the plan without evaluating the possible outcomes.
- Know yourself, especially your kryptonite. Remember that green crystal that could turn the man of steel into a weak, bumbling mess? Each of us has our weaknesses in areas that would prevent the implementation of a behavior plan. Plans require consistency, attention to detail, and clear and logical thinking. When would either of these be a problem in your interactions with your child? Is it when your child does a particular behavior that you find just unbearable? When you are tired? After a stressful day at work? When others are present in the environment? Knowing these weaknesses and deciding how to deal with them is important to your success.
- Practice managing your feelings. Some of us are better at this than others. If you wear every emotion on your sleeve or in your posture, others, including your child, will read them and respond. Many parents tell me they do not pay attention to their child’s inappropriate behavior because they understand that the behavior is motivated by a need for attention. While it is true that they may not respond verbally, the contortions of their face and the stress that is obvious from their body language says, “I see you, you got my attention.” Or, by the second time you give an instruction, your voice is raised, your nostrils are flared and the vein in your neck is throbbing. A neutral face and a calm tone are required and sometimes need to be practiced.
- Don’t take your child’s behavior personally. Know that when your child is engaging in a challenging behavior, he/she is not doing so to offend you. People engage in behaviors because it meets a need. The principles of applied behavior analysis indicate that there are four reasons why behavior occurs: attention (I want something of or from you), escape (I need you to help me avoid or delay something), self-stimulation (I can make myself feel good) or pain. Even verbal statements like “I hate you,” “You never … ,” or “You don’t love me” should be treated as behaviors to get his or her needs met, rather than an analysis of your parenting skills or the quality of your relationship. You are more likely to falter on your strategy if you feel guilty even when there is really nothing to be guilty about. Do not get distracted from your task.
- Prepare the environment for what is about to come. This includes both the physical environment and the people in it. Ask yourself: “What will need to happen to make my plan work? Do I need to make arrangements for others in the home while I tackle implementation? Does someone need to take on some of the other caregiver responsibilities?” In some cases, you may want to make changes to the arrangement of furniture and other items to address safety. Consider if there are places you should designate for certain tasks because the space is quieter, better lit, etc.
- Share your plans with others. Identify people who can support you by simply holding you accountable for your own behaviors or become more involved when you just can’t. Who can prompt you with the “cut it out” sign from outside the view of the child? Who can give you the “thumbs-up” for keeping it together during a tough encounter? Is there someone you can defer to during your kryptonite moment? It is also helpful in general to get feedback on how you are doing. It can be difficult to objectively assess your own behavior during or after an interaction.
- Be prepared for the behavior to get worse before it gets better. Often parents are gung-ho at the start of the plan but soon start to wane when the rate or intensity of behavior increases. This is in fact a good sign and means the plan is working. Do not stop now. The child recognizes that there is a change in his/her environment and is struggling against it. He/she liked it the way it was. It is up to the implementer to be consistent so that the child “learns” that the changes made are here to stay and there are new expectations for his/her behavior.
Often behavior plans are created to be implemented at a time when parents and caregivers are at their wits end, are frustrated by the child’s behavior and environments are chaotic and out of control. Give your plan a greater probability of success by preparing yourself and your environment for its implementation.
One last suggestion – be kind to yourself. There will be times when you may analyze your actions and think that the plan dictated a different behavior. Do not beat yourself up. Identify what precipitated the error and make your adjustments. You can do it!
Lana Small, MSW, is Coordinator of YAI’s Community Habilitation program. She has worked in the field for 21 years and holds an MSW from Hunter College School of Social Work.