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How to Use ABA to Manage Challenging Behaviour in the Classroom

Looking back on my years as a teacher, I can now say that ABA was the missing piece in my classroom (see: 5 ABA Principles I Wish I Knew as a Teacher). As a preschool and elementary teacher, I was struggling with the concepts of reinforcement and behaviour management. This is why I find the application of ABA to the classroom a rewarding part of my job now – it’s like coming full circle. I found the field of ABA as a solution to my problem and now I can help be a solution for other teachers.

I often consult to classrooms and teachers, both general and special education. The principles remain the same – how can we (or teachers) create a positive classroom environment, promote independence, and teach an individualized curriculum, all while managing any challenging behaviours that arise? In this series, we’ll tackle this issue and share the ideas that have worked (and maybe some that haven’t!) in classrooms we work with.

The Early Childhood Classroom


Look at the environment

Observation of the actual classroom can give us so much more insight than any parent or teacher report. With young children, our first line of defense is usually, “What can be changed in this environment to reduce negative behaviour?” Before putting in any behaviour protocol, check that the expectations are realistic and the environment is set up for success. I was once consulting to a student in kindergarten where the teacher was concerned that he was not able to sit during circle time. I observed the actual circle time and it lasted 45 minutes! Not only that, but there were hardly any visuals! No wonder our kiddo was getting antsy – so was I!

Simple changes to the environment often help:

  • Include more visuals in teaching
  • Keep expectations realistic and age-appropriate
  • Separate a big group into 2 smaller groups (if possible)
  • Offer more movement breaks
  • Change desk locations or assign set seating for circle time

Collect Data

If the answer isn’t as simple as changing the environment, then we want to be able to give a function-based solution. Collecting ABC data or doing a functional analysis would be the next step. If it’s too cumbersome for teachers to have to write ABC data, a simple-check-off ABC data sheet might help. We’re looking for patterns throughout the day and the function that the behaviour is serving. This is another time to look for simple solutions. We had once filled in a scatterplot ABC data sheet for one of our student and found that his negative behaviour always occurred at 10:30am. Solution: Offer him snack at 10:15 – he was hangry!

“What’s in it for him?” – Reinforcement

Before even trying to reduce challenging behaviours, we have to have a plan in place to increase and promote positive behaviours. For many students, this might involve external reinforcement (at least at first) to make the positive behaviour more motivating than the negative behaviour. Remember, until now, the reinforcement for the negative behaviour was quick and easy. For more on this, check out Classroom reinforcement Systems that Work.

Remember: just because we think an item or activity is preferred doesn’t mean it will actually function as reinforcement (i.e., increase behaviour). Make sure to do accurate preference assessments when putting a plan in place.

How to access reinforcement

The student should be able to earn “points” (or tokens, chips, stickers, etc.) and then trade in those points for a preferred item or activity. This format can be as creative as you want it to be! This is the step that is often difficult for a teacher to do in a classroom. It might take more manpower to implement at first but then it can be faded so that the teacher can take over once the reinforcement is in place (see: The Shadow’s Role in the Classroom).  At first, the system should be set up so that the student is more successful than not and should be accessing reinforcement pretty often.

Tip: Don’t wait for negative behaviour to remember to bring out the token board!  It should be used as an antecedent strategy and always in place.

Put negative behaviour on extinction


If the function is tangible → they don’t get tangible for negative behaviour.

If the function is attention → don’t give them attention for negative behaviour

If the function is escape → don’t give them escape for negative behaviour

If the function is automatic (sensory) → redirect (look into RIRD)

Continue to Monitor

We want to continue to take data to know if the intervention is working and the negative behaviour is decreasing. Determine what the teacher is willing and able to do and then make it as simple as possible.

  • Frequency data – record every time the behaviour occurs
  • Duration data – record how long the behaviour lasts
  • Intensity – record how intense the behaviour is
  • Partial interval recording – check off intervals when the targeted behaviour occurs and look for whether the amount of intervals is decreasing


3 thoughts on “How to Use ABA to Manage Challenging Behaviour in the Classroom”

  1. Hello I have a 5 year old son with ASD, this is his first week od kindergarten and his very first time going to school. His teacher is concern about him walking and running in the classroom, that does not happen all day but sometimes during the day. My son has a PPCD class at school, they are working with him traying to follow group directions. my question is how can I help my son to get a better behavior at school? Is there any technique to use at home? Thanks!

    1. Hi Rebecca! A very important concept to teach it “first/then”( You can use a visual first/then board to help teach this. For example, when you give him an instruction and he follows it, make sure to reward that. If he doesn’t follow, help him do it so that he learns and practices. You can start to teach him to respond to “stop” and “wait” the same way – reinforce and reward when he listens. If he doesn’t stop or wait, you can show him how. Good luck with his first time at school!

  2. Pingback: 25 Clever Classroom Tips for Teachers - How to ABA

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