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How to Teach Children to Accept No

Accepting no is a challenge for any child. But it’s especially difficult for children with autism or other delays. In this blog, we’re giving tips on how to teach children to accept no. Now, none of us like hearing no. If we want something or expect something and we hear no, how many of us then call up customer service or argue or fight? We don’t like to hear no. The difference is that we may have a response to hearing no that is manageable. Some of our students or clients do not know how to manage that disappointment. 

Teaching a Child to Accept No for an Answer

Life is full of disappointments. We really do need to teach our students how to tolerate no, because it’s going to happen. I meet so many parents who kind of tiptoe around telling their child no, because they’re just so afraid of that explosion that happens after. Then the child gets everything that they want. They’re kind of creating their own utopian world where they have access to anything and everything. But that’s not really in the child’s best interest, either. They don’t understand how to have boundaries or have limits put on them. 

How do we know that a child needs to learn to accept no? Usually, it’s because there’s some sort of challenging behavior that’s happening. When we’re looking at reasons for challenging behavior, we’re going to be recording likely ABC data. We record the behavior that happens and the antecedent that happened right before. 

The behavior is the thing that we want to reduce. But the antecedent gives us information as to what that trigger is and, potentially, what is the skill that’s missing. Every behavior is communication and every behavior access is telling us that there’s a skill deficit. 

So if the antecedents were related to giving up preferred items, or not getting what they want, or not getting their way, we could still go in with a functional assessment on a behavior plan on reducing that challenging behavior. But it’s also going to tell us that if the antecedents all had to do with not getting their way or not getting what they wanted, then we may want to be teaching the skill of learning to tolerate no or not getting what you want. 

How to Teach Children To Accept No

Now, when you’re really upset and disappointed, you don’t want someone to then teach you how to just tolerate that. The best time to learn a skill like this is not going to be in the moment of that major upset. Let’s say your client really has a hard time when they are told no, for instance, because they can’t use their iPad. I wouldn’t start teaching them in that moment of this disappointment when they didn’t get access to the iPad. I also probably wouldn’t start teaching them no with the iPad. Don’t start with the most highest preferred item. Start with something with a little bit less preferred in a situation that has a little bit less pressure. 

Sometimes we’ll even do contrived practice situations. We’ll tell the student, we are going to practice hearing no. And what do we do when we teach any scale, we practice, we reinforce, we model and then we transfer it to real life situations. 

Practice Saying No With Your Clients

So if you are setting up a contrived situation where they have to learn to tolerate no, start with less preferred items. Practice that, model that, practice what the tolerance response is. Is it saying okay, taking deep breaths, choosing an alternative toy or activity? What’s going to work for your student or client? Then teach it, model it, practice it and reinforce it. 

Even in the practice situations, offer that reinforcement for engaging in that tolerance response. We want that response to become part of their repertoire. Because the more practice that they have with it, the easier it’s going to be to show that response in high pressure situations. 

Factor In Unpredictability with Accepting No

Remember that sometimes life is unpredictable. Hanley talks a lot about this type of unpredictability in the tolerance and delay response that he teaches. We want to include some of that unpredictability and teach our kids to tolerate no. “Sometimes you ask for something and you get it, but sometimes you ask for something and you don’t get it. And you’re not going to know which one we’re gonna do. But when you tolerate that, by showing X,Y, and Z, there’s something in it for you.” So having that reinforcement be there, and then starting to slowly transfer that to real life situations. 

If you know a real life situation is about to come up, you can even prime them and say, “remember what we practiced. I’m about to say no when you ask me for that. Here’s what you can do.” Then remind them what the reinforcement is. 

If your student is not ready to generalize that at scale, you can try to avoid saying no by using words like “not right now,” or “you can’t have this but you can have that.” That way, you’re still avoiding setting off the behavior. But you’re starting to put some limits so that they’re learning to tolerate no. So the goal is that they do eventually learn to generalize that to the natural environment, with some teaching with reinforcement, and then eventually fading that reinforcement. 

How to Teach Children to Accept No: Conclusion

It’s hard to accept no as an answer. But it is important to teach our kids that skill, because life is unpredictable, and life can be disappointing. There are some strategies that you can use to teach it, model it, reinforce it, and then eventually practice it and generalize it. 

Get our ABC data sheet by clicking the link below to start tracking behavior and seeing if it’s related to how to teach children to accept no.

5 thoughts on “How to Teach Children to Accept No”

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post!
    I am wondering how to teach this concept of tolerating ‘no’ to a client who is an emerging communicator with limited expressive and receptive language.
    Two points that to keep in mind; firstly until this point all requests have been reinforced to help teach manding. And some requests being made can never be reinforced due to safety concerns (i.e. the client (4 yrs old) wants a knife or to play with the stove top burners)
    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Becky! We have a “not available” program that teaches tolerance of items that are not available (or “no”). The teaching starts with non-preferred items and then increases to neutral and preferred items. We also have a tolerates “no” or “not getting my way” program which introduces the “no” slowly and intermittently and in contrived situations with lots of reinforcement for the tolerance.

  2. Teaching children to accept “no” is an important skill, and this article provides practical strategies and tips for parents and caregivers. The author’s guidance on setting clear boundaries, using positive reinforcement, and promoting emotional regulation is valuable. Thanks for sharing this helpful resource!

  3. This is something I struggle to understand so I really hope you can help me.

    Is there any autonomy in Aba? I don’t like the idea of my kid being forced to do things they don’t want to do. I would like my child to have the ability to make choices independently (with informed consent and without coercion)? I don’t want my child to end up having post-traumatic stress. I am aware they need to hear ‘no’ sometimes but what I struggle with his my child being forced to do something when he says ‘no’. My son is also a self-harmer who bangs his head when he is frustrated due to limited speech. At times though he looks at people to get a reaction.

    Please help me with this as I love Aba but struggle to understand this

    1. Putting limits in place with any kids is always a balance. They should be given an option to voice their opinion and have it be respected when that really is an option. However, there are times when it’s not an option, like for safety. Learning to manage when things don’t go our way is a lifelong skills that kids start learning early on. As a parent, you get to decide which choices are optional and which aren’t. But if it’s not optional, it’s very healthy to teach our kids how to deal with that disappointment. This doesn’t have to include coercion or forcing them to do things, it’s referring to when they aren’t allowed to do things.

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