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How to Use Replacement Behaviors

Did you know that every time we want to decrease a challenging behavior, we should replace it with something? Today’s topic is all about replacement behaviors. I asked Shira if she had a really quick story about replacement behavior. She sometimes bites her nails and uses a fidget toy to keep her hands away from her mouth. Playing with a fidget toy was her replacement behavior for biting her nails.

What is a Replacement Behavior? 

Replacement behaviors are typically desired behavior that we can teach a student to engage in, instead of engaging in challenging behavior. So for instance, if a student is engaging in something dangerous, like self-injurious behavior, aggression, or property destruction, we want to find out why they’re engaging in those behaviors. What are they trying to tell us? And how can we teach them not to engage in those challenging behaviors? It’s not about just don’t do it. But if I know what the function is, and what you’re trying to tell me, I can give you some other more desired behaviors to engage in instead. So for instance, if the minute a math worksheet is pulled out the student all of a sudden starts to engage in challenging behavior, maybe it’s self-injurious behavior, I don’t want the student hurting himself. 

So instead, I’m going to look at and say, why is it that the student is engaging in this challenging behavior? And if it’s because the worksheet is too hard, or they don’t know how to do the math that’s presented, then I’m going to teach them how to engage in a different behavior besides some type of self-injurious behavior. That could be them saying, I need a break or this is too hard. If they are non-vocal, maybe they can do some sign language or use their augmentative communication device to communicate that instead. 

Get your free functions of behavior cheat sheet. 

Replacement Behaviors for Attention Seeking Behavior

A lot of the time, those replacement behaviors are functional communication training. But not always. It could also be other things as well. So really, what we’re looking at is the function of the behavior and then putting in a replacement behavior that still gets the student’s wants and needs met. If a student is engaging in challenging behavior for escape, we can teach the student to say, “this is too hard.” If it’s to engage in attention, we can teach them things like asking appropriately for attention. “Hey, what are you doing?” 

Another replacement behavior could be just teaching the skill of waiting. I need to wait until the teacher is not busy. And then I can ask for attention. That is replacement behavior that we can also teach. And if you’re going along the lines of waiting, they could even be playing with a fidget toy. So it could be a lot of those things. 

Replacement Behaviors Examples for Automatic Reinforcement

Automatic reinforcement is typically when the student is engaging in challenging behavior because it’s some type of sensory escape for them. It’s something that they like to do. For instance, there’s a student who might be playing with their saliva. Which isn’t a danger to themselves, but could be a danger to others. It could be very antisocial, especially with COVID when they’re playing with all these germs on their hands. What can you do instead?

Well, if it’s something like a sensory behavior, you need to look at what the function of that sensory is. What’s that serving for them? What’s the purpose? Maybe the purpose is that they like the feeling of the wet on their hands. And if that’s the case, you can try lotion. Maybe they like lotion on their hands instead. Or maybe it’s because they really like the whole idea of the dripping or the sight of the liquid. And if that’s the case, maybe they can spray liquid onto a window, a mirror, or a table and be able to wipe that up. It could mean engaging in more water play or other sensory bin activities. Those are all types of replacement behaviors. 


So in summary, we talked about replacement behaviors. What they are, why we implement them, and what some common replacement behaviors are based on the various functions

For more information about the different functions of behavior, make sure you download the functions of behavior cheat sheet above!

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