Problem Behavior Reduction Procedures for Parents

One of the most common questions from parents is how to reduce problem behaviors at home. There are three important concepts to consider when approaching problem behavior reduction. These concepts include: 1) identifying the function, 2) implementing reduction procedure, and 3) teaching appropriate replacement skills.

In order to identify the function of the problem behavior, look out for what is taking place in the child’s environment right before the behavior occurs. Common antecedents are: being told “no”, interruption from preferred activity, transitions, being ignored (low attention), and aversive tasks.  The function of problem behavior is typically parental attention, access to preferred items/activities, access to preferred foods, and escape from aversive tasks.

The following three procedures either used alone or combined, target the various functions of problem behavior.

Planned Ignoring (Extinction):  Problem behavior is reduced by withholding reinforcement specific to the motivating operation (i.e. child is not allowed access to the item or activity they want) (Iwata et al, 1994). To implement this procedure, block access to all reinforcers and minimize your attention towards the child (no eye contact, talking, or unnecessary touching). When the behavior has stopped for 3 seconds, give the child some attention and redirect them to a different item or activity.

Count & Mand:  This procedure is to be used when a reinforcer is available. With this procedure, you are teaching appropriate asking for an item/activity as opposed to the child exhibiting problem behavior. This procedure includes telling the child for example, “no hitting”, and then prompt them to keep their hands down and begin counting to 5 verbally and with your fingers. If the child does not exhibit problem behavior for the full 5 seconds, prompt an appropriate mand and reinforce their response. If the child does emit inappropriate behavior during those 5 seconds, restart the wait interval. If you do not receive an appropriate response and have done the wait interval many times, withdraw the reinforcer without saying anything (the opportunity to receive the reinforcer has ended). (Procedure is derived from Dr. Vincent Carbone).

Transition:  The purpose of this procedure is to transition your child away from a preferred activity without problem behavior. The procedure begins with offering a transition reinforcer for leaving the activity without inappropriate behavior. If a child exhibits problem behavior, remove the transition reinforcer and block access to other reinforcers while minimizing attention. Continue to place the demand of transitioning to the next activity and provide praise when your child begins to transition. Once the transition is complete and they have begun the next activity, provide additional reinforcement. Alternatively, if your child transitions without problem behavior, deliver the transition reinforcer as soon as the transition is complete. (McCord, Thomson, & Iwata, 2001).

Remember, it may take some time to become used to the protocols, but research has shown that the consistent use of the problem reduction procedures will decrease problem behavior. Do not become frustrated if your child’s behavior becomes worse, before it gets better. We call this an “extinction burst”, which means the child is trying everything they can to receive an item, get your attention, etc. and the problem behavior will decrease once they are no longer being reinforced for their inappropriate behavior.


Carbone, V. J., Morgenstern, B., Zecchin-Tirri, G., Kolberg, L. (2010).  The role of the reflexive-

            conditioned motivating operation (CMO-R) during discrete trial instruction of children

            with autism.  Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25, 110 – 124.         

McCord, B. E., Thomson, R. J., & Iwata, B. A. (2001). Functional analysis and treatment of self-

            injury associated with transitions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 195-210.

Iwata, B.A., Pace, G.M., Cowdery, G.E.,  Miltenberger, R.G., (1994).  What makes Extinction

            work: an analysis of procedural form & function.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis,

            27(1), 131 – 144.