Putting Out Behavioral Fires

*Antecedent Interventions - Behavior change strategies that seek to modify or change events before problem behavior occurs.
*Consequent Interventions - Behavior change strategies that seek to modify or change events after problem behavior occurs.

Photo source: www.jenningswire.com

When I am teaching parents or new staff the importance of Antecedent interventions, I like to use what I will call the fire extinguisher metaphor:

Let’s say every day at 2:00 a fire pops up in your kitchen. You keep using bigger, fancier, and more elaborate fire extinguishers each day to put out the fire. That fire extinguisher is your Consequent intervention. An Antecedent intervention would focus on asking “Hey guys, whats with all this fire and how can we prevent it??”

Photo source: www.valpro.lv 
I see many people focus their energy on using the most elaborate and fancy fire extinguisher to put the fire out, and focus no energy on preventing the fire.

The problem with consequence focused approaches to problem behavior is it leaves you in the position of always reacting…. the child hits and you react. Or the child spits on a peer and you react. This is a frustrating place to be, one where you can spend your whole day putting out one behavioral fire after another. I find that settings without ABA professionals/BCBA's very much have a fire extinguisher approach to problem behavior, and behavior support consists of various punishment techniques.
 If you are unsure if your workplace is consequence focused, try to answer this question: How are staff trained to prevent problem behavior, and appropriately develop replacement behaviors?

So if prevention is the way to go, why are reactionary strategies so widely used or sometimes the only thing being used? Well, the biggest reason I usually see is: Work. It’s a lot of work to determine the function of a behavior, connect the function to strategies, crank out a behavior plan, modify the environment, and stay alert and ready to quickly implement antecedent strategies. 
That easy road is not always your friend. What can be quick and painless to do today, could unintentionally shape up a Hulk sized chain of behaviors down the road. 

Photo source: Behavior Man

Wondering what type of strategies you can use to be proactive, not reactive, to problem behavior? Lucky for you I happen to know a few :-)

  • Differential Reinforcement – To put it very simply this means to reinforce the best and ignore the rest. So if the child is kicking at the desk in front of them-->silent redirection…stops kicking and begins tapping a pencil-->”I like your calm feet!”…calm feet, no pencil tapping and attending to the teacher--> “Look at you being a super star student, HIGH FIVE!”
  •  Skill Acquisition – This is often completely missed as an important part of behavior reduction. Its so important to distinguish between can’t do and won’t do behaviors. Think of won't do as a motivation issue, while can't do is about skill deficits.
  •   Visual Supports – Visual supports is a wide category which could include symbols, images, photographs, contingency maps (If/Then), visual timers, token economy systems, etc.  Use visuals as reminders of what behaviors are appropriate, or how reinforcement can be earned.
  •  Priming/Social Stories  – If it’s always a furious wrestling match to get your 3 year old to leave the park, how about preparing a social story in advance and read it before going to the park? Or give transition warnings as a countdown to leaving (“In 10 minutes we are going home…..In 9 minutes we are going home”, etc.).
  •   Choices- I still get amazed sometimes at how quickly a defiant child can transform into a cooperative angel when choices are presented, vs. orders being delivered.
  •  Behavioral Momentum - And all the BCBA's just said “I LOVE Behavioral Momentum!”. This is a beloved technique that is so easy, many of us forget to use it.  


  1. Hi Tameika, i have a three years old kid, he have agressive behavior e.g when he want ro remove or when he want to stop an action with my smaller daughter she wont stop he will grab his face and what kind of help can i give me. Thanks so much u have a wonderfull page 😄

    1. Thanks so much!

      The first thing you want to do is contact ABA providers in your area. If you aren't sure where to look, go to www.bacb.com and search the Directory for professionals in your city. Depending on your state, it is likely your insurance will cover therapy.
      Then, the ABA professional can conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment to determine the function of the behavior, and create a behavior plan.

      Good luck!

  2. Hi Tameika - I am working with a great ABA team but we are really struggling with a persistent issue. My son (14, high functioning autism/ADHD) routinely steals small items from home and school. He hides the trinkets and lies about how/when he acquired them, so we are struggling to move from consequent to antecedent approaches. The stuff he steals isn't valuable - it's typically some combination of shiny/colorful/fun-to-manipulate such as locks, Christmas tree ornaments, jar lids, small tools, etc. I work with the school to enforce consequences when he steals from there (he now has supervised lunch and has served detentions.) We have implemented a check system at home to reward him for asking before touching items. He uses checks to "earn" all of his privileges around the house. He isn't stealing anything he couldn't buy with his chore money. We have approached his psychiatrist to see if it may be an attachment issue rather than an autism issue, but he psych doesn't think so. Any other suggestions?

    1. Hi there and thanks for your comment!

      Not having all of the information, I would ask if the ABA team developed a function based behavior plan? I can't tell if that occurred or not based on your explanation.

      A function based behavior plan would involve: observing/collecting data about the behavior across settings (in your situation it sounds like home and school would be needed), ruling out medical issues (e.g. if the child is on ADHD medication could that be causing fixations/obsessive behavior), determining the function of the behavior, and creating BOTH antecedent and consequent strategies. Both are best practice because a problem behavior doesn't need to just be removed, it needs to be replaced.

      If all of those steps did not occur, that is likely why the behavior is still going on. If those steps have already occurred, then its possible the initial function of behavior was incorrect, or there's a weak link when it comes to the behavior plan. Weak link = someone is not following the behavior plan and is still reinforcing the problem behavior


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