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No, not that kind of breaking :-)
Have you ever tried to break one of your bad habits? Like nail biting, eating sweets late at night, or yelling at your employees? Isn’t it always more difficult than you anticipated to reduce these behaviors? Want to know why behavior change can be so hard? Or do you just want me to stop asking you questions?
Despite what some may think, problem behaviors do NOT pop up overnight (which would also explain why they don’t go away overnight). Even if it seems as if behaviors just suddenly appeared, usually after close clinical observation and data analysis it becomes clear that a behavior has significantly increased in frequency, severity, intensity, etc. But that is not the same thing as a child going from a non-biter to a biter overnight. So reason #1 why behavior change is so hard is that those frustrating behaviors you want your child to stop doing took time to develop and strengthen. They will also take time to reduce or extinguish.
As much as none of us like to admit out loud, caregivers contact reinforcement from allowing problem behavior to persist. When your toddler starts kicking in their seat and crying at a restaurant, it is much more rewarding from the perspective of the parent to leave the restaurant. The last thing you probably want to do is stay in your seat and ride that tantrum out, with the eyes of everyone in the restaurant disapprovingly locked on you and your child. So reason #2 is the power of negative reinforcement.
How are you able to drive a car, make your bed, or count by 3’s? You learned, right? Well, behaviors are learned too. Over time, your child has learned that “When I do (x), then (x) happens”. Did you catch that? Over time, your child has learned what you do if they cry….or scream…..or throw things. They have learned to read you like a book. So what do you think will happen if you suddenly stop reacting the way you typically do, and give them a completely different reaction? Oh hi there, Extinction Burst. So reason #3 is most caregivers have no idea a burst is coming, or react to the burst by going back to their old ways of responding to problem behavior.
Finally, here's the most super-duper important reason why breaking ingrained behavior patterns can be so difficult. Did I hype it up enough?
For most of my clients, they are either very young or cannot communicate wants and needs. This means in order for me to work with them, someone other than my client had to give me consent. So reason #4 is your child never asked you to change their behavior.
I like to compare this to toilet training with typical children. Some young kids naturally start removing their diaper, or asking if they can sit on a potty too. Not all kids, though. So for other children, at some point a parent or caregiver decided for the child that it was time to stop voiding in a diaper and time to use a toilet.
When talking about behavior change, from the perspective of the individual engaging in the behavior things may seem to be just fine. If the individual wants to eat, they just scream. If the individual wants to go outside, they just go the front door and start kicking it. Problem solved. So to have some therapist suddenly requiring language to go outside …. what?? See how could that seem unnecessary from the perspective of the learner?
When working with ABA professionals, you could receive a thorough behavior plan, training and support, and also have the advantage of observing the professionals implement the technique before you try it on your own. Will all of that make is super easy to break a pattern of behavior? Nope.
The best tip I can give to a parent at the onset of significant behavioral intervention is to expect to work for the successes.
Expect to not get enough sleep. Expect to argue with your spouse about if ABA is the right way to go. Expect to watch the professionals seemingly work magic with your child, and feel frustrated by that. Expect to endure tantrums. Expect to want to quit and go back to the way things were. Expect to think “I didn’t know this would be so hard”.
Following the behavior intervention plan definitely won’t be easy, but if you persist it will be effective.
* Recommended post: The Easy Way vs The Hard Way