Behavioral Momentum

Behavioral Momentum - The use of a series of high-probability requests to increase compliance with lower-probability requests (Ray, Skinner & Watson, 1999).

Behavioral Momentum is one of those cool ABA terms that sounds exactly like what it is. Behavioral Momentum basically means to  approach the child not with what YOU want in mind but with what they are most likely to want to do.

This seems like one of those simple, obvious things that everyone knows to do, right? Wrong.

 I see staff or parents make this error all the time: They approach the student or client and fire off a series of demands, all of which are non-preferred activities. For example, walking up to a child engrossed with a video game to say "C'mon...time to do homework". Yeahhhh, that probably won't go well.

The child then refuses to comply,  a power struggle begins, tantrumming comes next, etc. There is a way to prevent this frustrating little cycle of behaviors from happening in the first place.

Taking a few seconds to prepare yourself to use Behavioral Momentum can save so much effort and frustration in the long run.

Firstly, do you know how to give a demand? If not here is a quick review:
  1. Demands are stated, not asked.
  2. Get in close proximity and gain eye contact, if possible.
  3. Wait until you have the individual's attention.
  4. Using clear language, present your demand (“Bedtime” and not “Come on, lets get ready for bed, and I don’t want to hear all of that crying and whining tonight ok? When I say bedtime I mean bedtime”).

Think of what you want the child to do as your real goal. Present 1-3 layers of easy goals first, before presenting it. So if I want Andrea to clean up her toys, I may walk over to her and say:

“Hi Andrea!” (Andrea looks up at me) “Nice looking! Give me a high five” (Andrea gives me a high five) “Awesome! Clean up your toys”

I initially presented to Andrea a few demands that are easy for her to comply with, and that I know have been successful in the past. Keep in mind this is a child-specific technique. What is a super easy behavior for one child may be challenging for another child, so individualize this before trying at home.

This technique works especially well with defiant or task avoidant clients or students, who brace themselves as soon as they see an adult approaching. They automatically think you are walking over to them to stop them from doing something fun.

It’s important to provide praise for the easy demands, just like you would for the difficult demand. Remember, you are building a momentum chain.
On that note, what happens if the beginning of your "momentum chain" breaks down? You toss out some super easy demands, and the child won't what? You would prompt compliance to those demands, and then you start your chain up again. Think about it like this: if the front of your chain falls off, you now have a broken chain. You can't just keep going, you have to start over.

Lastly, using Behavioral Momentum will also minimize you becoming an Aversive Stimulus. An aversive stimulus is something that we learn to avoid or escape from over time, as it is associated with unpleasantness. Kind of the way for some people, going to the dentist is an Aversive Stimulus. If your child knows that every time you approach them and squat down to their level it is to give a demand, it won’t be long before they start running/ walking off when you approach. By using Behavioral Momentum, your approach gets associated with good things, compliments, praise, high fives, tickles, etc.

*Quick Tip: Wondering how to implement Behavioral Momentum with a client who doesn’t have many tasks they can easily complete? Try something like this:

  • “Carlos, give me 5!” (Hold your hand up very close to the child so they know what to do)
  • “Thanks! Tickle attack!” (Tickle the child)
  • “Yea! Stomp feet!” (Stand directly in front of the child and stomp your feet)
  • “You are amazing! Time to go potty!”

** Here are some great resources on Behavioral Momentum:


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