Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a blog post written by Tatyana Elleseff for her Smart Speech Therapy blog. Her full post can be read here.
Frequently, I see a variation of the following scenario on many speech and language forums:
The SLP is seeing a client with speech and/or language deficits in either school setting or private practice, who is having some kind of behavioral issues. Some issues are described as mild such as calling out, hyperactivity, impulsivity, or inattention, while others are more severe and include refusal, noncompliance, or aggression such as kicking, biting, or punching.
Well-meaning professionals immediately offer an array of advice. Some behaviors get labeled as “normal” due to the child’s age (toddler), others are “partially excused” due to a psychiatric diagnosis (ASD). Some might recommend reinforcement charts, although not grounded in evidence. Letting other professionals deal with the behaviors is common: “in my setting the ______ (insert relevant professional here) deals with these behaviors and I don’t have to be involved.”
These well-intentioned advisors are overlooking several factors. First, a system to figure out why particular set of behaviors takes place, and second, if these behaviors may be manifestations of non-behaviorally based difficulties such as sensory deficits, medical issues or overt/subtle linguistically-based deficits.
What are the reasons kids present with behavioral deficits? Obviously, there could be numerous answers to that question. The underlying issues are often difficult to recognize without a differential diagnosis. In other words, we can’t claim that the child’s difficulties are “just behavior” if we don’t appropriately rule out other contributing causes. Here are some steps to identify the source of a child’s behavioral difficulties in cases of hidden underlying language disorders (after, of course, ruling out relevant genetic, medical, psychiatric and sensory issues).
Start by answering a few questions: Was a thorough language evaluation—with an emphasis on the child’s social pragmatic language abilities—completed? And by thorough, I am not referring to general language tests, but a variety of formal and informal social pragmatic language testing. Let’s say the social pragmatic language abilities were assessed and the child found/not found to be eligible for services. Meanwhile her behavioral deficits persist. What do we do now?
Determine why the behavior is occurring and what is triggering it (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2015). Here are just a few examples of basic behavior functions or reasons for specific behaviors:
- Seeking Attention/Reward
- Seeking Sensory Stimulation
- Seeking Control
Most behavior functions tend to be positively, negatively or automatically reinforced (Bobrow, 2002). Determine what reinforces the child’s challenging behaviors by performing repeated observations and collecting data on the following:
- Antecedent or what triggered the child’s behavior.
- What was happening immediately before behavior occurred?
- What type of challenging behavior/s took place as a result?
- How did you respond to behavior when it took place?
Once you determine behaviors and reinforcements, then set goals on which behaviors to manage first. Some techniques include modifying the physical space, session structure or session materials as well as the child’s behavior. Keep in mind the child’s maintaining factors or factors that contribute to the maintenance of the problem (Klein & Moses, 1999). These include: cognitive, sensorimotor, psychosocial and linguistic deficits.
Choose your reward system wisely. The most effective systems facilitate positive change through intrinsic rewards like pride of own accomplishments (Kohn, 2001). We need to teach the child positive behaviors to replace negative, with an emphasis on self-talk, critical thinking and talking about the problem instead of acting out.
Of course, it’s also important to use a team-based approach and involve all related professionals in the child’s care along with the parents. This ensures smooth and consistent care across all settings. Consistency is definitely a huge part of all behavior plans as it optimizes intervention results and achieves the desired outcomes.
So the next time the client on your caseload is acting out, troubleshoot using these appropriate steps in order to figure out what is REALLY going on and then attempt to change the situation in a team-based, systematic way.
Tatyana Elleseff, MA, SLP, is a bilingual speech-language pathologist with Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare and runs a private practice, Smart Speech Therapy LLC, in Central New Jersey. She specializes in working with multicultural, internationally and domestically adopted children and at-risk children with complex communication disorders. Visit her website for more information or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.