How to Encourage Positive Behavior in Developing Children

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Students exhibiting challenging behaviors often do so in an effort to communicate their need for attention, their want for something, or their dislike for doing things they don’t enjoy. To replace challenging behaviors with positive ones, teachers, parents, and applied behavior analysts can use a variety of strategies.

To learn more, check out the infographic created by the Regis College Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program.

How teachers, parents, and applied behavior analysis can get children to engage in positive behaviors.

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The Big Picture Behind Challenging Behaviors

Developing children under the age of 12 need personalized support at home and in the classroom to prevent and change challenging behaviors, which often involve hurting others and negatively impact the lives of both the children and their families. Before taking action to change a child’s behavior, it’s important to understand what could be causing it.

Examples of Challenging Behaviors

The wide scope of challenging behaviors carries a range of negative ramifications. For instance, some behaviors like screaming, spitting, or using inappropriate language can potentially harm others emotionally, while intentionally hurting others without remorse inflicts physical harm. Behaviors like throwing oneself on the floor or banging one’s head can cause self-harm. Other behaviors like withdrawal and consistent, prolonged, and inconsolable crying may organically cause isolation.

There are several potential causes behind these challenging behaviors. These causes include a lack of developed social skills, misunderstanding rules or social expectations, an inability to appropriately communicate needs, or a difficulty in understanding directions.

Supporting Positive Behavior

Teacher and parents can make simple changes to a child’s environment to support positive behavior and reduce the possibility of the child’s engaging in challenging behaviors. To better understand how to help a child in this way, it’s important to understand the factors and stimuli triggering challenging behaviors.

Tips for Encouraging Positive Behavior in the Classroom

There are several strategic actions teachers can use to help foster positive behaviors among their students. Some of these tactics are designed to make students feel good, such as praising students multiple times during the day or scheduling time for students to sit next to a friend during class. Other strategies like increasing interaction and communication time with students and giving students chances to be “classroom helpers” can make students feel inclusive. Other tactics like establishing a clear set of behavioral rules and using clarifying first/then statements helps promote direct communication. Teachers can also use strategies that meet students at their level, such as modifying routines and giving students opportunities to choose what tasks to work on.

The ABCs of Behavior

Though making simple changes in the home or classroom can prevent some challenging behaviors, children may need a personalized intervention program to see permanent improvement. Applied behavior analysts break down the functions of these behavior via antecedent, behavior, and consequence (ABC). Behaviors can be changed by altering the antecedent or consequence – or both.

Identifying Factors and Stimuli

Before deciding on a strategy to change a child’s behavior, it’s important to observe the child participation in daily activities. This observation can help identify what triggers challenging behavior or help identify a potential behavior disorder. It can also help determine under which conditions the child doesn’t engage in challenging behavior. Additionally, it pinpoints what the child gains, avoids, or controls through the behavior.

3 Strategies for Addressing Challenging Behaviors

Applied behavior analysts can use three key strategies to encourage positive behavior.

Noncontingent Reinforcement (NCR)

Defined by the Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders as “the use of positive reinforcement that is not related to the occurrence of a target behavior,” NCR provides reinforcement at a scheduled time, regardless of whether the child is engaged in the target behavior at that moment. It also weakens the connection between disruptive behavior and reinforcement delivery, helping reduce disruptive behavior. NCR is considered an effective strategy in treating aggression, disruption, and self-harming behaviors.

Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement involves reinforcing good behavior when the child’s not engaging in challenging behavior, engaging in appropriate replacement behavior, and performing a replacement behavior that’s physically incompatible with challenging behavior, meaning both behaviors can’t be done simultaneously. This strategy is found to be more reliable than nondifferential reinforcement in a study that helped two children with autism acquire skills.

Response Cost

The concept of response cost is defined by the Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders as “the removal of a positive reinforcer contingent on the occurrence of a behavior and results in a decrease in the future frequency of the behavior.” It’s considered effective within the classroom with students experiencing developmental or cognitive delays, emotional and behavioral problems, or academic difficulties. The strategy can help change off-task, disruptive, or out-of-seat behaviors, calling out in class, and academic performance.


Applied behavior analysts rely on a variety of strategies when implementing a personalized intervention plan for children engaged in challenging behaviors. Throughout the process, the support of parents and teachers will make a significant impact in encouraging children to develop the skills and abilities necessary to engage in appropriate behavior.

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