Why Replacement Behavior Is a Positive Approach to Problem Behaviors

children in classroom
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A replacement behavior is a behavior you want to replace an unwanted target behavior. Focusing on the problem behavior may just reinforce the behavior, especially if the consequence (reinforcer) is attention. It also helps you teach the behavior that you want to see in the target behavior's place. Target behaviors might be aggression, destructive behavior, self-injury, or tantrums.

It is important to identify the function of the behavior, in other words, "Why does Johnny smack himself in the head?" If Johnny is smacking himself in the head in order to deal with tooth pain, obviously the replacement behavior is to help Johnny learn how to tell you his mouth hurts, so you can deal with the tooth pain.

If Johnny hits the teacher when it's time to leave a preferred activity,  the replacement behavior will be to transition within a certain time to the next activity. Reinforcing approximations of those new behaviors is "replacing" the target or undesirable behavior to help Johnny be more successful in an academic setting. 

What Makes a Replacement Behavior Effective?

An effective replacement behavior will also have a similar consequence that provides the same function. If you determine that the consequence is attention, you need to find an appropriate way to give the attention the child needs, while at the same time reinforcing a behavior that is acceptable. It is especially helpful if the replacement behavior is incompatible with the target behavior.

In other words, if a child engages in the replacement behavior, he or she is unable to engage in the problem behavior at the same time. If the target behavior is the student leaving his seat during instruction, the replacement behavior might be keeping his knees under his desk.

Besides praise (attention) the teacher might also put tally marks on a desktop “ticket” which the student can exchange for a preferred activity.

Extinction, ignoring a behavior rather than reinforcing it, has proven to be the most effective way to get rid of problem behavior, but it may be unsafe or incompatible with supporting student success.

At the same time punishment often reinforces the problem behavior by focusing on the problem behavior. When choosing and reinforcing a replacement behavior, you draw attention to the behavior you want, rather than the behavior you don't want.  

Examples of Using Replacement Behavior

Target Behavior: Albert does not like to wear a dirty shirt. He will rip his shirt if he doesn't get a clean shirt after lunch or a messy art project.

Replacement Behavior: Albert will ask for a clean shirt, or he will ask for a paint shirt to put over his shirt.

Target Behavior: Maggie will hit herself in the head then she wants the teacher's attention since suffers from aphasia and cannot use her voice to get the teacher or aides attention. 

Replacement Behavior: Maggie has a red flag that she can fix on the tray of her wheelchair if she needs the teacher's attention. The teacher and classroom aides give Maggie lots of positive reinforcement for asking for their attention with her flag.