Managing Challenging Behaviors in Adults with Developmental Disabilities in a Day Program EnvironmentAAA
419 Mason Street, Suite 118
Vacaville, CA 95688
BEHAVIORS IN ADULTS WITH
DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES IN A
DAY PROGRAM ENVIRONMENT
MANAGING CHALLENGING BEHAVIORS IN ADULTS WITH DEVELOPMENTAL
DISABILITIES IN A DAY PROGRAM ENVIRONMENT
All parts of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in the full format without written
permission from the author. All rights to this material are maintained by McGrew Behavior
Intervention Services, Inc.
David Mauger, MA
McGrew Behavior Intervention Services
Program Specialist, Pace Solano
Preface …………………………………………………………………… 4
Chapter 1 “Catch me if you can” ………………………………………. 5
Chapter 2 “Take my anxiety, please!” ...................................................... 8
Chapter 3 “I do not want to be in that group”.........................................10
Chapter 4 “No, you did not earn your sticker.” .......................................12
Chapter 5 “Out of sight, out of mind”..................................................... 14
Chapter 6 “The less you find for me to do”............................................. 15
Chapter 7 “Please go to the kitchen and get me some paper towels.” ... 16
Chapter 8 “Keep your finger in the dam”............................................... 18
Chapter 9 “Pick your Battles”................................................................. 20
Chapter 10 “If you do not give it to me, I will take it”.............................. 21
Chapter 11 “Take me to the restroom, RIGHT NOW!” ............................ 22
Chapter 12 “I see nothing!”...................................................................... 24
Chapter 13 “I love race cars” ................................................................... 25
Chapter 14 “Break the chain”................................................................... 26
Points to Consider ..................................................................................... 27
The intended use of this material is to assist direct support professionals working with adults
who have developmental disabilities. The focus of this material is on understanding the
communicative nature of unexpected behaviors, and on respecting that these challenging
behaviors often have a meaningful purpose and are functional in what they are trying to
At times, direct support professionals may feel undertrained and unprepared to manage these
types of behaviors, which may include verbal abuse, physical aggression, property damage,
severe unwillingness to cooperate, and self-abuse and injury.
The concepts presented in this material are based on person-centered principles.
This training material is the product of four years of staff interviews with instructors serving
adults with developmental disabilities. In each of these interviews, our objective was to
understand the communicative nature of a behavior. Each interview resulted in a written support
plan. These plans were designed to enable the consumer to be understood without resorting to
unexpected behaviors. It became apparent that there were recurrent themes in these interviews.
This training material attempts to identify these themes and, hopefully, to provide a tool for those
working with challenging behaviors in a day program or residential environment.
All material in this handout has been reviewed and edited by my beautiful wife of thirty years:
Deborah M. McGrew, Psy.D, BCBA-D, LMFT, LPCC
McGrew Behavior Intervention Services, Inc.
“Catch me if you can”
The intensity of effort required to implement a behavior support plan can be measured against
the intensity of effort required to manage the challenging behavior after it has occurred.
Morton has been exhibiting some extremely challenging behaviors. These behaviors include
screaming, out-of-control physical aggression, leaving the program, verbal abuse, and property
Morton’s treatment plan is comprehensive. It requires a significant effort from the instructor. The
first part of this plan involves preventing these challenging behaviors through proper
management of his environment. The second part of this plan, occurring concurrently, involves
the development of a positive relationship with Morton.
Morton is a person who, on a minute-by-minute basis, experiences a great deal of insecurity and
mistrust of what is occurring around him. Morton is constantly evaluating his environment and
looking for reassurance and acceptance.
Our job is to have empathy for how difficult this state of mind is for Morton, and in return, to do
everything we can to reassure him and to help him feel accepted and safe. Following this, it must
be appreciated that Morton has no available resources for dealing with feeling rejected or
reprimanded; which is the true challenge of working with Morton.
Working with Morton is analogous to trying to keep a top spinning. Unless you keep it spinning,
it will drop to the ground.
In practice, Morton’s treatment begins by crafting each interaction with him to be reassuring and
to make him feel safe and secure. The first time Morton sees a person, he tries to calculate that
person’s disposition, especially if there is the potential for Morton to be (in his perception) “in
trouble.” To counter this, the instructor smiles at Morton and maintains good eye contact when
greeting him in the morning. In effect, the instructor is putting a spin on the top. Next, the
instructor says something nice and supportive to Morton. The instructor might touch his arm or
pat his back, all designed to spin the top faster.
It is important, and challenging, for the instructor to start fresh following the resolution of an
explosive behavior. Morton’s explosive behaviors cause him to feel badly toward himself.
Morton feels shame after one of his challenging behaviors, and is quick to apologize. He does
not use these behaviors to bully others or because he is trying to get his way. Morton does not
have the ability to control these outbursts when he feels rejected, disliked, or mistreated. If the
instructor continues to focus on the past problem, it is preventing Morton from moving on, and
increases the possibility of a new undesired behavior.
This point encourages the instructor to have empathy for Morton’s predicament. It is hard to feel
sorry for someone who uses aggressive behavior to control other people, or for self-serving
purposes. However, when we realize that this is not the case, we feel more of a desire to help
Morton avoid explosive behaviors. This is an awkward comparison, but if we understood that
behaving in a certain manner prevented a person from having a seizure, we would do everything
within our power to help that person circumvent a seizure.
Let’s create some scenarios for Morton and look at alternative responses. How do we avoid any
type of negative interaction with Morton? The answer is to use a redirection to an equally
positive activity. By engaging in that activity, the positive behavior is incompatible with the
challenging behavior. Morton must exchange one behavior for the other.
One tool we have available to us is that Morton enjoys being helpful. So let’s say that in a
classroom setting, Morton is teasing another student and is enjoying watching that student
become upset. If we approach the behavior head on by saying, “Morton, stop teasing Susan,” we
are at risk for spending the next hour trying to calm Morton down, which might include chasing
him across a field. Morton is fast.
Some instructors may struggle with the ideas presented in this paper because they might come
across as “giving in,” or “losing control over the classroom.” However, when the instructor has
had to resort to physical restraint, or had to chase Morton across two fields to catch him; Morton
has already taken the control away from the instructor.
So how is the instructor going to resolve this situation? The first step is to hold back for one
moment and strategize. Start with the foundation that even though the behavior is negative, you
are going to be positive. “Morton, I need to talk to you about how well you have been doing in
my classroom. Can I see you at my desk?” “Morton, will you please get me some paper towels
from the kitchen? You are my best helper!” “Morton, can you tell the class about your plans for
the weekend?” Notice that for Morton to do any of the above, he must stop bothering the other
student. You are avoiding conflict with Morton while at the same time spinning the top faster.
Scolding Morton or reprimanding him is the equivalent of stopping the top entirely.
Other techniques that are equivalent to keeping the top spinning might include the following:
Giving Morton job assignments
Frequent verbal praise
Telling him he looks nice
Telling him that he has good hygiene
Telling him how smart he is, etc.
As time goes on, you are working with Morton using a relationship-based technique, meaning
that Morton feels so positively toward you, and that he likes and trusts you so much, that all
future work becomes easier. Morton starts to have a good day based on your presence.
As noted in the beginning, this is an intensive effort on the part of the instructor. However, it
does not come close to the intensity of managing one of Morton’s outbursts. Furthermore, these
techniques let us maintain control of the classroom, rather than giving that control to Morton.
“Take my anxiety, please!”
In some cases, there may be unresolved anxiety underneath an undesired behavior; if we resolve
the anxiety, we prevent the undesired behavior (e.g., attacking an instructor).
An instructor needed a cart to be removed from Bobby’s room. Removing the cart from Bobby’s
room had previously caused Bobby anxiety because he noticed the change immediately, and he
experienced anxiety until the cart was replaced. The degree of anxiety he experienced was
related to the length of time the cart was gone. To address this, the instructor made a note that
was posted on the wall each time the cart was removed, telling Bobby where the cart was
located. This intervention was successful.
In a second incident, and instructor had to clean Bobby’s room at a later time than usual. Bobby
insisted that the lights were supposed to be off at that time of day. The instructor immediately
turned the lights off and continued to clean Bobby’s room without interruption. This intervention
In a third situation, the dividing curtain in Bobby’s classroom was open for cleaning to be
performed, and Bobby expressed that the curtain should be closed. Bobby was not trying to be
the boss and tell people what to do, but the open curtain was causing him high levels of anxiety
because “they were not supposed to be open.” The instructor politely explained to Bobby why
the curtain was open. Bobby charged at the instructor with great force that had the potential to do
significant physical harm. Explaining why the curtain had to be open did not resolve Bobby’s
anxiety, and instead, only made it worse. Eventually, given a lack of resolution, Bobby charged
We learned the appropriate intervention for Bobby from the school of hard knocks. Typically, we
would try to explain to Bobby why we were doing something: “I have the lights on because I
need to clean the room.” But Bobby does not care about why. Bobby wants order restored, and
for his anxiety to go down. Given this understanding, the instructor can almost always rescue
Bobby with the most direct action. This level of action shows a great deal of empathy for who
Bobby is as a person. Bobby’s aggressive behaviors often resulted in significant harm, including
injuring instructors, destroying property, and scaring other students. Taking direct action was an
easy procedure to follow in exchange for Bobby suppressing these explosive behaviors.
When Bobby gets anxious and aggresses outward, it is a functional behavior. It is Bobby’s way
to handle high levels of anxiety caused by something in his environment. In this light, it is a
The interested instructor can begin to use desensitization techniques by playing a game with
Bobby. For example, have him close his eyes, and move something in the room and tell him it is
his job to discover what is different. This way, we might be able to make it fun for Bobby to
discover change in his environment. Provide positive praise for all successes.
“I do not want to be in that group”
In a day program environment, participants have a wide range of skill levels. Our ability to offer
programs in a multilevel format can result in fewer challenging behaviors.
Aaron likes to walk away from his group in the community, is often verbally aggressive, and
generally seems angrier and more resistive than he had in the past. Once Aaron is angry, he can
be difficult to calm down. Additionally, Aaron frequently puts his head down and pretends to be
asleep, ignoring any request made of him.
Aaron is a handsome young man who enjoys coming to the program each day, and he will get
involved if an activity is of interest to him. However, Aaron will shut down if he has no interest
in what is occurring. Aaron does not see himself as the typical participant, but instead as more
advanced, and entitled to more privileges and responsibilities. Aaron will typically respond
poorly when he is told what to do or feels that he does not have a choice in a situation. This is
important to understand for any instructor working with Aaron. It also has implications for how
we talk to him, and for which activities he is offered.
Aaron is fiercely independent, and is hypersensitive to how he is treated. Respecting how Aaron
sees himself and treating him accordingly may help to decrease challenging behaviors. Aaron
uses his anger to reestablish how he expects to be treated within the program. Our goal is to give
him a feeling of being special before he asks for special treatment. If we are successful, we may
circumvent his need to demand it through aggressive behaviors.
There are two components to our plan for Aaron. The first is to restructure how we interact with
him, and the second is to assess the type of activities offered to Aaron throughout the day. As an
example, you have a group of participants at the county fair, and Aaron is walking away from the
group. As the instructor, you need to say something to Aaron that will result in him returning.
While the goal remains the same—for Aaron to return to the group—the technique can be varied.
Let’s start with, “Aaron, you know you have to stay with the group. Please come back.” This has
a high potential for failure, and may result in increased resistance. As a rule, avoid anything that
sounds parental in tone. Compare the first technique to the following ones:
“Aaron, do you have any new games at home?”
“Will you be my helper today and help me keep everyone together? The helper gets a…”
“Can you show us where the rides are?”
“Aaron, are you going to camp this year?”
It is assumed that in each of these situations, the goal of Aaron remaining with the group will be
met. Creative instructors may be able to develop better examples. In this example, we are trying
to get Aaron to stay with the group, but this technique may be applied to other situations. As a
basic rule, avoid telling Aaron what to do. Always allow Aaron to feel that he is in control of
what is going to happen. This may be challenging to instructors who feel it is their job to be in
control. Aaron is allowed to have control, and he is maintaining his control by being offered a
better choice than what he was doing. The instructor offers the choices, and Aaron maintains
“No, you did not earn your sticker”
Contingency management may be more of a punishment than a reward.
A plan was developed that provided Barbara with stickers when she was cooperative, and
withheld them when she was not cooperative. Barbara loved these stickers and earned them
seventy percent of the time. When Barbara did not earn her stickers, she became upset with
herself and with others. During these times, Barbara had the potential to slap herself in the face,
knock over property, and verbally abuse her instructor. This would sometimes snowball into
Barbara losing additional stickers.
This plan had as much potential to do harm as it did to improve behavior. Withholding the
stickers represented a punishment. When you have a student displaying challenging behaviors,
and discover something the student loves, it may be tempting to use that item as a tool to manage
challenging behaviors. An extreme form of this is the student who smokes cigarettes and must
earn the cigarettes in some way, either through an appropriate behavior or by performing a task.
It is easy to see the problem with that plan, but it becomes less obvious when the reward is a
One way to proceed is to avoid plans that involve something being earned. It takes discipline and
consistency to implement contingency plans. They quickly become distorted from one instructor
to another, leaving the student confused about the criteria.
Contingency management is a respected technique. I am not disparaging it across the board; I am
saying that a day program is not a controlled environment, and that the procedure often cannot be
When we learn of something that a student loves, we should make it readily available within
their environment. In Barbara’s case, give her stickers throughout the day on a non-contingent
basis. If each sticker makes Barbara happy, and she is getting them throughout the day, this
strategy will result in Barbara spending more time in a good mood. Being happy is not
compatible with being upset, so her challenging behavior will naturally decrease. Other examples
would include the use of positive comments throughout the day, compliments, and positive
attention—not because she is being “good”, but because she enjoys this type of attention.
“Out of sight, out of mind”
In some cases, we can manage challenging behaviors by altering the environment.
During the last three months, Cathy has eaten three cigarette butts.
As Cathy is being dropped off to attend the day program, while still in the van, she is looking out
of her window, scanning the parking lot for cigarette butts. When Cathy has spotted a cigarette
butt, it becomes her first target of the day. When Cathy goes for a walk, she will eat this cigarette
Proactively search the grounds each day and remove all cigarette butts. This intervention resulted
in zero cigarettes butts being eaten within a three-month period. This is a pretty straight-forward
example. If there is no cigarette butt within the environment, there is no opportunity for the
undesired behavior to occur.
A similar situation involves managing a participant who is constantly taking other participants’
food. We cannot underestimate the seriousness of this type of problem. We only need to imagine
that we are at a restaurant, and just as our food arrives, the person at the next table grabs
something off of our plate and eats it.
Managing the environment may be the key to working with this problem. Ensure the crafty
participant is not in a position where he or she can take another person’s food. The more this
person is successful, the more ingrained the behavior will become. Immediate and direct
intervention is called for in these circumstances.
“The less you find for me to do, the more I will find for you to do”
People are less likely to exhibit unexpected behaviors if they are engaged in an activity they
Connie spends her day sitting at a table, drooling saliva out of her mouth, and flinging it with her
finger at anyone who gets close enough for her to hit with it. If you look at the physical structure
of this class, it appears as if Connie is leading an orchestra with her arm flinging, and everyone
staying out of range.
It is common to see an instructor working hard, trying to engage a participant, only for that
participant to reject them. This was the case with Connie. There was no lack of effort to engage
Connie in more meaningful activities, but Connie really liked flinging her spit. She would laugh
and laugh if she successfully hit a person.
A simple plan might involve identifying a single activity per month that the person will enjoy.
Using a timer, have the instructor introduce a different activity every thirty minutes. As
interesting activities are discovered, they can be posted on the wall using Velcro, so that
activities that have grown out of favor may be replaced with new activities. In Connie’s case, we
introduced a variety of different textured materials, such as silk, for her to hold. Holding on to an
item is not consistent with flinging saliva, so it trumps that behavior. The item Connie is holding,
or the activity in which she is engaged, must be more pleasurable than the behavior being
“Please go to the kitchen and get me some paper towels”
As we discussed in chapter one with Morton, in some cases, it may be more helpful to introduce
a preferred redirection away from a challenging behavior, rather than to address the challenging
Robbie was provoking another student. Robbie’s instructor asked her to please stop picking on
the other student. The instructor was polite, but Robbie perceived this as confrontational. Robbie
began to call her instructor names, saying she was not her boss, and she could do what she
wanted. When the instructor asked her to stop the name-calling, Robbie picked up a lunch box
and threw it at her instructor.
In the situation above, Robbie was confronted twice: when she was told to leave the other
student alone, and when she was asked to stop calling the teacher names.
Asking Robbie to stop picking on the other student was talking to the negative behavior. Talking
to a preferred redirection would be, “Robbie, you are so helpful. Would you please go to the
kitchen and get me some paper towels?” The desired behavior is for Robbie to stop bothering the
other student. We are hoping that the preferred redirection will be incompatible with the
challenging behavior; when Robbie goes to get the paper towels, she is equally no longer
provoking the other student, because one behavior is not compatible with the other.
In cases where this approach might be helpful, there is usually a pattern in which directly
confronting the behavior has been ineffective. We know from experience that once Robbie
perceives that something is going against her will, there is the possibility of a challenging
behavior. Sometimes, we can achieve the same goals without using language that Robbie will
interpret as confrontational.
Our ability to manage a challenging behavior is often tied to the words we use when working
with a participant. Instructors can benefit from waiting before reacting, and from thinking about
which words have the potential to escalate the problem or to deescalate the problem.
Instructors who maintain an insistence that they are the one “in control” and that they are the one
who needs to be listened to, often have the most problems when dealing with challenging
Intervention begins with understanding what activities an individual would prefer. Robbie enjoys
seeing herself as a teacher’s aide; asking her to do something she does not like to do would not
be as successful.
“Keep your finger in the dam”
In some cases, challenging behaviors are not changed as much as they are prevented through the
instructor’s actions. There may be fewer occurrences of the challenging behavior, but as soon as
the instructor stops doing what they are doing—removing his or her finger from the dam—the
challenging behaviors may resurface.
Barbara is a charming young lady who may also present some challenging behaviors, including
verbal abuse and physical aggression. The success of preventing these more undesired behaviors
is based on the ability of the instructor to remove potential behavior triggers within her
When Barbara comes into her classroom, she has the same potential to exhibit a wide range of
challenging behaviors, as she does to be charming. The direction this will go is less related to
Barbara, than to the efforts made by her instructor. For Barbara, a low occurrence of challenging
behaviors does not mean she is doing better; it means the instructor’s efforts have been
In Barbara’s case, her instructor protects her environment by having her sit in a place where she
is the least likely to cause a fight with another student; by allowing her to be a teacher’s helper;
by limiting unexpected changes in the classroom; by keeping Barbara in small groups; by
providing opportunities for control; by avoiding delays; by quickly responding to and resolving
problems; by maintaining a low-noise environment; and by ensuring that other students do not
touch Barbara or her belongings. All of these are important to managing Barbara’s more difficult
behaviors throughout the day.
The instructor’s efforts act as a type of glue that holds Barbara together throughout the day. As
each of these efforts is removed, the likelihood of Barbara exhibiting challenging behaviors
increases. If there is a lack of understanding of what needs to occur for Barbara to do well, a
resurgence of these behaviors will catch a new instructor by surprise. If a supervisor switches
Barbara’s instructor without an appreciation of why Barbara is doing well, problems may result.
In some cases, the new instructor may be considered “not as good” as the old instructor, but the
truth would be that they were not properly trained. In addition, the behavior data may be
misleading, suggesting there are no behavior concerns because there are no documented
When undesirable behaviors occur less frequently, they may become less likely to occur as an
immediate response to a problem situation.
Train all staff working with Barbara to understand and implement the above. Continue to add to
the list of activities that help Barbara to maintain appropriate behavior throughout the day.
“Pick your Battles”
Not every challenging behavior requires a reaction. Instructors should assess each situation to
determine the need and the reason for an intervention. In some cases, the behavior is harmless
and can be ignored. Realize that once that decision is made, no intervention is needed—you are
done. When that happens, there is also less risk of rewarding the behavior with attention.
Tim is listening to music using headphones when he should be paying attention to the instructor.
If Tim is asked to remove his headphones, he will become upset.
First, assess whether Tim really does need to listen. There is currently no disruption to the class.
If there is an intervention, there may be a major disruption to the class. So, ignore the behavior; it
is harmless. Let it go. Pick your battles and avoid all unnecessary conflicts. Tim has the right to
refuse an activity.
Who has the control? If the behavior is ignored, the instructor maintains control—or perhaps it is
better to consider it a shared control. If the behavior is confronted, the student will take control
through unwanted behaviors.
(Note): From the perspective of shared control between two adults, when one tries to take more
than his or her share, it forces a response from the other to balance the control. When either the
participant or the instructor tries to take more than his or her share, the other person must
respond by taking back the control, and then some. Now you have a battle for control (power
struggle) because the first person tried to take something to which he or she was not entitled by
the rules of shared control in adult relationships.
Analyze the event. Often, we come to this type of understanding after the event has occurred. In
retrospect, instructors have realized that the problem they were trying to resolve was nothing
compared to the problem that developed.
“If you do not give it to me, I will take it”
People are going to use behaviors that get the results they want. Undesired behaviors are often
rational and purposeful. We want to decrease these behaviors. That is the purpose of each
chapter. However, we equally want to understand what the behavior is designed to communicate.
Katlin exhibits loud outbursts throughout the day. Her favorite activity is to talk about her
problems. She uses false accusations, aggression, and frequent medical complaints to acquire
attention. These behaviors are effective.
Wanting control and attention is not a bad thing. We start by respecting that. The behaviors
Katlin uses to gain attention and control have a harmful effect on an instructor’s desire to spend
time with her. Katlin has alienated the people with whom she most wants to spend time.
Unfortunately, avoiding her perpetuates the cycle.
Build large amounts of one-to-one time into Katlin’s schedule. It is important to note that Katlin
is already taking this time on her own terms. Have Katlin begin each day with a meeting to
review her concerns. Build in frequent opportunities for Katlin to discuss her problems
throughout the day. Conduct staff trainings and acknowledge how this will be hard for some staff
who have been negatively affected by Katlin’s past behavior. Help them understand the intent of
“Take me to the restroom, RIGHT NOW!”
Although not common, there can be cases of a participant damaging an instructor’s desire to
provide services. These challenging behaviors appear to be designed for the sole purpose of
upsetting the instructor.
Martha requires one-to-one assistance to use the restroom. These situations require a significant
effort. Frequently, once there, Martha does not actually use the restroom.
Instructors were challenged by this behavior. Our attention is first on the instructors and then on
Martha. The instructors needed to be rescued before anything else. There is some risk when
instructors become frustrated and upset with a participant, and the supervisor needs to recognize
the situation and provide support. Otherwise, instructors are being told, indirectly, to fix it
themselves. In our court system, we do not allow victims of crimes to determine the sentence the
criminal receives. In the same way, we do not want an instructor who is upset with a participant
to develop the participant’s behavior plan.
It is not uncommon for participants who have minimal ability to control their environment to
develop unconventional ways to control their environment. Respecting their need to have more
control over their environment, and responding to that need rather than to the behavior, may have
The treatment is specific to the case. With Martha, the reason she makes these frequent trips to
the restroom is not well understood. It may be that she has a physical sensation of needing to use
the restroom, but no longer feels it once she is there. Alternatively, she may enjoy the attention.
Because we do not know, it is best to assume that each time Martha requests to use the restroom,
she needs to use it, and we should continue to assist her. I recommend that during these times,
there should be as little engagement with Martha as possible. This does not mean ignoring her,
but rather, just minimizing attention.
There is a strategy we can use to understand Martha’s motivation to use the restroom so
frequently. In these situations, present Martha with an alternative activity that she may find more
enjoyable than going into the restroom. Both activities are going to be staff intensive, but the
alternative activity may be preferable. If Martha decides not to use the restroom in place of this
activity, we may begin to infer that the frequent requests to use the restroom, are more related to
a desire for attention, an expression of boredom, or maybe even a form of control over the
Currently, Martha obtains a high level of personal attention based on (potentially) maladaptive
behavior. The second part of this plan begins with an assessment of the amount of attention that
Martha achieves each day through the use of her “unconventional” techniques. Using this
information, we can redesign her program to give her that same level of attention in a healthier
and more positive manner. From there, we can build a significant amount of favorable one-to-
one time into Martha’s schedule so that she has attention before she needs to ask for it.
In a sense, we will be lavishing Martha with positive attention as a way to reset the playing field.
Our hope is that this approach will decrease Martha’s motivation to use more (potentially)
maladaptive techniques to acquire the same result. In time, this approach may result in her
requiring less staff intensity.
“I see nothing!”
The attention we give to a challenging behavior may have the unintended outcome of increasing
the frequency of the behavior.
Gwen frequently takes off her shoes.
Given that medical reasons and the possibility that her shoes are uncomfortable have been ruled
out, we should consider how this behavior is responded to in the classroom. If this behavior
results in Gwen getting attention, such as helping her put her shoes back on, we can assume that
this attention might be the motivation for Gwen taking off her shoes.
Ignoring the behavior, does not mean to ignore the person. If Gwen takes off her shoes for
attention, our treatment plan is to increase Gwen’s level of attention to a point that she does not
need to ask for it by taking off her shoes. From this perspective, we look at Gwen taking off her
shoes as a communication of, “I would like some attention, please.” Wanting attention is an
appropriate request, and so we want to respect that, and accommodate her. When Gwen takes off
her shoes, we will not “see” that behavior, but we will continue to work with her as if nothing
“I love race cars”
Sometimes, we miss the obvious. Successfully managing challenging behaviors may require
bringing an item into the classroom that you have learned is important to the participant, based
on an interview with the participant and his or her family.
Rather than participating in the normal day program structure, Larry preferred to wander around
the outside of the building. Larry did not cause any problems, but instructors were disappointed
that they did not have a connection with him. They felt like they should be doing more. At one
point, Larry began to urinate outdoors, rather than coming inside to use the restroom.
Larry was uninterested in the day program activities.
We made a formal effort to learn about Larry. Our goal was to develop a program for Larry that
was more reflective of his interests. From this effort, we learned that Larry was fascinated with
race cars. Larry was absorbed with anything related to race cars, and he had an advanced
understanding of them. Our new program for Larry included watching race car videos, providing
the opportunity for him to talk about race cars, providing a subscription to a race car magazine,
and posting pictures of race cars in his classroom.
“Break the chain”
The sooner you respond, the less challenging the undesired behavior may be.
Tommy’s aggression follows a type of chain reaction, with each link in the chain leading to a
more disruptive behavior. As an example, Tommy wants, and takes, an instructor’s pen. The
instructor takes it back, creating the first link in the chain (i.e., Tommy being denied something
he wants). Tommy may proceed to throw something on the floor. If this does not work, he may
go hit the window. If this does not work, he may begin to bite his hand, or he may hit the
instructor or another student who is in close proximity to him. Instructors have previously had to
clear the room and allow Tommy a sufficient amount of quiet time to calm down.
Historically, once Tommy’s behaviors are intense enough, they usually result in Tommy getting
what he wants. This behavior is functional. It works.
Our intervention begins at the first link of the chain. As soon as there is a conflict, Tommy must
be redirected toward something that has equal or greater value to him. In the first example,
Tommy has the control. Tommy will increase his behavior until the desired item is obtained.
Using a well-planned redirection, the instructor and Tommy may have the opportunity to share
the control, and the behavior may be averted. The key is that there is no appearance of a conflict
(i.e., taking the pen away), and that the redirection is equal to, or more preferable than, having
the pen. You may consider allowing Tommy to hold the pen until a more preferable item is
discovered (e.g., a pen that has his name on it).
Points to Consider
Working with challenging behaviors often involves altering our behavior rather than that of the
The personal hygiene of each participant attending a day program is an important concern for
program instructors and supervisors. Each participant should pass basic criteria in order to attend
the day program. Allowing participants to attend while having severe halitosis, significant body
odor, inadequate lunches, soiled clothing, or similar type of concerns is disrespectful to both the
participant and the instructor. To ignore these issues allows them to continue.
Behavior is communication. Respect the communication. We do not want to disregard what is
being communicated when we are trying to alter the challenging behavior. Only after we
understand the communication should we consider altering the behavior. Consider the
implication of trying to change the behavior of a person communicating that he or she is
It is tempting, when we discover what is important to participants, to use those things as
bargaining chips to get the participants to do what we want (e.g., “If you give me good behavior,
I will give you XYZ.”). These approaches exceed our authority, often represent a client rights
violation, and should not occur within a day program environment. In addition, now the
instructor is implementing his or her own, made-up behavior plans. What we sometimes do not
understand is that saturating participants with what they want may be more effective at
eliminating challenging behaviors.
Once the behavior plan is written, the next step is to determine who will be responsible for
overseeing implementation of the plan. It is important, and sometimes overlooked, that the plan
is written for the person who will be providing the services; just as this document is designed for
the person who will be providing the services. The direct support professional is the most
important person in all of our efforts to understand and work with challenging behaviors.
Once the instructor develops a positive relationship with the participant with whom they are
working, half of the work is done. The participant will improve by being with that instructor.
Reinterpreting a challenging behavior may help the instructor to have more empathy and to be
more forgiving when the behavior occurs. In Chapter Two the behavior was reinterpreted as
anxiety rather than something the consumer was doing “against” the instructor.
Consider this exercise when a participant is starting your program. In this scenario, imagin that
that you are starting a new day program, and the administrator of the program has given you
thirty minutes to write down everything you consider important about the services you will
receive. Let’s say your list includes morning coffee with cream, Michael Jackson music, arts and
crafts, a preferred nickname, and puppies. The program can use this information to get things off
to a good start. Imagine that on your first day, they have a cup of coffee with cream for you,
posters of Michael Jackson and pictures of puppies posted in the classroom, they call you by
your preferred nickname, and the morning activity is arts and crafts. (This is also relevant to
Learn to avoid power struggles. Be as clever as you need to be to avoid them.