Recent discussions with several of my families about behavior management has prompted me to write about something I am becoming increasingly concerned about: The ‘one-size-fits-all’ behavior management program.
There are any number of programs around at the moment, often manualized and with research behind them, that are being sold to families as guaranteed solutions to their child’s behavior problems. How can any program guarantee success? Unfortunately, these programs often blame parents for their inability to follow the program correctly if a child’s behavior does not improve, rather than questioning the suitability of the program to the individual child.
While behavior programs themselves can be helpful, and there are some common elements that are important in any intervention created to change a child’s behavior, the notion that any one program will be effective for all children is outdated and misguided, and unfortunately can cause a child and family unnecessary stress.
This is particularly evident in the world of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autistic children often demonstrate challenging behavior, sometimes including meltdowns and aggression, and families are desperate to find something that will help them support their children to behave more appropriately and manage their emotions more effectively. So when a program promises results, parents are understandably eager to sign up and see improvement in their child. But what they are promised is often not what they get, not because the program is necessarily ineffective, but because it does not work for their child.
The problem is that lumping all Autistic children together, and expecting them all to respond to the same intervention strategies, ignores the individual characteristics that make any child unique and the underlying reasons for the behavior. Factors such as personality, cognitive functioning, adaptive skills, sensory sensitivities and anxiety, can all impact on how a child responds to intervention, and parents are the most qualified people to figure out what intervention is going to suit their child best.
This has been illustrated most recently by the difficulties faced by parents of children with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), a subtype of Autism Spectrum Disorder characterized by severe anxiety, when they are trying to advocate for the fact that their children require a behavior management approach that is different to that usually recommended for children with ‘typical’ presentations of Autism.
Children with PDA experience anxiety at such a high level that even simple, everyday demands are met with defiance due to the child needing to be in control to feel safe. Many parents of children with PDA report undergoing years of being blamed for not being consistent enough, not being hard enough, and not setting clear enough limits, because they were being told to use strategies that usually work for Autistic children, and they were just not working.
Thankfully, a group of parents were able to make themselves heard and found professionals that would listen, leading to the development of strategies that are more likely to assist their children and be effective in supporting them to manage their behavior, as well as gaining recognition for the PDA profile.
This example is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows that parents know their children better than anyone else, and secondly, it illustrates that behavior management strategies need to be tailored to the individual child to be most effective.
When considering a behavior management intervention for any child, it is important to consider a number of factors including how a child communicates, their cognitive level, their skills in regulating their own behavior and emotions, their sensory sensitivities, what they are motivated by, and most importantly, the reason for their behavior. With this information, a plan that is suited to a child’s individual needs can be chosen or created.
It is important to remember that some children will respond well to firm rules and a reward system to reinforce appropriate behavior, while others will benefit from a more flexible approach that involves negotiation and collaborative problem solving. Finding the right approach may involve trial and error, but taking the time to find a system that works best for a child and their family will ultimately be most effective.
So parents, please do not be afraid to speak up if you feel that the strategies you are given to support your child don’t seem to be working; and professionals, don’t forget to listen to parents and work with them to find the best way to support them and their children.
Nothing in life is as simple as ‘one-size-fits-all’, especially when it comes to children, so if you are looking for support for a child’s behavior, please consider the individual and what strategies will best suit them, rather than trying to make the child fit the program.