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ABA Therapy for Children: How to Standardise Behaviour Across Different Settings and Teach Children to Follow Instructions

As a parent, you would have observed and compared your child’s behaviour across various settings. Not surprisingly, one of the most common questions asked by parents was why their children behave differently in different settings.

Their behaviours across the different external environments can be starkly different, and these differences are largely attributed to factors, such as peer imitation, environmental differences, usage of schedules and consistency.

What do these factors mean and how will they affect children’s behaviours? Let us find out.

Angry Child

Factors Affecting Children’s Behavioural Standardisation Across Settings

  1. Peer Imitation

    Peer imitation plays a vital role in moulding a child’s behaviour, especially within a school setting. Children tend to imitate and model after each other, be it during play or when learning to behave in a socially appropriate manner. Through observing their peers and their reactions, children learn about the consequences of the positive reinforcements that follow.

    Peer imitation aids in the child’s integration process in a mainstream school setting as well. Peer modelling is critical as the child learns that appropriate behaviours are socially reinforcing and motivating, for example, increase in peers and/or adults’ interactions and/or play, increase in social praises and/or encouragements, etc. As such, the child will start behaving in a socially acceptable and appropriate manner. Social playgroup is an excellent premise for peer imitation as it allows a smaller group of children to learn how to interact appropriately with one another within a controlled setting.

  2. Different Environments and Schedules

    This refers to the various types of environmental settings a child is exposed to, which can elicit different behavioural outcomes, whether these behaviours are appropriate or not.

    One type of environment may be more suited to a child’s learning style and abilities, while another may not be as conducive. Some environments may be better equipped with materials, such as schedules and/or visual aids, that can help the child transition better and more seamlessly from place to place or task to task as well as setting expectations for them. Some environments may have lesser distractions within the vicinity, which in turn, helps the child focus. If an environment is too overwhelming with stimuli, the child may not perform to the best of their capabilities.

    As such, a child will thrive in an environment where their needs are considered and catered to.

    For example, in a school setting, there is typically a designated area for play which makes it clear and distraction-free for the child. Compared to a home setting, play and work areas are usually not as well defined, which could blur the boundaries of the types of behaviour we expect from the child. This can also create distractions that could hinder the child’s learning.

    Environments that set behavioural expectations and use schedules tend to offer better opportunities for the child to grow and thrive. For example, in schools, schedules are utilised and they provide structure and set clear behavioural expectations for the child. The use of these schedules facilitates a smoother transitioning between classes and is especially crucial in the introduction of novel activities, new environments, and/or changes happening within the school.

    The use of schedules also helps the child manage their behavioural expectations. If the child understands what is expected of them (e.g., introduce rules), there will be a sense of consistency and routine; however, if the child is in an environment where there are no expectations or schedules, they will be left idle most of the time, and such a situation could lead to an increased frequency of inappropriate behaviours. It is thus important to create a schedule to set clear behavioural expectations for the child.

  3. Consistency

    Consistency is key for a child to thrive and be successful in all aspects. Regardless of environmental differences, if the family members, teachers and other adults around the child remain consistent in their interactions with the child, it can reinforce what the child is learning and help the child thrive.

    If a child learns that an undesirable behaviour goes unrewarded in one environment, the frequency to display that particular undesired behaviour will decrease; however, if the same behaviour is “rewarded” in another environment, the frequency of that behaviour will increase instead, as the child has learned that there will be no consequences to their actions.

    Consistency across all environments is crucial for every child. When a child has learned which behaviours and/or settings warrant good or bad consequences, the tendency to maintain good behaviours are maintained and learned, while bad behaviours are extinguished.

    For example, if a child has learned to request appropriately and was rewarded with a positive outcome, the probability of that appropriate behaviour (i.e., requesting) repeating will be higher and be maintained over time; however, in a setting where the reinforcements are inconsistent regardless of behaviours, the probability of the targeted behaviour would occur less frequently and the child will display different or inconsistent behaviours based on what they have picked up.

    Oftentimes, a child learns that they can “be themselves” at home since there is little or no consequences involved as compared to a public or school setting, where their inappropriate behaviours are suppressed due to set expectations and consequences.

    Consistency across all environments is thus of paramount importance to enable a child to feel safe, both at home and in school.

Children Playing

Teaching and Developing Instruction-Following Skill in Children

We have seen the factors that can affect behaviour standardisation across different settings and understood that well-defined expectations and consistency are important throughout a child’s learning journey. In this section, we will talk about how to teach your child to follow directions to enhance their learning experience.

Typically developing children observe and learn about things in a very natural and smooth manner from their environment. For some of our children, however, we need to modify our ways of teaching various skills, including following instructions.

Here are some insightful ways in which you can build that skill:

  • Pair with your child
    Start by neutrally engaging with them in things they like and delivering preferred items freely, such that they develop a positive association with you as a fun person, rather than someone who will just give them instructions or take away things they like.
  • Start simple, start small, reward!
    Start with very simple directives, which the child will be able to successfully follow. Reward successful actions, and then gradually increase the difficulty level of the instructions.
  • Keep your directives short, simple and concrete
    Children have selective attending skills, so lengthy instructions with too many unnecessary words may confuse the child. For example, instead of saying, “Let us sit down”, simply say, “Sit down”.
  • Use positive statements
    Statements that start with “Don’t__” only tell that what they are not supposed to do but do not convey the expected behaviours. For example, instead of saying “Don’t scream”, you can say, “Quiet voice/mouth”.
  • Use visual cues
    Most children are visual learners. Pairing your instructions with visuals can help them understand and follow instructions better. Some good examples include using ‘first-then’ boards for activities, visual schedule boards for routines or ‘wait’ cards in situations that require them to wait.
  • Reward differentially
    You can shape the child’s responses by varying the quality of rewards. For example, for independent and quicker responses, reward the child with their favourite toy or activity. For instructions that the child required more assistance with or will take more time to follow, reward with a moderately preferred item.
  • Provide choices, be flexible
    Including choices in our instructions makes children feel empowered and gives them a degree of control, which they will then be more likely to follow instructions. For example, ask the child questions, such as “Do you want to do Math or English first?” or “Should we colour this picture or that one?”, etc.
  • Be consistent and follow through
    Show your child that you can be trusted. Always say what you mean and mean what you say. If you have promised them a reward for doing something, make sure you keep your word. If you have denied them something, make sure you do not give them access to it no matter what.
  • Address problem behaviours
    If you avoid the problem behaviour, you may never be able to correct it or may unintentionally shape negative patterns of behaviour. When problem behaviour occurs, you have an opportunity to teach them replacement functional skills or behaviours.
  • Encourage functional communication
    Provide and create opportunities for your child to use their communication skills. If everything is readily given to them, they will not see the need to initiate communication. We want our children to be ready for the real world, pro-actively engaging with their surroundings and initiating social interactions.

What is ABA Therapy?

The principles and techniques we have covered on standardising behaviours and teaching children to follow simple instructions are taken from the widely used Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA is an evidence-based intervention that has over 50 years of efficacy in helping people of all ages, especially children with developmental delays/disorders and/or behavioural challenges. ABA uses the principles of learning and motivation to teach skills in the areas of functional communication and language, social skills, play skills and academic skills. It is also used to reduce undesirable behaviours, teach replacement skills and shape positive behaviours. ABA takes on a scientific and data-driven approach that focuses on fostering independence and honing a child’s ability to generalise and utilise their learning across different situations, settings and/or people.

About Dynamics Behaviour Analysis

For any ABA-related exercises you wish to implement at home, you can do so in consultation with our dedicated ABA Therapists. We are here to support you and your child with the best.

Our highly qualified ABA Therapists collectively have extensive experience working with children and adults from different countries and have been trained and worked with some of the best in ABA. Our team is led by a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA).

Kids having a conversation

Adept at using best practices and research-based intervention strategies and procedures, our dynamic team is committed to providing personalised and data-driven programmes and care, and actively partnering with parents and caregivers to enable every child to reach their full potential, achieve goals and enjoy an empowering learning experience. Our sessions are typically held 1:1 for more intensive therapy, with in-depth assessments, individualised education programmes, ongoing evaluations and feedback. Furthermore, we offer convenience through various service delivery models. Our sessions can be conducted at our centre, your home or a combination of both (hybrid).

We also ensure seamless and hassle-free integrated care and support by working closely with experienced healthcare professionals of Dynamics Therapy Group’ in-house multidisciplinary team, such as Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physiotherapists, Counsellors, Education Therapists, and more.