The unrelenting screaming, head-banging, defiance, and tears. We all know about this–or some version of this. Every child at some point will have a temper tantrum; it may be quick and easily diffused, or it may be colossal, embarrassing, and out in public where you just want to run around the corner and hide. Regardless, tantrums are inevitable and are part of parenting and working in education.
Children with autism often have a more difficult time with recognizing and controlling emotions, therefore more tantrums are typically seen in the autism population rather than in a child without autism. Their tantrums can be more frequent, more intense, and last much longer than the average. When tantrums begin interfering with everyday tasks, school, and disrupt those around, they can be considered excessive and need to be dealt with. A child having a fit every once in a while is not something to be concerned about; however, if these emotional outbursts are happening every day and are impeding what needs to get done, then the issue needs to be addressed.
How do ABA therapists intervene to reduce tantrums?
Whether in the classroom, when receiving specialized ABA therapy, or even at home, the reason why a child is having a tantrum is of utmost importance in order to develop a plan to reduce the occurrences. An ABA therapist will conduct a functional analysis to figure out what is going on and how to help.
Determining the Antecedent(s)
Determining the antecedent, or the events that led up to the behavior (the tantrum), is the first step. Some examples of an antecedent to a tantrum are:
- Being unable to effectively communicate with caregiver
- Being told no or not getting what they want at that time
- Seeing someone else get attention from preferred person
- Having a moment where there is a sensory overload
- Being asked to do an unpreferred activity
Let’s say that an ABA therapist is in a second-grade ASD classroom observing Emily. Emily’s teachers have recently reported an increase in the frequency and duration of tantrums and they need help identifying what was going on. The ABA therapist observed Emily at different times throughout the day for a few days. He noticed that every time Emily exhibits precursor behaviors that lead to a tantrum, she is either placed in a group with or sitting near a particular student who is usually very loud and often stims. The antecedent in this situation is a certain student who makes noise and frequent gestures.
Antecedent interventions for tantrums are important to implement immediately once you understand what is going on.
Creating a Behavior Intervention Plan for Tantrums
Once the typical antecedents, behaviors, and consequences are determined for Emily and her tantrums, a behavior intervention plan (BIP) can be created. ABA therapists and SPED teachers have their own methods of collecting data and creating a BIP.
Some common interventions used to reduce or prevent tantrums in children with autism include:
- Structuring time and using schedules
- Ignoring problem behavior through extinction
- Using shared control, or choice (example via a choice board)
- Using behavioral momentum
**Behavioral momentum refers to the tendency for behavior to persist following a change in environmental conditions. The greater the rate of reinforcement, the greater the behavioral momentum.
- Altering demands
- Using social stories
- Using clear communication
- Utilizing consequences
- Using a reward system
Now back to Emily. A Behavior Intervention Plan was created for Emily by her ABA therapist and teacher. Some proactive interventions the team decided to put into place include allowing Emily to choose preferred seating at certain times, to give her a break card so that she may be allowed to leave the group or room with an adult if she starts to feel frustrated, and to begin using a token economy for appropriate behaviors, such as engaging with other students, staying in a group, etc.
Part of any BIP should be to teach replacement behaviors for the tantrums. We cannot expect that Emily will be successful in reducing her inappropriate behaviors if she is not explicitly taught replacement behaviors. “Instead of doing this, you can do this or that.”
Dealing With a Tantrum in the Moment
Just because Emily has a BIP, doesn’t mean that the problem behavior will not present itself. More realistically, the problem behavior may increase due to what is known as an extinction burst. Not only does Emily need to be taught how to monitor her feelings and control her tantrums, but she also needs to be able to self-monitor (which is not always an option for children with autism) and/or accept help from others in order to reduce the duration and intensity of a tantrum once one has begun.
Interventions to help children while they are in the middle of a tantrum are:
- Practice deep breathing and counting with the child
- Use sensory items (fidget toy, lower lighting, weighted vest or blanket)
- Use three-step prompting to get the child back to a task and compliant
- Reduce anxiety through calming music or essential oils
- Allow the use of noise-canceling headphones if that helps
- Limit verbal demands unless you are using three-step prompting
Some extra tips from Accessible ABA …
- Stay calm. Becoming angry or frustrated will make the situation worse. When trying to end a tantrum you want your child to calm down. This won’t happen unless you are also calm. When you are agitated, upset, and yelling your child will feed off this energy and will have a harder time calming down.
- If your child is in danger of hurting himself or others, take him to a quiet, safe place.
- In public move the child from the attention of onlookers. A tantrum may stop if the audience is removed.
Many of these strategies can be used even if a full-blown tantrum is not going on. The main thing teachers and caregivers want to remember is that it is better to be proactive than reactive, which is why the Behavior Intervention Plan is so important. Figuring out the WHY behind the tantrum and creating a plan of action is a must. Determine precursor behaviors and antecedents so that you know exactly when a tantrum might rear its ugly head. Training a child with autism to stay out of and get out of a tantrum takes persistence, motivation, and a lot of positive reinforcement; but it can be done!
If you are currently dealing with a tantrum situation at home or in the school setting, contact an ABA therapist/your school’s county, and discuss your options as soon as possible.
ABA Programs Guide Staff