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Ben Throop

Asking for a break to decrease challenging behavior

Children are often frustrated by a difficult task or skill. This frustration can increase especially if the child has special needs or if the child is in an environment that is more demanding than they are equipped to deal with. This high level of potential frustration can lead to challenging behavior like screaming, hitting, or even throwing materials.

Rather than removing all difficult skills, it is more useful to the child to teach him or her a skill to express this frustration appropriately. If the child is not taught a way to express his or her frustration, the challenging behavior can get worse. Soon parents or teachers are at their wits end about what to do with this child. In this particular situation, assessment often reveal that the reason a child is continuing to engage in the behavior is due to a desire to escape the task. When a child is engaging in challenging behavior to escape a task, one of the first recommendations I have for the parent or educator is to teach the child to appropriately ask for a break.

By teaching a child to appropriately request for a break, you can give the child another skill (i.e. asking nicely for a break) that REPLACES the previously negative behavior (i.e. hitting to get out of work). This concept is incredibly important when working to decrease challenging behavior. Without providing the child with another behavior to put in its place that achieves same function, the child often returns to the previous behavior that allowed them to escape work.

One way to teach a child to request a break is to use a variety of visuals. Visuals can be effective due to the highly individualized nature of the materials. With visuals, you can make materials specifically intended for a child depending on how they communicate. Visual picture cards can be images, words, or the combination of both.
When first introducing this skill to a child, it is helpful to set up many situations throughout the day where the child can practice the skill. To begin, pick a skill that is relatively difficult for the child to complete without some level of frustration. If the child normally can work for 3 minutes on the task without getting frustrated, choose a shorter time period to begin. Start this time period and quickly prompt the child to ask for a break. I would recommend very short intervals to ensure that the child is successful. For example after 30 seconds prompt the child to ask for a break; even if they are NOT yet frustrated. This increases success with the task and allows the child to see the results of them using this new appropriate skill (they STILL get out of the task briefly to calm down and work in small increments). The interval of work can be increased once the child begins to engage in the task with greater confidence. 
Asking for a break can look different for various children. It can be a child giving an adult a visual, raising their hand to ask for a break, saying “I need a break” or signing. A break can simply be the child sitting without demands on their desk for a short period of time or it may be a time where the child can engage in some relaxing activity. As a general rule, it is helpful to keep the breaks short and without highly preferred activities. Overall, a break is meant to give the child an appropriate way to take a break from the difficult activity for a short period of time.
While teaching a child to request a break is an incredibly useful skill, it may not single-handedly decrease the challenging behavior to manageable levels. To do this, professionals often add in other parts to the behavior plan to get at all the functions of the challenging behavior. There are other recommendations that are often paired with teaching a child to request a break, such as putting in an additional reinforcement system (i.e. access to computer after task, stickers, snack, etc.).
Note: For more detailed suggestions for a particular child and behavior, it is most helpful to consult a behavior analyst or other qualified professional.



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