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Surviving Summer: A Behavior Analyst's Quick Reference Guide to Keeping Your Cool

Why is Summertime So Hard?

Summertime can mean family vacations, warm (or hot!) weather, pool time, or fun in the sun! No matter what you do over the summer, the hope is that it is fun and easy for all, right? Especially for our kiddos! This is often a great time of year for kids, because it means school is out. Well, that’s great and all, but sometimes that doesn’t mean things will be easy. Especially for folks who depend on routines or don’t prefer change.

Summer schedules can be full of changes and newness. And for children with autism, changes – even good ones – can be extremely stressful. During the school year, families and teachers work so hard to develop fine-tuned routines. Everything from waking up, to school expectations, to bedtime routines are predictable. But those schedules often unravel as summer approaches. You add in new environments, new social rules, new teachers or people, new activities…the list goes on and on. Sometimes the activities might be predictable, but they’re done at a different time of day. Or these new things come with complicated, unfamiliar, or even unexplained rules.

Summer can also mean free time. While having a chance to your do your own thing can be awesome, often young children or children with autism have a difficult time self-directing, so down time can be frustrating. We all know what it’s like to be paralyzed by choice-- in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, picking what movie to watch on Netflix, which of the 300 chores to do first?... you get the point!... Having a bunch of options isn’t always a good thing. Standing in a room full of toys without really knowing what your options are can be very overwhelming for a child, especially if they have narrow interests or limited play skills. Further, not having a functional activity to engage in can lead to problem behavior.

These are just a few of the MANY obstacles to face during the summer (or even a long weekend), so it’s easy to understand why it can be hard for children to cope with all of these changes. It’s probably fair to say that all people function best when we know what’s coming next, what’s expected of us, and what we can expect from others. The strategies we want to share with you today are all about pre-planning and consistency. One of the first things you learn in an ABA class is that behavior is predictable. Next you’ll probably learn that the more times you practice and reinforce a behavior the stronger or more likely it is to occur again. On the flip side, the opposite is true. The more times a mistake is practiced the more ingrained it will become and challenging it will be to change. With regard to problem behavior, prevention really is the key. That means preparing on the front end and always finding opportunities to reinforce and praise good behavior.

The simple strategies on our infographic (click for a printable PDF) are further explained in detail below. And remember, these are some of our favorite tips! They’re all about preventing problem behavior, finding opportunities to reinforce the good stuff, and taking advantage of teachable moments. When these strategies become habits, we’ve found teachers and parents produce positive changes! Thinking positively, planning ahead, and curbing those meltdowns will certainly make for a happier kid – but make you a happier, less-stressed parent too!

So Let’s Get Started…

1. Plan and make it fun

We all function better when we have something to stay occupied, so providing some things to do for our kids is always a good thing! This doesn’t mean that you always have to have a special trip or activity planned, but just providing some direction or options during what would otherwise be down time can stave off the boredom and keep everyone happy! Even mundane tasks can be made more interesting and easier to stay on top of when there is structure added. A chore chart, for example… even if it is resisted at first, this kind of structure can make non-preferred tasks dependable and predictable. And… it can make it that much easier to provide clear incentives and positive reinforcement for keeping up with these ‘not so fun’ routines and activities.

2. Use pre-teaching

Pre-teaching refers to communicating boundaries and expectations to your child before heading into a potentially difficult situation or circumstance in which he/she has had trouble in the past. Some examples could include setting some rules or contingencies in advance before setting off on a long road trip or discussing the expectations for behavior before heading into the grocery store together. Simply saying, “Remember, when we get into the checkout line, we keep our hands to ourselves, and we don’t touch anything. When you do a great job, we will have your snack when we get home!” A familiar example if you’ve read our blog in the past, but this just demonstrates a parent communicating an expectation as well as a reinforcement contingency for what will happen when he/she follows the directions appropriately.

3. Provide choices

Who doesn’t prefer to have their input taken into consideration when deciding what’s going to happen in their lives? We sure do… and kids do too! Providing even the simplest of choices for activities can prevent problem behavior by directing your child’s focus to something appropriate like choosing their preferred item or activity. You can even present choices in situations when there isn’t truly an option at all. Take bedtime for example… Maybe your child doesn’t have an option to stay up and play, but you can still provide choices that don’t matter to your bottom line. “OK, it’s time for bed. Do you want me to sing you a song, or should we read a story?” or “Snack time. Do you want strawberries or yogurt?” These kinds of choices not only give your child some control over their circumstances, but they help to direct his/her focus to something other than the thing that they can’t have or need to stop doing. So, consider giving some alternative options when you have to say no to something else.

4. Use first-then

As adults who are in control of our lives and schedules, we often take for granted how dependent on predictability we can become -- always knowing what you are going to be doing next, or later today, or even over the next few days. That is why we think it is a good idea to regularly let your kids know what is coming up and what to expect. It can be helpful to use statements such as “First, we are going to____, then we can ____.” Not only does this help to simply make things more predictable, but if the activity that they need to do first is no fun, you can use the then activity as a ‘break.’ Following a less preferred activity by a more preferred activity can help keep your kiddos motivated and teach them to “keep their eye on the prize” by focusing on the good or fun thing that is coming next. This can definitely be a big part of the pre-teaching strategies that we discussed in tip number 2!

5. Use shaping

Shaping refers to a learning process where small steps toward a larger goal are reinforced until a new skill or behavior is learned or developed. Think about an adult exercise routine for example. You work up to running around the block, then a mile, then a 5k, etc. all while working toward the ultimate goal of running a marathon. If the first step was the marathon, you’d never reach it. Gradually raising the bar toward a larger goal can apply to many things in life, and our kids are no different. Break down a task into smaller steps if you can, and always look to reinforce small improvements, even when they are still not quite perfect. Staying mindful of this concept can help you get some positive momentum and change behavior for the better without setting the bar too high in the beginning.

6. Predictable transitions

An easy way to help prevent tough transitions times is increasing predictability from one activity to the next, especially when it’s time to move from a super fun activity to something less preferred. Going from building a Lego death star to having to brush your teeth is a pretty big buzz kill. You can use a regular timer, a visual timer (these are cool for kids that have a hard time understanding the concept of time…these timers use a red visual cue that slowly ticks away until the timer dings), or pictures of the activities. You can also give 10-5-1 minute countdown warnings. And don’t forget to pair these strategies with first-next statements and pre-teaching! Timers are also good for activities that don’t have a natural or a clear end. Simply letting your child know how long the “boring” activity will last can help them to keep their eye on the prize. Sometimes, just knowing that there is an end in sight can be enough to keep motivation up.

7. Reinforce and reward

This is a basic concept, but we think it is always worth discussing. You’re always going to have more success with improving behavior and teaching new skills by focusing on the positive and reinforcing good behaviors. There is loads of research that supports this. Sometimes it can be easy to forget to acknowledge positive things and simply react when your child does something wrong. We all fall into this trap sometimes. But, try to remember to stay positive and focus on the good things. Reinforcement goes a long way, and it’s the first step to preventing problems all together!

8. Focus on what to do instead of what you want your child to stop doing

While we understand that there are certainly circumstances when any parent needs to correct their child’s behavior, you’ll have more positive outcomes in general if you can focus on redirection rather than reprimands. When your child is doing something he/she shouldn’t, rather than telling them to stop, try telling them specifically what to do instead. Not only does this keep the focus on what they need to do to correct the problem, but it also allows you take advantage of opportunities to teach the appropriate alternative if they should have done something different to achieve the same outcome. Then when they follow the direction or begin to engage in the appropriate behavior, it gives you an opportunity to praise the good stuff!

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