Creating the "Just Right Challenge" for Children with Challenging Behaviors
Updated: May 20, 2022
By: Sara Wilbert OTR/L CYT ASDCS
When a young child is presented with a new task or skill that they perceive as too hard, they can often demonstrate negative behaviors such as ignoring, tantrums, escape, aggressions or avoidance. Even if they have the physical capability to perform the task, their perception of trying something new can create anxiety or fear.
When the child demonstrates these negative behaviors, it takes the adult's focus off the demand of the task and redirects their focus to the behavior, so that the child does not have to complete it. It is common for parents and other caregivers to stop presenting that task or activity in order to "avoid a trigger." This compounds into teaching children that the negative behavior gets them what they wanted, which was to escape the activity that was presented to them.
As children get older and stronger, these reinforced negative behaviors can become dangerous to themselves and to others. Presenting new activities and tasks is inevitable as children get older. Avoidance of introducing new skills leads to a delay in acquiring the skills needed for school, leisure, play and self-help tasks. Early intervention with therapy is so important to help children develop the skills they need in order to be successful and to decrease these negative responses to new skills.
Many children have challenges with motor coordination, planning motor movements, visual perceptual difficulties, low muscle tone and sensory processing difficulties that can impact their ability to easily learn new skills. Occupational therapists work to breakdown new tasks into smaller steps or simplify activities so that children can be successful. This creates confidence for the child and trust in the teacher, parent or therapist who is presenting the new skill. Creating trusting relationships with children and having an awareness of the child's abilities can help the create the “just right challenge.”
Here are 5 strategies parents and teachers can use when teaching a new skill or task to a child who demonstrates challenging behaviors:
Demonstrate the skill and use a visual approach. Often verbal directions alone can be challenging for children to process. The use of pictures or a visual sequence is helpful for a child to understand the steps needed to complete the task. For example, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. Demonstrate the skill on your own toothbrush. Have a picture sequence of the steps needed to learn the skill.
Provide hand over hand prompting or direction while standing behind the child, if they accept tactile prompting. Ask them "can I help you do it?"
Acknowledge their frustration, emotions and provide encouragement.
Reward attempts to participate in the new skill, even if they do not complete the entire skill/task independently. Even completing one step of the skill is an achievement. For example, help the child put their coat on, engage the zipper for them and then prompt them to pull the zipper up on their own. Give positive reinforcement when they attempt to pull up the zipper.
Remember less talking and more visual prompting. Children can become overwhelmed by too much verbal direction. Monitor the child for signs of frustration and modify the skill or task so that they can be successful. Even if is only completing one step, having them watch someone complete the skill, or getting through the step with physical guidance, give praise and create positive learning experiences.
If your child is struggling with learning new motor skills for school or home, an occupational therapist can help your child improve their independence and support you in how to approach teaching new skills to your child. If you live in New Jersey, use the contact link on this page to schedule a free 15 minute virtual screening/consultation with me to determine if your child would benefit from an occupational therapy evaluation. I provide in-home evaluations and therapy sessions in areas of Ocean County, New Jersey and teletherapy services for all of New Jersey.