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    Using Antecedent Strategies to Minimize Challenging Behaviors with Autistic Students

    Topics: Autism & Emotions, Infant/Toddler (0-3), Elementary (4-12), Teen (13-17)

    An antecedent is an event, action, or circumstance that occurs directly before a behavior. Using antecedent strategies involves modifying an environment to reduce undesirable behaviors among learners with autism spectrum disorder before they occur.

    All behavior has a purpose or a function, and before we can change a behavior, we need to understand why it is happening. If you are a teacher, you may be familiar with the ABC’s of applied behavior analysis -- the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence. Before we can try to increase or decrease a behavior, we need to determine the antecedent, or what is causing the behavior. In applied behavior analysis, we refer to this as the “function” of the behavior. 

    young girl with autism looking bored while playing at a school deskAntecedent strategies are preventative strategies implemented in the classroom to reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviors. These strategies focus on modifying the environment or removing elements in the environment that may be triggering or increasing the challenging behavior. 

    Although antecedent strategies are evidence-based interventions used by Behavior Analysts, there are some simple strategies that can be implemented universally, which benefit not only students with autism in the classroom, but also neuro-typical students. 

    First, we need to identify the antecedent to the behavior. 

    Here are some common questions to ask yourself:

    • When is the behavior most likely to occur?   
    • When is the behavior least likely to occur?
    • What happens right before the behavior occurs?
    • Who is present when the behavior occurs?
    • What are the conditions in the classroom when the behavior occurs?

    I often hear people say, “the behavior came out of nowhere.” Although it may not be immediately obvious, one thing to remember is that there is always an antecedent. Let’s look at some possible antecedents for behavior:

    • Certain teachers/adults present or absent
    • Noise level in the classroom, or outside of the classroom, maybe in the hallway
    • Visual stimulation, such as a window or open classroom door
    • A change in the routine, even small changes can have an effect
    • Placing a demand on the student
    • Denying access to something a student wants
    • Unstructured time when the student may feel unsure
    • Restricted attention can often cause attention seeking behaviors
    • Social expectations can become stressful, such as group work

    If you have a student with autism who sits next to the window with a clear visual to another class outside on the playground for recess, this may be an antecedent that causes a behavior to occur. In this case, you may consider moving this student to a different seat. 

    If you have a student who becomes disruptive or noncompliant when it is time for “group work,”

    Then the social expectation of the group work may be the antecedent. 

    Naughty and messy little boy with autism

    Here are some antecedent strategies to help minimize challenging behaviors that may present in the classroom:

    1. Altering the physical environment – Take a look at the physical modifications that can be made in the classroom. For example, sit the student in a spot where there is minimal distraction, control the noise level in the classroom, close the classroom door to eliminate hallway distractions or noise, adjust the lighting to decrease sensory related issues. 
    2. Alter the structure of the classroom – Clearly set expectations and rules for the classroom. Create a schedule and a routine to eliminate confusion or an unsure feeling about what is next. Mark the areas of the classroom and the items in the classroom so that they are visible. 
    3. Prepare your students for transitions – Identify a system to use consistently that prepares the students for the next task. For example, use a countdown; in ten minutes; in five minutes; in two minutes…and then specifically state what will happen next. This will make the students aware that they will be transitioning to the next task or activity. 
    4. Understand student preferences – Which tasks and activities do the students prefer, and which of these can be modified to make them more enjoyable and increase motivation for the students to participate. 
    5. Use visual supports – There is significant evidence that students with autism process visual information better than auditory information. Provide visual representation of rules, expectations, and schedules to use as a reference point and reduce confusion. 
    6. Shared control – Offering limited choices will allow the student(s) to feel as though they have some control over the environment and increase cooperation.  

    Keep in mind that when making any modifications or changes to the environment, those changes should be made gradually, especially to accommodate your student(s) with autism. When autistic students learn, they thrive the most through repetition and when complex skills are broken down into smaller steps. 


    Using Behavior Momentum for Task Completion

    Another effective antecedent strategy used in applied behavior analysis is behavior momentum. When using behavior momentum, you precede a difficult task with several easier tasks. This leads to the student achieving small reinforcements for easier tasks first. These small reinforcements build momentum and confidence, increasing the likelihood of the student engaging in the difficult task.     


    Using Noncontingent Reinforcement to Decrease Motivation to Engage in Challenging Behaviors

    Noncontingent reinforcement is a strategy where the teacher delivers ongoing, brief reinforcement to a student independent of the student’s behavior. The reinforcement is provided to the student so that the problem behavior becomes unnecessary.

    Here is an example where attention seeking is the challenging behavior:

    Alice puts her head down on her desk and cries 2-3 times during group instruction. You conclude that the function of the behavior is attention. You decide to implement a noncontingent reinforcement procedure to decrease the crying during group instruction. Rather than wait until the challenging behavior occurs, you provide attention to Alice every 10 minutes throughout the 30-minute group instruction. This attention is brief and direct such as a quick compliment or check in to make sure she is doing okay. These interactions will reduce her desire to gain attention by crying.  

    little boy with autism looking guilty

    Key Points

    There are many other antecedent strategies that can help minimize challenging behaviors. When choosing these strategies, always do your research and consult behavior analysis professionals. When working with students with autism, always follow any written behavior plan and consult with a BCBA before making any changes to the treatment plan. 

    Marianne Coppola

    Written by Marianne Coppola

    Marianne Coppola, MHA, ABA works as a child development specialist with toddlers and pre-schoolers. She is passionate about early intervention and finding creative and engaging ways to help children reach developmental milestones. Her work extends to children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Social Anxiety, and Motor Development Delays. She holds an M.A. in Healthcare Administration, and an M.A. in Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis. She is currently studying to become a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and is pursuing a PhD in Behavioral Health.