When your child’s behaviour escalates, we know how hard it can be to calm them down. By learning proactive strategies, you can reduce the likelihood and frequency that challenging behaviours escalate or even prevent them from occurring in the first place. Here are some ideas for proactive strategies you can use when you recognize the signs that your child may be triggered along with guidelines to help them calm down. Some families experiencing challenging behaviours may also benefit from our Urgent Response Services.
Recognize warnings signs and act quickly
- Keep an eye out for behaviours that tend to occur before the challenging behaviour occurs. For example, if the challenging behaviour is aggression, your child might cry before the situation escalates.
- As soon as you recognize that behaviour is becoming more urgent, begin to support your child to deescalate. An effective way to do this is to provide your child with choices or ask them questions. For example, if your child is becoming upset, you can ask if they want to be alone or if they want someone to sit with them.
Have a designated break space
- Designate a space where your child can go to calm down. If your child becomes triggered, prompt them to take a break in their calm down space.
- For some children with autism, breathing techniques while in their break space can work well to help them calm down.
Have consistent routines and schedules
- Predictability and familiarity can help prevent challenging behaviour. This is achieved by having a clear routine and family schedule. This is both reassuring for your child and helps keep everyone in your household on track.
- When your child is engaged in a preferred activity, be sure to use transitional warnings (for example “you have five more minutes on the iPad.”) This ensures your child has time to process that the preferred activity will be ending soon.
- Consider waiting for activities to reach a natural ending before asking your child to transition, like the end of a show or the last bite of a snack.
Use “first-then” language
- This proactive visual strategy relies on pictures or words to show a child what happens first and what follows next. This is especially useful in helping your child cope with transitions.
- The “first” might be an unpreferred activity, like a medical appointment, but the “then” will be an activity your child enjoys. This helps build your child’s motivation as they see that something rewarding will happen once they get through the first (less desirable) activity.
- If transitions are especially difficult for your child, you may consider pairing the “first-then” technique with a timer or additional visuals that clearly illustrate the preferred activity your child will receive.
Use a visual schedule
- This strategy uses pictures to show the day’s activities, giving your child a sense of predictability while ensuring all family members are on the same page about what will happen during the day, and in what order.
- A visual schedule allows your child to see that after an unpreferred activity, like accompanying a caregiver on an errand, they will get to do something they enjoy or will earn a reward later in the day.
- A visual schedule helps teach your child skills, like how to wait in between activities. You can refer to the visual schedule throughout the day to show your child what’s coming up next.
Remain calm and consistent
- It’s important to present yourself as calm to your child (even if you’re not feeling calm), Your behaviour will help guide your child’s actions and reactions and can help keep challenging behaviour at bay.
- Being consistent in how you respond to behaviour is important. This helps your child understand what consequence will follow after they engage in a specific behaviour. Conversely, being inconsistent makes it difficult for your child to learn what follows each behaviour. This can lead to a child engaging in more intense behaviours to access something they want.
- Simple communication is a key proactive strategy. A child with autism who is inundated with too many words or too many commands at once may become overstimulated and will stop processing information.
- Be concise when communicating. Make sure you use language that clearly conveys what the expectations are and follow through on those expectations.
- When asking your child to perform a task, focus on one thing at a time. For example, ask your child to “put their plate in the sink” instead to layering on other tasks, like asking them to “put away their plate, then sit on the couch and talk with their siblings”. Keeping things simple makes it easier for your child to comply with any demands placed on them.
- Give your child options and allow them to choose what they want. This provides them with a sense of autonomy and independence. While you will still control which choices are presented, you will get more buy-in if your child feels like they are part of the process, and they’re in charge of making the final decision.
- Try using a choice board, which consists of written words or pictures to show your child the items that are available for them to choose from.
Use positive reinforcement
- Positive reinforcement is another proactive way you can manage behaviour. Positive reinforcement can take many forms, like:
- social praise
- access to a tangible item
- scheduling special time to hang out
- doing a preferred activity together
- Using a positive approach and giving your child access to things they enjoy to reward appropriate behaviour helps decrease the likelihood they will engage in challenging behaviour
How Surrey Place can help
If you’re a family member or caregiver whose child exhibits high-risk behaviours that require an urgent response, like violent thinking, aggression, or property destruction, you may be eligible for Surrey Place’s Urgent Response Services. For autism support for needs that are not urgent, please visit Surrey Place’s Autism Services page.
Resources for parents and caregivers
For more strategies for handling challenging behaviours: https://www.surreyplace.ca/resources/strategies-for-handling-challenging-behaviours/
For tips on how to use a visual schedule: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjJGpf7Hfuc
About Urgent Response Services
This resource was written with support from staff in Urgent Response Services. Urgent Response Services are part of the Ontario Autism Program. They were created to support children or youth with an emerging urgent need. Surrey Place leads Urgent Response Services for Toronto Region in partnership with 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, Community Living Toronto, Family Service Toronto, Geneva Centre, Holland Bloorview, Kerry’s Place, Lumenus, SAAAC, SMILE Canada and Strides Toronto.