Three ways to promote positive behavior change

A woman and child smiling in a home

At AbleLight, we believe strongly in the ability of Applied Behavior Analysis—and our skilled team of clinicians—to help people with disabilities learn new skills, increase their independence, and make strides toward achieving their full potential.

But even though ABA is a field that’s been intensely studied, there are plenty of basic principles that can be taken from it and practiced at home on your own to help you and your loved one achieve a greater quality of life. And one of our own Board-Certified Behavior Analysts, Kayla Wagner, has some great tips to get you started.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is a scientific approach to understanding behavior, what makes behaviors change, how behavior is affected by the environment, and how learning takes place. Through careful assessment and close partnership with patients and their families, clinicians formulate customized, flexible treatment plans designed to help people achieve their goals. Goals can be anything from promoting safety to teaching social skills and communication and so much more.

Early in its infancy, ABA used some negative reinforcement or punishment to promote behavior change, and there is some stigma around ABA therapy that still lingers because of this. However, today (and at AbleLight), we only use positive reinforcement. That means paying attention to and praising the behaviors you want to see more of instead of only focusing on the negative behaviors.

Positive reinforcement is *everything*

“It can be really easy to pay attention to the bad behaviors or the things you don’t want your loved one to do,” says Wagner. “But behavior goes where attention flows, so try shifting your mindset to focusing on the appropriate behaviors or the behaviors you want to see more of.”

This can feel unnatural at first, acknowledges Wagner. If your loved one is demonstrating good behavior, like quietly reading a book or engaging in positive social interaction, you may feel inclined to leave them be or take advantage of the moment to throw in some laundry or get dinner started.

“You don’t have to make a big to-do out of it though,” says Wagner. “Try setting an alarm for five minutes and then go over and say, ‘You’re doing a good job reading that book,’ or ‘You’re playing really well with your sister.’ Try to be proactive about praising positive, appropriate behaviors versus waiting for bad behavior and then intervening.”

Of course, Wagner notes, there still may be times when you have to intervene, like if your loved one is behaving aggressively toward someone else. But even then, there are ways to shift your focus to make sure you’re not inadvertently reinforcing the negative behavior. For instance, rather than focusing on the aggression, focus on making sure the other person is okay. That sends the message that negative behavior like aggression isn’t going to earn attention, which will encourage the behavior to fade away.

Be patient, be consistent

“This isn’t a magic wand that’s going to fix everything the first time you do it,” says Wagner. “Oftentimes you’re dealing with behaviors that have been learned and reinforced over time, which means it will take time to unlearn them and shift to healthier patterns of behavior.”

This may make it difficult to see if you’re actually making progress, which can feel frustrating. But Wagner has a tip for that too: once you’ve identified a behavior you’d like to reduce or redirect, keep a tally of how often the behavior occurs.

“On day one, just keep track of how often the behavior happens,” says Wagner. “On day two, start practicing shifting your attention away from the negative behavior and toward more positive ones.” The more you stick with it, the more you should start to see that tally go down.

“Sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to see changes,” says Wagner. “But keeping a tally can give you concrete evidence that it’s working.”

And remember, says Wagner, changes are likely to happen over time in increments, so even if the changes are small, they’re still worth celebrating.

“It’s going to happen in baby steps!” says Wagner.

Know when to call in the professionals

If the behavior problems are minor and these at-home techniques are helping, that’s great—you’re in good shape. But if the issues are significant—like if safety is compromised, quality of life is impacted because of disruptive behaviors, or you’re not seeing any positive changes—it may behoove you to call in a professional for support. They can provide more detailed analysis of the behavior, what’s driving it, and can help develop a plan specific to you, your loved one, and your goals, as well as help make adjustments to the plan along the way as needed to maximize outcomes—all so you can live a healthier, happier life.