Behavioral Momentum for Children with Autism

Children with autism often exhibit challenging behavior, including refusal. Behavioral momentum allows you to turn potentially negative interactions with your learner into positive ones. By eliciting a series of positive responses from your learner you are essentially warming him up and preparing him to respond positively to requests that follow. Once he completes a series of easy tasks he is much more likely to complete a more challenging one. Here’s how!

Obtaining Assent

As with any treatment, the strategies discussed here should only be used with the assent of the learner. Read our post Understanding Assent and Assent Withdrawal in ABA for more information on how and why to obtain assent.

Contents

What is Behavioral Momentum? How Does Behavioral Momentum Work? When should I use behavioral momentum with my learner? How can I use behavioral momentum with my learner? Tips to Make Behavioral Momentum More Effective Examples of Behavioral Momentum Generalization and Behavioral Momentum

What is Behavioral Momentum?

Behavioral Momentum is a tool used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that anyone can learn.  It increases the likelihood of your learner doing what you want him to do (low-p behavior), by first getting him to do things that he wants to do (high-p behaviors). 

Like everything with ABA, this technique approaches the problem from the child’s perspective.  Instead of demanding the child immediately does what you ask, which is often met with resistance, behavioral momentum gets the child used to following directions before he is asked to do something he might not want to do (see Compliance Training: Teach Cooperation While Preserving Individual Rights for an understanding of why your learner might be resistant to demands).

Many studies confirm increased compliance when high-p behaviors precede low-p demands (Davis, C.A., Brady, M.P., Williams, R.E., & Hamiliton, R., 1992). Additionally, including high-p behaviors in demands using behavioral momentum is generally perceived by the individual to be enjoyable for the learner (Mace, F. C., Hock, M. L., Lalli, J.S., West, B. J., Belfiore, P., Pinter, E., & Brown, D. K., 1988) and can also be fun for you!

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How Does Behavioral Momentum Work?

Behavioral momentum builds on your child’s behavior by beginning with a positive interaction that is likely to be well received by your learner. As you and the child continue these positive interactions, momentum builds and resistance decreases. As your learner anticipates the next request he begins to expect something that he wants to do.

Think of the positive interactions as a warm up, easing your learner into accepting the more challenging request.

Using behavioral momentum with children with autism works using the same principle that trips up people with the “What do you eat soup with” brain teaser:

Once he gets used to positively responding to a request, he is likely to continue responding positively, even if he might otherwise resist.

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When should I use behavioral momentum with my learner?

Behavioral momentum increases compliance with demands, however it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to comply all of the time. All children, and even adults, fail to comply to some extent – and 100% compliance shouldn’t be the goal (see our post Compliance Training: Teach Cooperation While Preserving Individual Rights for a complete discussion on this topic).

While you can’t use behavioral momentum every time you need your learner to comply, behavioral momentum is a great intervention for:

  • Easing transitions
  • Unexpected requests
  • Behaviors that your learner routinely tries to “escape”

Once you get comfortable with behavioral momentum, you’ll begin to see other opportunities to use it. With practice, behavioral momentum may take only a few seconds to a minute, making it much faster and more efficient than arguing with or trying to coerce your learner into getting his shoes on.

You might feel like this is a “trick” to get your learner to complete simple tasks, but in reality most of us feel some sort of resistance when we’re told to do something while we’re engaged in another activity. Behavioral momentum moves the learner’s attention away from what he might have been doing, and puts it on you…but in a way that’s less jarring than immediately complying with a demand.

Consider this scenario:

You’re home, sitting on the couch after a long day at work. You’re watching an episode of One Day at a Time you haven’t seen on Netflix yet, with a mug of hot cocoa and a bowl of popcorn. Suddenly your spouse storms in asking what’s for dinner. How would you feel?

Now what if this happened instead:

You’re home, sitting on the couch after a long day at work. You’re watching an episode of One Day at a Time you haven’t seen on Netflix yet, with a mug of hot cocoa and a bowl of popcorn. Your spouse comes in and sits down next to you, then asks you about your day before bringing up the subject of dinner. You might still be annoyed with the interruption, but less so than in the first scenario.

The same is true for your learner. If your learner is engaged in an activity such as playing with trains, and you interrupt with a demand, “Time to put your shoes on and go outside,” you will likely be met with resistance (even if the child likes playing outside). Behavioral momentum reduces the likelihood of refusal.

Because it eases the transition from what they were doing to what you want them to do, behavioral momentum has been found to not only increase compliance but also shorten the time it takes for a learner to comply, making it a great intervention to be used in schools where time spent on academics is critical to success (Banda, D. R., & Kubina Jr., R. M., 2006).

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How can I use behavioral momentum with my learner?

Using behavioral momentum can be fun for both you and your learner. It’s meant to take what may otherwise be a negative or challenging interaction and turn it into a positive one for both of you. Follow these steps to get started!

Step 1: Identify the high-p and low-p behaviors

The low-p (or low-probability behavior is the one your learner is least likely to comply with, while the high-p behaviors are ones the learner will find easy, and even fun but which are also quick to complete so that momentum builds. High-p behaviors will vary depending on the abilities and preferences of the child. Here are some examples:

Effective high-p behaviorsIneffective high-p behaviors
High 5Play with your trains
Jump up and downRead a book
Clap your handsWatch a video
Spin aroundGive me a hug (if the child doesn’t like to be touched)
Wiggle your fingers
Touch your nose
Stomp your foot
Touch your toes

Come up with a long list of high-p behaviors you can fall back on so that you avoid repeating the same demand sequence. We’re building momentum, not a behavior chain.

Function of the Behavior

As with any behavior, your learner’s refusal serves a function. When you are able to identify what they’re “getting” from the refusal, you can use this to help ease them into the low-p behavior. Consider possible functions:

  • Escape from difficult task
  • Escape from long task
  • Escape from attention

If your learner is refusing to comply because he believes the task is too difficult, consider easy demands that will move your learner closer to the final demand. Try:

  1. Clap your hands
  2. Meet me at the table
  3. Stomp your feet
  4. Sit in the chair
  5. Touch your head
  6. Pick up your pencil
  7. Do your homework

Step 2: Ask your learner to perform an easy task

This should be something simple that your learner is comfortable doing, or even something he enjoys doing. Choose one of the effective high-p behaviors you listed in step 1. Follow the tips below to be sure you’re giving these demands effectively.

Step 3: Ask him to perform a different easy task

Again, this should be something that your learner can do without much effort and is happy to do. Avoid using the same demand multiple times in the sequence. Use your list from step 1.

Step 4: Repeat asking your learner to do easy tasks until you feel he’s likely to comply with your harder request

Depending on how difficult the task is that you’d like him to complete, or how likely he is to resist doing it, you may want to have your learner perform 3 to 5 (or more) of these easy tasks. Then, once you feel your learner is ready, it’s time for the bigger challenge!

Step 5: Ask your learner to perform the more challenging task

This is it! Ask your learner to perform the task he might have otherwise resisted. This could be cleaning up toys, putting on his shoes, turning off the TV, or any other task. Note that this works best if the task being asked is one he is able to do but may not want to do. It shouldn’t be something so complex he doesn’t understand what is being asked.

What to do if your learner doesn’t comply?

While it’s frustrating when a plan doesn’t work out, it’s important to take a step back to consider what you might need to do differently next time. Consider the following:

  1. Was the high-p demand something the learner is capable of doing independently?
  2. Were the low-p demands easy for the learner?
  3. Were the low-p demands given in rapid succession?
  4. Were there enough low-p demands to build momentum?
  5. Was sufficient reinforcement provided after the low-p behaviors?
  6. Did you have your learner’s attention (see tips below)?
  7. Did the learner understand your high-p demand?

With this information, revisit step 1 and review both your low-p and high-p behaviors. Consider starting with a low-p behavior that the learner is less likely to resist, and build up to the original demand.

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Tips to Make Behavioral Momentum More Effective

Although behavioral momentum is a simple intervention, there are many ways to make the interaction more effective. Be sure the low-p demands are:

  1. Stated, not asked
  2. Given in close proximity and when you have the child’s attention
  3. Provided with clear language
  4. Given in rapid succession
  5. Reinforced

Demands must be stated, not asked

Consider this permission to forget your manners for a little while. Demands must be stated and not phrased as a question. There can be no room for the learner to think that not complying is an option.

Say ThisNot This
Put your shoes on!Can you put your shoes on?
Pick up your toys.How about you clean up your toys?
Sit at the table.Do you want to sit at the table?

Give demands when you have their attention

Anyone can become engrossed in what they’re doing. Demands given from too far away might be ignored simply because they don’t register for the individual. Even in close proximity your learner may not notice you or your demands. For behavioral momentum to be effective you must wait until you have the individual’s attention.

If the learner doesn’t comply with the high-p demands, you won’t get him to engage in the low-p one.

Use clear language

We all fall into the trap of thinking we’re clear when we’re not. Often our habit of being polite can make demands less clear for learners who will then find it difficult to comply, even if they want to. Here are some examples:

Say ThisNot This
Put your shoes on!It’s time to put your shoes on, please.
Pick up your toys.This is such a mess. How can you stand your toys all over? Get your toys picked up!
Sit at the table.Come over here and sit down at your seat.

Give demands rapidly

The intention of behavioral momentum is to build forward movement (momentum). This means that each demand has to be given quickly (within 5 seconds) of the completion of the previous demand.

Provide reinforcement

Additionally, verbal praise after the high-p behaviors might be insufficient reinforcement, especially in the beginning. If this is the case for your learner consider using small reinforcers between high-p behaviors that won’t disrupt the momentum. Some ideas include:

  • Stickers, especially ones related to a special interest
  • Small bits of candy like mini M&Ms
  • Tokens for a token board or jar

These reinforcers should be faded as your learner becomes accustomed to this intervention.

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Examples of Behavioral Momentum

Behavioral momentum isn’t limited to children with autism. As you saw in the “What do you eat soup with” video we all experience it. Games like Simon Says also use behavioral momentum. Players get used to the leader saying “Simon Says” before each request, then fail to notice when the leader doesn’t say “Simon Says.”

This same concept can work to help your child learner readily accept requests to perform tasks such as putting on his shoes. Instead of demanding he put his shoes on try the following requests instead:

  1. “Clap your hands!”
  2. “Now stomp your feet!”
  3. “Now dance!”
  4. “Sit down!”
  5. “Put on your shoes!”
Use behavioral momentum to reduce resistance with your child with autism.

More Examples of Behavioral Momentum

Behavioral momentum can be implemented with a variety of demands across settings. Check out some of these ideas:

Problem behaviorTarget behaviorHigh-p behaviorsLow-p behaviors
Learner refuses to put on coatLearner puts on coat when given demand*Touch your nose
*Wiggle your fingers
*Pick up your coat
*Spin around
Put on your coat
Learner refuses to sit at table at mealtimeLearner sits at table when given demand*High 5
*Jump up and down
*Go to the table
*Touch your toes
Sit at the table
Learner refuses to do homeworkLearner works on his homework when given demand*Clap your hands
*Meet me at the table
*Stomp your feet
*Sit in the chair
*Touch your head
*Pick up your pencil
*Tap the table
Do your homework
Learner refuses to clean up toysLearner cleans up toys when given demand*Close the book
*Touch your shoulders
*Put the book on the shelf
*Tap the shelf
*Pick up the train
Put your toys away
Learner comes to circle time slowlyLearner comes to circle time when given demand*Jump up and down
*Spin around
*Touch your toes
*Walk to the circle
Sit down

The examples of behavioral momentum in this video demonstrate the rapid succession of high-p demands along with quick reinforcement in the form of verbal praise at each step:

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Generalization and Behavioral Momentum

Generalization is the ability of a learner to apply what they’ve learned across environments and situations. While this happens naturally with most children, children with autism often fail to do this without conscious intervention. Our post Generalization: How teaching strategies and environment affect generalization goes into this in full detail.

In their study Effects of high-­probability requests on the acquisition and generalization of responses in young children with behavior disorders, Davis, Brady, Williams, and Hamilton concluded that generalization occurred most readily when children were exposed to multiple adults who all employed behavioral momentum.

Therefore, when using behavioral momentum with your learners you should encourage others who interact with your client to do the same. This can include other staff, family members, teachers and school faculty.

References

Banda, D. R., & Kubina Jr., R. M. (2006). The effects of a high-probability request sequencing technique in enhancing transition behaviors. Education and Treatment of Children, 29, 507–516.

Davis, C.A., Brady, M.P., Williams, R.E., & Hamilton, R. (1992). Effects of high-­probability requests on the acquisition and generalization of responses in young children with behavior disorders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 905-­‐916.

 Mace, F. C., Hock, M. L., Lalli, J.S., West, B. J., Belfiore, P., Pinter, E., & Brown, D. K. (1988). Behavioral momentum in the treatment of noncompliance. Journal of  Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 123-­‐141.

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