ABA Tips for Parents -Teaching Alternative Behaviors

Written by Alana George, BS Clinical Psychology, RBT Student Analyst

“To change any behavior, we have to slow down and act intentionally rather than from habit and impulse.” – Henna Inam, Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt, & Lead

How to teach Alternative Behaviors

In applied behavioral analysis treatment, your child’s target behaviors will be identified and chosen for intervention to decrease the maladaptive behaviors and increase socially significant behaviors. Teaching alternative behaviors is a significant teaching method that replaces unwanted behavior with a functional behavior that will shape your child for future success. To teach alternative replacement behaviors, you must understand the function of the target behavior. We understand the four functions of behavior are escape, attention, access to tangibles, and sensory processing. When we can identify and understand why your child is engaging in each behavior, we are then able to teach a new way to satisfy that same need. Alternative behaviors cannot be a proposal to simply stop the identified behavior of concern. The replacement behavior must be easily taught and a truly different option to access the desired need/function. Throughout your child’s treatment at ABA Therapy Solutions the providers will focus on teaching alternative behaviors through discrete trial training and natural environment teaching moments. Your child will be taught how to appropriately engage in simple, socially significant activities according to their intended desired function. Children are likely to need a great deal of practice when learning new behaviors. It is important to practice these alternative behaviors at home with your child, as well in other settings such as family members’ houses, libraries, or parks. You can use verbal teaching, modeling, and natural environment situations to help your children practice using their new behaviors when they are calm and available for learning. The more practiced and routine the behavior is for the student, the more likely they are to use it when experiencing triggers.

Examples of Alternative behaviors by Function


Your child frequently engages in the behavior of pouring drink cups. Your child engages in this behavior to explore water sensory. To decrease the event of inappropriate pouring drinks out, you allow your child to have a functional water play area. This may be in the bathtub, in the sink, or with a bucket and cup of water. Allowing your child to still have access to their sensory desires but in an appropriate manner. Your child’s behavior of pouring drinks will decrease and their functional communication skills will increase by requesting for their allowed sensory play.


Your child is attempting to complete their homework and is visibly frustrated. They are engaging in the behavior of elopement, leaving the room without permission. To decrease this escape behavior, we must teach alternative behavior. You can teach your child to request a break when feeling frustrated. Set a defined outline of what a break is, 5 minutes with a book then return to homework. Teaching this alternative behavior still allows your child to receive escape from their work but will be easily redirected with an allowed break. Teaching this alternative behavior decreases the maladaptive behavior and teaches your child how to request their wants and needs appropriately.


You are attempting to complete some work on your computer and your child is engaging in the behavior, screaming, to gain access to your attention. You wait until the child is no longer engaging in screaming and then you teach them to tap your shoulder to ask for attention. Every time your child engages in screaming for your attention you repeat the same teaching method. Whenever your child appropriately taps your shoulder for attention, you immediately provide positive attention. Over time the screaming behavior stops, and the socially appropriate behavior of tapping is learned and utilized.


After school, your child is very hungry and wants snacks. They engage in the behavior of climbing on furniture to reach the cabinets and access food. This behavior is potentially dangerous and not socially appropriate. You teach your child how to request a snack by pointing, using PECs, or verbal communication depending on their communication skills. In future events, you block the climbing furniture behavior and continue to teach how to request the desired snack. Over time the climbing furniture behavior will decrease, and the behavior of requesting will increase. This expands your child’s usage of their functional communication skills




Capella University, 2021

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