Attention Behaviors {Replacement Response}

I am going to sound like a broken record of madness and feel free to get a frequency count going of how many times I bring this up but they absolute first thing you must do when reducing a behavior is teach and reinforce a replacement behavior. Nonnegotiable. Must-have. Won’t win without. Let’s think about this theoretically for a moment. If are taking away our student’s way of getting what they want – won’t they need another method of getting what they want? And wouldn’t prefer this new behavior to be an appropriate one? If we spend all this time and energy to reducing kicking only to have it promptly replaced by biting – what good does that do? Also – your reduction intervention will work much more quickly when the child has a way to get what they want.

If you have come to the conclusion you are dealing with an attention behavior – congrats. These are a pain in the butt. If you still aren’t sure, I have one important consideration for you: Don’t assume it is good attention. Attention can come in many forms from teacher reprimands to student ridicule to praise.

Ensure student has a way to request attention or the tangible item appropriately:

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Attention can take many forms. Attention can be desired from certain staff or peers, in the form of help, confirmation of changes/up coming events, or even negative attention. Create easy to use ways for your student to request this specific types of behavior. If this is behavior is to get access to a tangible – create a way for the student to easily request the item.

Increasing the appropriate behavior will give the student a method of access to attention. This may decrease the inappropriate response immediately on its own. (woohoo!) Begin with this intervention.  Add additional interventions if necessary.

  • Social Stories & Scripts: Instruct children on how to handle different social situations or environment. These stories describe what is appropriate to do in the situation. These stories can be visually based to help accommodate students with less language. Social stories can be useful to teach appropriate ways to gain attention by scripting the response.

ask to play

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  • Visuals: Language and communication are difficult for our kiddos.  You can utilize a range of visuals for the students to use in place of verbal language to request attention or an item. Even if you student is verbal – it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use visuals. Using verbal language might be too difficult in this scenario and it’s easier to use problem behavior. Don’t assume that just because a student is verbal that he/she can ask for whatever they want.
    • PECS Books and AAC Devices are great to communicate a wide range of needs. Tip: make the response easy here. Maybe the full “I want” sentence is too much. Accept a single picture. You’d rather have a single picture exchange then a bucket of pencils thrown at your head.

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    • location and item specific visuals: store them in the location you need them!

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Things like a Behavior Contingency Map or Visual Rules will illustrate how these behaviors will result in reinforcement.


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Often times you student does know an appropriate behavior. You are a great teacher. You’ve done the leg work and create an appropriate way for your student to access that oh so highly desired reinforcer but something is still not working. You student still uses the inappropriate behavior more often or maybe exclusively. What went wrong? The inappropriate behavior is more effective then the appropriate behavior. It either works more consistently or more quickly. Yes raising my hand sometimes results in teacher attention but taking off my shoes and throwing them always immediately results in teacher attention. Which one you think that kiddo is picking? Some individuals may know the appropriate way to gain attention but haven’t been successful with it or it is harder/takes too long.

Imagine there were two glorious candy machines that dolled out twix bars like tomorrow was Halloween. Candy Machine A only gave you twix bars every 5-10 pushes on the “I need a Twix bar now” button where as Machine B gives it every time. And Machine B also gives you a glass of wine and soft pillow with that twix. Which one are you pushing on? It’s the same with our kids. They will engage in whichever behavior is more effective. Our mission is make the appropriate behavior just as rockstar stellar (and maybe even MORE) than that problem response.

How to Shape Up an Appropriate Behavior:

  • Make the appropriate behavior the go-to. Reinforce that response CONSISTENTLY.
  • Make the reinforcement immediate and high magnitude.
  • Make the appropriate response significantly more effective than the inappropriate behavior.

I know it sounds horrible to give praise, a cheetoh, a high five every single time you student hands you a visual card. And it sounds wrong. But it’s not. Relax – you don’t need to do this forever. You can fade it later. Just focus on building the skill. And getting student buy in and get that skill up and running!


This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

The Autism Helper - Summer Series



  1. Hi Sasha,
    I love reading your blogs on behavior. I teach preschool spec.ed (3&4 yr olds) and I use a lot of the same strategies just simplified. I really like your behavior contingency map I just think I should simplify so its just the immediate result of doing what was asked and not. What do you think?

  2. Either way! Sometimes it’s important to teach about the long term consequences as well. But to start maybe more immediate would be helpful!

  3. do you have a blog about the relationship of social skills, attention and escape behavior?

  4. I don’t but I can work on one!


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