Adding Structure to Reduce Problem Behaviors

  • Situation

    I have a 4 year old grandson with Autism and he is non-verbal. Recently he has been knocking things over and breaking them, pushing anything he can push (furniture in particular) and climbing on everything. We aren’t sure how to discipline him when he does these things. He will not listen and he continues to do it even though he knows he shouldn’t. We’ve tried to speak firmly but calmly. We have tried speaking a loud “NO”. We tried putting him in “time out” but he thinks it’s a game. We don’t know what else to do that will make him understand that he can’t do these things. Any suggestions would be helpful.

  • Summary

    While it is difficult to know the “function” of your grandson’s challenging behavior with the information given, some general strategies can be offered that have proven effective for many children with autism.

    Some children with autism can become over-stimulated or agitated by their surroundings and benefit from increased structure and a controlled environment. As a caregiver, you can help decrease your child’s difficult behaviors by making some changes to the home environment.

    In addition, increasing engagement by offering more structured activities can help limit the negative behavior. If the negative behavior still persists, interruption and re-direction is appropriate.

    When doing this, it is important to react in a very neutral way as verbal reprimands, yelling “no” or showing frustration is allowing your grandson to gain attention from you…even though it may be negative attention.

    Positive praise and attention for positive behavior (when NOT knocking things over) should also occur frequently throughout the day. It would also be beneficial to seek out the many resources to help support a child with autism such as early intervention and behavioral health services which can be provided in the home or a school based setting.

    • Create an area in the room for your child that is very clearly marked his/her area. Add items to the space that your child enjoys playing with so their playtime will be more fun and engaging.
    • Provide adult guidance and reinforcement during play to ensure he/she is actively engaged in the activities
    • Label rooms in your home based on their use, using visual guides and listing out items that will be available in each room for your child to use for play.
    • Limit the number of toys that are available throughout the house, keeping them in baskets or drawers and limiting the number of items that can be used at a time.
    • Create a visual schedule for the time of day when your child is most likely to engage in challenging behaviors to increase structure and predictability. Check off each item on the schedule as it is completed.
    • Replace inappropriate behaviors with appropriate ones and use positive verbal reinforcements of these corrected behaviors. Catch your child being good!
    • Try not to bring negative attention to inappropriate behaviors. Try to interrupt the behavior and redirect your child towards appropriate behavior by using structured choices.
  • Definition

    Structuring the environment to provide clear expectations and predictable routines promotes increased engagement and on-task behavior (Tien & Lee, 2007).


    Interrupting and redirecting is a strategy used to shape appropriate behaviors and decrease inappropriate behavior.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 0-2, 3-5, 6-10
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Pre-requisites


  • Process

    Establish clear visual and physical boundaries in the home.

    Young children may need repeated practice and teaching to learn the meaning and importance of the boundaries in the home setting.

    • Initially limit access to areas such as the formal living room or office. (close doors, gates, tape across floor)
    • Arrange furniture to establish clear physical boundaries between areas within  a room  if possible (e.g. loveseat, bench, chest across an open entry into another room)
    • Create an area in the room that your grandson is most often destructive that is “his area”.  Place a bin or basket of things that he likes to “play” or interact with in the area to make it less likely for him to go to pushing over furniture or knocking things off tables.  If space is available, a small child sized table, carpet or bean bag can let him know where “his” area is in the room. Initially, he will need adult guidance and reinforcement for engaging in activities in the designated area.  The goal is to make the new activities you offer more exciting to him than knocking over or pushing things in the room!

    Increase Structure and Predictability

    • Teach the child to associate each area with appropriate activities and use visual supports (see documents and resource section) to help him understand each area.

             Kitchen: eating, drinking, table work/play

             Family Room:  movies, IPad, books, puzzles

             Play Room: balls, trains, blocks, gross motor play such as trampoline, sit and spin.

    • Minimize visual and auditory distractions by limiting the amount of toys or objects that are around the house. Less is more!  Keep items stored in baskets or drawers and only take out 2 or 3 preferred activities at a time.
    • Schedule your grandson’s time (start with a time of day that he is most likely to engage in knocking things over) by using a visual schedule of his morning and/or afternoon activities.  For example:  breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, sensory play, outside, puzzle play, movie, and snack.

    Increase Engagement and Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

    • Anytime a child is not engaged in some type of preferred or purposeful activity, the likelihood of negative behavior increases.  Make a list of things your grandson likes to do…even if it consists of unusual choices such as tearing paper or lining up items on the floor. Have these activities available to him and even build them into his schedule.
    • Since he likes to knock things over, a variety of more appropriate “cause and effect” activities may be of interest to him such as knocking over blocks or pillows that have been stacked or pushing a toy lawnmower.
    • When your grandson is behaving appropriately, be sure to use positive verbal reinforcement (“I like how you are sitting at table!”, “Oh great you put the ball into the basket!”) and if needed, a tangible reinforcer such as a sticker on a chart or a small edible treat.  It is important to “catch him being good” often!
  • Documents and Related Resources (website resource)


    Structured Choice for De-escalating Behavior (related answer on the site)


    Interrupt and Redirect for Toddler Throwing (related answer on this site)


    The Comprehensive Autism Planning System (CAPS) for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome, Autism and Related Disabilities: Integrating Best Practices Throughout the Student’s Day (website for possible purchase)


    Lessons Learned: Tips from the Field for Understanding and Discussing Challenging Behaviors” by Rachel Schwartz, Ph.D., BCBA-D


    Challenging Behaviors” by Rachel Schwartz, Ph.D., BCBA-D



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