Changing a Behavior that Offends Peers: Replacement Behaviors and Peer Education

  • Situation

    My son is 9, has autism, and he is constantly sticking his tongue in his nose out of habit. The kids at school are making fun of him and it grosses other students and people out. Can you suggest a way to stop it?

  • Summary

    Often times, kids may not understand why a peer who has autism does what he does. Ideally, both educating peers about autism and teaching the child with autism a skill to replace the negative or odd behavior should be part of the solution. Discussion with your child’s teachers and/or a Guidance Counselor can begin the process of peer education. Peer education resources are listed at the end of the answer. Determining the possible function of the behavior is the first step to an intervention that will provide your child with Replacement Behaviors. It is important to discuss the function of the behavior or the ‘reasons for the behavior’ with your son’s educational team. Once the function or ‘reason’ for the behavior is determined changes can be made to the environment and replacement behaviors can be determined. Examples of reasons or functions may include: to gain peer attention, to avoid peer attention, or to escape work that may be too hard or too easy. In addition, the behavior may be related to a sensory or physiological issue as a runny nose; or if sensory, the feel of the action itself may be reinforcing. A Behavior Story is one tool to help teach your child how peers see the behavior and teach the replacement behaviors that are determined by assessing the function.

  • Definition

    Peer Education Programs can assist peers in better understanding the behaviors of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Many resources actually provide opportunities for children to see what it ‘feels like’ to be on the Spectrum, consequently changing their perceptions and interactions with a peer on the Spectrum. Replacement behaviors are skills that we teach children  to do “in place of” a negative or odd behavior.   Ideally, the replacement behavior should serve the same “function” as the negative or odd behavior. For example, if the tongue in nose behavior is likely related to a sensory need (e.g. child likes the feel on his face) then more appropriate ways to get the same kind of sensory input should be considered. This may include allowing him to put on chapstick, sucking on a lollipop or small candy and/or giving him a tissue to wipe his nose. If the odd behavior results in high levels of peer attention (good or bad), then teaching the child a better way to get peer attention would be beneficial such as calling their name or asking them to play. Behavior Stories are stories that teach a child a better response to a difficult social situation and outline how their behavior makes another person feel.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13, 14-17, 18+
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Pre-requisites

     Behavior Story


    Ability to attend to story being read aloud or read the story independently.


    Ability to understand what is read or written.


    Ability to use the replacement behavior outlined in the story.

  • Process

    1. Attempt to determine the function of the behavior or the reason by discussing it with your child’s team. Discuss possibilities that may include: to gain or avoid peer attention, to escape work, to be reinforced by the feel (sensory), or because of a physiological issue.

    2. Once the function is determined, replacement behaviors can be taught. For example, if the behavior is based on receiving sensory input, the student can be taught to request or access a candy to suck on, or lip balm for lips. If the function is to escape work the student can be taught to verbalize: “This is hard, please help me?”

    3. Use of a Behavior Story that includes examples of the replacement behaviors can be developed next as a teaching tool. Read the story to your child (or along with your child if he is a reader) each morning before school, and/or in the evenings. The teacher/s can have a copy at school to review it in the school setting as well.  A sample story is attached. Save and edit it, to make the story specific to your child based on the possible functions or reasons determined by your team.

    4. Discuss a simple reward system that can be used at school. When your son is using the replacement behavior he can receive a reinforcer or a favorite activity, or earn points for the reinforcer. It is important to specifically reinforce the more appropriate behavior, for example, instead of saying “Good job!” say “I like how you used a tissue!”

    5. Set a meeting with your child’s team and Guidance Counselor to discuss the possibility of a Peer Education Program. The Autism Acceptance Book provides activities for peers that simulate many of the challenges students on the Spectrum face. Other Resources for such a program are listed below.

  • Documents and Related Resources

    How to Talk to My Friends: A Tongue Stays in Mouth (Behavior Story – Word document)


    The Power of Pairing: Reinforcers with Visual Supports (related answer on this site)


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


    Repetitive Behaviors: Detection and Intervention – An Example (related answer on this site)


    Carol Gray Social Stories  (website resource)


    The Autism Acceptance Book, Ellen Sabin (book)


    A Friend Like Simon, Kate Gaynot (book)


    My Friend with Autism, Beverly Bishop (book)


    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.