Timing of Attention to Decrease Screaming

  • Situation

    My son is non-verbal.  Recently he has begun screaming.  This is not out of anger, but to hear his own voice.  It is quite loud and can be very distracting at home to his siblings and out in public.  I don’t want to discourage his trying to communicate, so am not sure how to handle it.

  • Summary

    Are these behaviors attention seeking, communicative, or self-reinforcing – This is a question that needs to be answered to determine the best intervention. For a minimum of one day, keep track of the behavior (screaming) on an ABC chart.  ABC tracking helps determine the reason for a behavior.  “A” is for antecedent or what happened right before the behavior;  “B” is for behavior.  In this case describe the behavior by asking these questions:  Were the screams continuous or short?  What were the child’s facial expressions (smile, or distressed look)?   “C” is for consequence or what happened after the scream. This will help determine if your child is attempting to receive attention, just enjoying the sound, or is trying to communicate. There may be multiple and overlapping reasons for the screaming, but this answer assumes the most prevalent reason is that the child is seeking attention. Timing your and other family members’ responses to the screaming is crucial. In addition, providing your child with an appropriate way to seek attention via some form of communication will decrease the screaming and increase peace in the household.

  • Definition

    ‘Timing of Attention’ means using carefully timed responses to behaviors. You and other family members should respond or attend to your child only when he is quiet OR when he uses some other form of communication for attention such as pulling your hand, using gestures/signing, or using a communication device. He will learn over time that he can gain attention by using other means vs. screaming.

  • Quick Facts

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

    Use of ABC Chart to determine purpose of behavior

  • Process

    1. Document for a minimum of one day by charting ABC information on the attached chart.

    2. Use your results to help you determine if the behavior is attention seeking, for communicative intent, or self-reinforcing.

    3. If you have determined that it is most likely attention seeking, continue with the next steps.

    4. If your child is currently using some type of communication device or form of communication, such as signing, wait a few seconds after the scream then prompt use of the device or communication tool. For example if Mom is in the room, prompt use of the word ‘Mommy’ even if you physically prompt. Then immediately with an exaggerated response state: “You want Mommy!” and begin to attend.

    5. Your response can be as simple as physically prompting your child to tap you or another family member and respond in the same manner.

    6. Once you feel confident that your child knows ‘how’ to seek your attention do NOT respond to the screaming UNTIL he uses another means of communicating.

    7. BE CAREFUL – If you respond in any other way: saying ‘shh’, saying “Stop” or just talking with verbiage other than the above, you will continue to reinforce the screaming.

    8. BE CAREFUL – If you try to ignore the screaming then suddenly attend as above after a time period, you may actually ‘teach’ your child that he should scream longer for the attention.

    9. Increase the time you attend to your child during periods of quiet time. This will strengthen his understanding that attention from you and others comes when he is NOT screaming.

    10. As always – seek the opinion of a professional you may be working with such as a behavior, speech, or occupational therapist.

  • Documents and Related Resources

    ABC sample for screaming (PDF)


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