How Can I Decrease Self-Stimulatory Behaviors?

Self-stimulatory behavior refers to a wide range of behaviors that include repetitive vocal behaviors (e.g., saying “ticka ticka” or making truck noises), repetitive actions (e.g., hand flapping or body posturing), and repetitive play with objects (e.g., sprinkling torn pieces of paper or flipping a puzzle piece over many times).  Research has shown that children may engage in these behaviors because they provide a pleasurable sensory experience for the child. These behaviors may also be a way for the child to self-soothe. It is common for some children to display these behaviors primarily in certain situations (e.g., when the child is feeling excited, tired, anxious, and/or experiencing other strong emotions).   

Self-stimulatory behaviors often appear to be some of the most challenging behaviors to change; however, with consistency and the right behavior plan these behaviors can be significantly decreased.  Research has demonstrated that reinforcing other, or incompatible, behaviors is a very effective way to reduce the frequency of self-stimulatory behaviors.  When you provide reinforcement for other or incompatible behaviors, and not to the repetitive behavior, it is called “differential” reinforcement.  There are a few ways to use differential reinforcement to reduce self-stimulatory behavior. 

You can reinforce incompatible behaviors.  In this case, your child is taught a replacement behavior that cannot be performed at the same time as the self-stimulatory behavior.  For example, for hand flapping, you can teach the replacement behavior clapping.  Clapping is incompatible because your child cannot clap and flap her hands at the same time. This works well for decreasing repetitive actions or vocal behaviors that occur in specific and somewhat predictable situations (e.g., a boy who flaps when he is excited or a girl who mumbles when she is upset).  In these situations, you can reasonably foresee when your child will engage in the self-stimulatory behavior.  When you think the behavior might occur, you can prompt your child to engage in the replacement behavior instead.  Make sure you reinforce your child for engaging in the replacement behavior. 

It is important to choose an appropriate replacement behavior.  When choosing a replacement behavior, think of why your child is engaging in the self-stimulatory behavior.  Some reasons for self-stimulatory behavior might be to seek sensory input, calm down, or show emotion.  A replacement behavior should be incompatible with the self-stimulatory behavior and should serve the same purpose as the original behavior.   For example, for a boy that usually flaps his hands when he is excited, a good replacement behavior is clapping his hands.  Clapping is a good choice because it is incompatible with flapping and a socially acceptable expression of excitement.  For the girl who mumbles to express her emotions or self soothe, it might be effective to teach her to say a specific phrase that communicates that she is upset and/or engage in deep breathing.  Both are incompatible with mumbling and will help her express her feelings and calm down.

When using a differential reinforcement procedure, it is important to catch your child before he engages in the self-stimulatory behavior and prompt him to engage in the replacement behavior.  When a child engages in a self-stimulatory behavior, they are immediately reinforced by the action itself, and are more likely to engage in that behavior in the future.   When your child engages in the self-stimulatory behavior or you think he might engage in it, prompt him to engage in the replacement behavior instead and then give him a reinforcer.  Self-stimulatory behaviors are very motivating for the child so it is important that the reinforcer be more motivating than the behavior itself.  This may be the time to bring out the most motivating reinforcers you have.   

For children who engage in self-stimulatory behaviors in many different settings and situations, or continuously throughout the day, it may be more useful to differentialy reinforce any other behaviors except the self-stimulatory behavior.  In other words, you will reinforce the absence of the self-stimulatory behavior and the presence of any other appropriate behavior.  In this procedure you are going to periodically reinforce your child for not engaging in the self-stimulatory behavior. 

Begin by figuring out the shortest amount of time your child can go without engaging in the behavior.  For some children this may be 10 seconds and for other children this may be 10 minutes or more.  Taking data on the behavior will help you get an accurate number.  You want to start with the smallest amount of time so your child can be very successful and earn his reinforcer.  Use a digital timer to time intervals.  For children who are able to understand, you can explain in a simple way how this works and let them know what they will be earning.  For other children it may be more appropriate to have a simple two-word phrase to use (e.g., “No noises” for a child who makes loud noises).  Give this instruction when the timer starts.  If the timer beeps and your child has not engaged in the self-stimulatory behavior, reinforce him.  If he does engage in the behavior during the interval, you should repeat the phrase and start the timer over again.  If your child is not having success, you can reduce the amount of time on the timer.  Once your child has gotten used to this routine, you can gradually begin to increase the intervals of time during which he cannot engage in the target behavior. 

When you are using differential reinforcement of other behaviors, you can have your child engage in activities that are incompatible with the self-stimulatory behavior.  For example, if you are trying to decrease a vocal behavior, you can have the child remain completely silent or read aloud.  Once you begin to have significantly longer intervals, however, it would not be recommended to have your child be silent for the duration.  You can certainly engage in puzzles, homework, games and other activities during these intervals.

Differential reinforcement procedures can be very effective for reducing self-stimulatory behaviors.  Remember, consistency and patience are very important when trying to implement these procedures.  If you can stick with it and be consistent you can successfully decrease your child’s self-stimulatory behaviors.

Good Luck!

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