Identifying Replacement Behavior

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 12, 2011

How do we make sure the skills we are teaching actually replace the problem behavior, that is, they meet the same (or if this is impossible a similar) function? The key to doing this is to follow three rules: the potato or dead man's rule, the fair pair rule, and the matching rule.2

The Potato or Dead Man's Rule

The basic guideline for this rule goes back to teaching students what you want them to do rather than telling them what you don't want them to do. That is, the replacement behavior should be stated in terms of action. If a potato or a dead man can do it, there is no action involved and the rule is not being followed. For example, "Don't run" would not follow the rule because a potato or dead man can certainly not run. "Walk in the hallway" may be a better way to state the desired behavior.

The Fair Pair Rule

Replacement behavior must be desired by or acceptable to the teacher and serve the same (or similar) function as the problem behavior, or the students will just come up with a new (and most likely still inappropriate) way to meet that function. For example, if a student has a tantrum to escape an unpreferred task and is given an undesirable consequence for the tantrum, he or she may start to ask to go to the bathroom or nurse's office frequently to escape the task. Teaching that same student to take a short, appropriate break would serve the same function and be acceptable to the teacher although possibly not desired. Table 5.1 gives several examples of teaching different replacement behaviors for the same problem behavior based on function.

Identifying Replacement Behavior

The Matching Rule

Students will engage in behavior that leads to the highest level of reinforcement and is the most efficient. If the inappropriate behavior continues to be reinforced at a higher level than the replacement behavior, it will not result in a decrease in the problem behavior or an increase in the replacement behavior. For example, teachers often tell students to raise their hand and wait to be called on before giving an answer or making a comment. We cannot tell you how many times we have seen an enthusiastic student raising a hand patiently and not getting recognized by the teacher. These students finally call out and immediately get the response, "I told you to raise your hand." Was raising a hand or calling out a more efficient and effective way to getting the teacher's attention? Of course, teachers can't always call on a student right away. However, when they begin to teach this skill, they should at least acknowledge the student is raising his or her hand ("Thank you for raising your hand. I'll be with you in a second") as quickly as possible in a positive way, providing some immediate feedback and reinforcement.

Other Target Behaviors

There may be other prosocial target behaviors that may not serve the same or similar function as the problem behavior (and therefore are not replacement behaviors) yet are important to teach. For example, if a student hits to express feelings of anger, we need to teach him how to express these feelings by using words (replacement behavior) and to keep his hands to himself (other target behavior). Another example is students who don't follow the teacher's instruction because following that instruction (such as "Get out your journal") would result in an unpreferred task (having to write) that they want to escape or avoid. In this case, they need to be taught how to take breaks to temporarily escape tasks (replacement behavior) and follow the teacher's instructions (other target behavior).

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