Stop Your Child’s Hitting
Last week I shared with you that the number one question I get asked when people find out I work with young kids with autism and other developmental delays, is “How do I get my toddler to stop hitting me?”
If you missed last week’s post, check it out here to learn what you need to know BEFORE you jump to solutions.
Today I’m going to tell you the answer to stop hitting, biting, throwing, running away, falling to the ground, screaming, etc. (Fill in your child’s behavior here!)
The answer is…
I know that is not a satisfying answer, but remember last week when we talked about the four functions of behavior?
There is not a one-method-fits-all for behavior.
It depends on why your child is hitting or screaming or throwing.
What is the function of YOUR child’s hitting?
That answer will determine how we address it.
The Results Are In
You took data on your child’s hitting. (If you didn’t, make sure to download it and complete before getting started.)
What is the pattern? What’s your best guess based on what your data says?
Let’s say there were 15 times that my daughter hit me.
- 3 times she hit me because I gave her a direction.
- 1 time she hit me because I told her it was nap time.
- 11 times she hit me when she needed something.
Based on the data I took, she is most often hitting me when she needs something. Therefore, the main function (or reason) that she hits is to get something (tangibles).
Meet The Function of Hitting and Replace It
My daughter is hitting me because she needs something so now I have to figure out what I want her to do instead.
She still needs something, right? A toy, snack, her shoes, blanket.
I still have to meet that need. I still have to address the reason she is hitting me.
If I don’t, the hitting will continue and possibly get worse.
Keep that in mind — there is a reason the behavior is happening. Our job is to teach a more appropriate way to get that need met.
Step One: What Does Your Child LOVE?
Let’s say my daughter will do anything for bubbles! She loves them! They keep her attention and I know it’s one of her favorite things right now.
Think of 3-5 things (food, toys, activities) that your child is highly motivated by right now. Think of those top shelf items!
We are going to use what our child loves to teach the new behavior.
Step Two: What Can My Child Do Right Now?
My ultimate goal is that my daughter will say to me, “Mom, will you blow bubbles, please?”
She’s not there yet. Not even close.
And that’s ok!
There are some things that she can do that will get us closer to that ultimate goal.
She can hand me items. She can point. She is starting to copy a few actions (waving, clapping, stomping).
My first replacement behavior is for her to hand me the bubbles. She can easily do that! She’s done it for other things during the day.
Choose a behavior your child can already do consistently. That’s the first step in getting you closer to your ultimate goal.
The key here is to choose something your child can do that is easy for them and effective because if we choose something that’s too hard or takes too much effort, the hitting will continue.
Step Three: Decide When to Teach
Next, you’re going to decide when you want to teach the new behavior.
If your child hits because he wants a snack or more milk in his sippy cup, you can focus on that during snack and meal times.
If your child hits because the baby is getting too close to her toys, you’ll work on it during play time.
In my example, I’m going to focus on my daughter asking for bubbles when we’re playing. I’m going to have them close by. She can see them, but can’t open them on her own.
Step Four: How to Teach a New Behavior to Replace Hitting
You know the function — she wants something.
You chose an item that she really loves right now — bubbles.
You want to teach her to ask for bubbles (instead of hitting) during play time.
As soon as she gets close to the bubbles or picks up the bubbles, I’m going to hold out my hand, guide her hand to mine, and say “bubbles.”
Then I’ll immediately blow the bubbles.
Close up the bubbles. Put them nearby again. As soon as she reaches for them or hands them to me, BUBBLES!
I want her to learn that she has to do a very simple action (hand me the bubbles) to get what she wants.
I’m not trying to get her to say bubbles or sign bubbles or make eye contact. I’m starting off by making it very, very simple and effective.
She was hitting a lot when she wanted something. I am going to teach her that she can get the same result by handing me what she wants. I even gave her a hint by holding out my hand to cue her what to do.
You’ll need to provide lots of opportunities to practice! When you practice, make sure to:
- Make it fun! Use an excited tone of voice, be animated.
- Provide help if needed. Help her complete the action (handing me the bubbles).
- Give her the item immediately (yes, even if you helped her).
We can have the best plans in mind. We have the bubbles or the fruit snacks. We know the function and replacement behavior.
And sometimes it just doesn’t work out, right?
Let’s go through some common problems:
Your child is still hitting even though you’ve taught them a very simple behavior to replace it with:
- Check your function. Was the hitting occurring to get something? Avoid something? For your attention? Go back to your data. What was the pattern? Take some more data to see if that helps make things clearer.
- Give it some time. Behavior change doesn’t occur overnight. We want Amazon Prime results, right? But if learned behaviors have worked for a long time, it can take some patience and persistence on our part.
- Make sure your reinforcer is actually reinforcing. Does your child love fruit snacks as much as you think they do? Is there something else that your child really loves that you could use instead? Maybe they burned out on fruit snacks but love bubbles or chocolate chips or sips of a yummy drink.
- Is the replacement as easy and as effective as the hitting? Initially the new behavior HAS to be easy and effective! Maybe the only thing your child has to do is come up to you and then you blow the bubbles. If you know he can copy signs, but isn’t in this instance and is still hitting, take a step backward. Have him just hand it to you or touch the bubbles.
Your child’s hitting has increased or is getting more intense:
- This can happen and is common! We call it an extinction burst. You changed the rules of the game. The hitting increases and/or becomes more intense because it isn’t working like it used to. Think of a Coke machine. You put your money in and push the button. You don’t get your Diet Coke. You push the button again. Nothing. You start pushing the buttons harder and harder. Maybe you kick it or try to shake the machine. All in the name of getting the same result — your Diet Coke coming out. You had to increase the intensity and amount of behaviors you were trying because the usual method (putting in money and pushing button once didn’t work).
- Your child is used to hitting getting the results he wanted. It’s different now. He’s upping his game to see if that works. Maybe mom doesn’t understand that the first hit means I want to go outside. Maybe I need to hit her again and yell. Maybe I need to drop to the floor and scream.
- Stay the course. Do not let hitting be effective. Make sure your replacement behavior is simple and effective.
Hitting has increased in other situations:
- From the beginning we need to plan for generalization. That means that your child is able to do the new behavior with different people and in different situations. We don’t want her to learn “I only have to do this with mom at home.”
- Teach dad, grandparents, older siblings, daycare providers how to do the same thing you’re doing. Model how you are doing it. Let them see how your child responds. Have them practice.
- Practice in other activities. Your child is now handing you bubbles. Now try with something new. When you’re getting ready to go outside, place their shoes near your hand and wait for them to put the shoes in your hand.
Choose Your Hard
I follow a lot of trainers and nutritionists on social media. I like seeing their exercise plans or new recipes. I also like a lot of their advice.
One of the trainers had a post about “choosing your hard.”
Yes, it’s hard to get up early and exercise. It’s also hard to meal plan and prep. It’s hard to pass on dessert sometimes.
It’s also hard to be overweight and out of shape and eating poorly.
Choose your hard.
For us as parents and teachers, it’s hard to have our kids hit us. It’s hard to watch them struggle and get frustrated and tantrum.
Behavior change can also be hard. It takes a lot of planning. It takes some determination and a lot of patience.
So we can continue with the hard behaviors.
Or we can choose the hard task of teaching new behaviors.
Both roads are tricky. I’ve broken down on both roads with my own kids and with my clients.
But only one road will help my kids in the end.
You already have more information than you did in the beginning. You know the function of the behavior. You know what is keeping it in play.
Now, you also know the replacement behavior (easy and effective). You need a few really motivating activities or objects. You also know that you’ll need time to practice.
Behavior change can happen! It’s not always a smooth road. I’ve messed up plenty of times! You don’t have to be perfect! But get started and let me know if there is any way I can help!
What about a child that is hitting for sensory?
Feel like this only covers 3 or the 4 reasons for hitting.
Hi Gareth! I am so sorry for my very delayed response. In my experience, I have found that hitting can sometimes be related to sensory issues. For instance, if a child is overwhelmed by what is going on around them (too much noise, type of activity, too many people, etc) they will sometimes hit themselves or a peer or adult. They don’t have an appropriate way to get their needs met yet. If the child is younger, they are still pretty impulsive as well. Instead of telling their mom, “It’s too noisy and my sister is playing too close to me,” the child will hit the sister. Once we can find out why the child is hitting, we adults can teach a more appropriate way of getting that need met.