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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

OSEP, Ideas that Work

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


Positive Steps Change Problem Behavior in Young Children

Considering that transitions can occur in up to 30% of classroom time in the typical preschool/early elementary child's day, teachers need a simple, direct approach to elicit acceptable behavior from young children who have trouble at those times. A recent OSEP research study directed by Carol Ann Davis of the University of Washington validates two approaches to managing young children who exhibit disruptive behavior at daily transitions.

The study focused on the effects of a pair of proactive classroom strategies: "high-probability requests" and "preferred items as a distractor." To use a high-probability request, a teacher selects three to five instructions that she knows the child will like (such as "Give me five!" or "Touch your knees"); instructions found through interviews with school staff and parents. After the child does these things, the teacher praises him and then immediately asks him to take the action (for example, moving from one activity or place to another) that previously got a negative response.

The second strategy, known as "preferred item as a distraction," involves giving the child something he favors— as a friend, a watch, or a favorite toy— to the request to change activities. Preferred items are determined through interviews and direct observation during free play and other activities. If the child does not respond to the teacher's request, the teacher pauses five seconds and then verbally and physically prompts the child to his destination.

Research with two 6-year-old boys indicated significant and consistent increases in successful transitions using both intervention techniques. One of the boys had Down syndrome and would drop to the floor, hit or kick at adults, or scream when asked to move from one activity to another. The second boy had been identified with emotional/behavioral disorder and mild mental retardation. When he was asked to change to a new activity, he would hit, drop to the floor, scream, or pout.

Teachers involved in the research saw these interventions as socially valid and practical for daily classroom use. When forced to choose between the two techniques, they preferred the first. Although not comprehensive in scope, this study demonstrates an easy and efficient way to increase positive responses to requests when changing activities. "[M]ost importantly," the authors conclude, "the use of these interventions might increase the child's probability of independent functioning and successful integration into the classroom and community."

The research in the study was supported in part by the Office of Special Education Programs at the US Department of Education, Grant #H023C30089, Carol Ann Davis, Project Director, and was reported in full in Davis, Carol Ann, Reichle, Joe E., and Southard, Kristin L., "High-Probability Requests and a Preferred Item as a Distractor: Increasing Successful Transitions in Children with Behavior Problems," Education and Treatment of Children, 23, no. 4 (November 2000): 423-440.


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Last updated: October 8, 2001

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