When a child is exhibiting concerning behavior it is important to understand the underlying cause of the behavior. Some of the most common are:

Language delays—Children with communication delays may not always understand what is being said to them or asked of them. They also may lack the language to clearly say what they want or need. Misbehaving, or throwing a tantrum, is a way to get attention. Often it is the only way some children feel they can express themselves and their feelings. With time and patience, you can help them learn more appropriate means of expression.

Sensory disorders—Sensory integration or processing disorders can also be a primary cause of behavioral issues. This is often a reaction to an oversensitivity to sounds, texture, smell and lights. Watch for signs of a sensory overload such as covering the eyes, head banging, and being unusually sensitive to sound.  The child may become disoriented, distressed and overwhelmed, suddenly and unpredictably.

Shopping malls, grocery stores, parks, or restaurants—anywhere with a lot of people, activity, and noise—can increase a child’s chance of experiencing a sensory overload. Sights and sounds are often amplified in these areas. Even if it appears as a normal place to us, a child with a disability might experience it as highly unpleasant or even frightening.

Change in routine—Many children with a disability need the sameness of a routine. When a child’s routine is changed, it can lead to an increase in anxiety and frustration. That, in turn, can lead to an increase in inappropriate behaviors.

Strategies before an activity or outing

Set expectations—Talk to your child about the behavior you expect for the place you are going. For example, expected behavior at the grocery store is very different from expected behavior at grandma’s house. Talk about or show pictures of the behavior you expect for where you are going, as well as the behaviors that are not allowed or inappropriate.

Bring a sensory bag—This is a bag with items that can help calm your child. Items to include might be fidget toys, hand lotion, handheld games, tactile books or blankets. Some kids also like to wear headphones to help block out loud noise or sunglasses to help dim bright lights.

Prepare for the unexpected—Have a plan for what you will you do if you get a flat tire, or get stuck in traffic. In your car, keep a bag of “special emergency items” that you only bring out for the most stressful situations. Keep it in your glove compartment. Pair these items with a simple story about, “When things change,” or “Oh no! moments.”

Teach a safety phrase or signal—Give your child a way to communicate that things are not OK. This could be a phrase like, “I need a break,” or a picture or hand signal to symbolize needing a break.

Explain what will happen when—Before running errands, explain the order of events. For example, “First we are going to the grocery store, then we are going to the park. After we go to the park we will get ice cream. After ice cream we will go home.” Keep it simple and at the child’s level.

Have an exit strategy—Know warning signs that mean, “I have to leave now!” Know where the exits are. Understand when your child will be more comfortable moving to a safer location right away, and when it will be better to let her “sit and wait” until calm returns. 

Strategies during an activity or outing

Take a deep breath—You can deal better with any situation when you are calm. Your child will also sense your calmness and possibly not be quite as afraid or upset.

Be more visual and less verbal—When your child begins to have a problem in public, she is using the “emotional part” of her brain. Her ability to understand verbal language becomes more limited, and talking may seem like extra noise during the crisis. Give only simple clear directives, such as “stand up,” or “hold my hand.” If you are shopping, let your child see your shopping list so it is easy to see how close you are to being done. (Use pictures to make up your list, if possible.) Consider having a treat be the last item on the list.

Take action to bring about calm—Bring out your sensory kit, pictures and visual books, or anything you know that will help return your child to a calm state.

Check in with your child—Periodically ask, “Do you need a break?” Reinforce that your child can communicate to express her needs.

Reinforce the order of events—Talk through the sequence again throughout the activity to let your child see that things are happening in the order you described. Your child may begin to repeat the sequence as self-talk, which can help her remain calm.

Implement your exit strategy—Remain calm and remember that it’s easier for both your child and you if you recognize the earliest signs of stress or overload. It might be tempting to just hurry up to finish the activity, but that can easily cause the behavior to escalate. You will start to learn the cues that mean it’s time to end the activity and move to a calmer environment.

Strategies after an activity or outing

Reinforce the positive—Let your child know that you were able to see even the smallest success at self-regulation. For example, you might say something like, “I know the grocery store was very noisy, but I was so happy when you used your words to let me know the noise was bothering you.” Reinforcement of successes will help your child behave appropriately the next time you are in the same kind of situation. 

Review your expectations and where your child struggled—But definitely still talk about what your child did right. Model and practice the skills that are the hardest for your child.

Review your schedule—Was it too long? Did it have too many items on it?

Reinforce the use of communication—Praise your child for using the safety phrase or signal. “It was great that you showed me you needed to leave, because otherwise I might not have known.”

Reinforce positive behavior—Talk through the activity and offer positive feedback anywhere you can. This might be about how your child remembered the order of events, or how she coped and managed her behavior.

Review your exit strategy—Try to look back over what was happening when you noticed that your child was having a hard time. Was it when the park got really crowded?  Was it when she started getting tired?  Was it when the environment became more stimulating?  If you can start to recognize these very early signs, you and your child will become more successful at leaving or redirecting her attention before a full-on behavioral episode can happen.

Parts of this article were adapted from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)