facebooktrack Reactive Strategies 101 | Behavior Nation

Take Everyday Precautions

Wash Hands

with soap & water for 20 seconds

Stay Home

when sick

Cover Coughs

& sneezes with tissue or in sleeve

Behavior Nation Will be Closed on Friday, July 3. We will resume normal business hours on Monday, July 6.

Reactive Strategies 101

Spread the love

Do you have a hard time coming up with an appropriate response to your child’s challenging behaviors? For example, your child starts to throw a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store to get your attention and you respond with bribery. 

To teach new skills, promote good behavior, and reduce unwanted actions, you should act quickly and efficiently. Immediate reinforcement for appropriate behaviors versus withholding of reinforcement for inappropriate behaviors can provide an instantaneous and precise connection between the behavior and the consequences.  

Planning reactive strategies can help you overcome those challenges and create teachable moments anywhere. 

What are Reactive Strategies? 

A reactive strategy in ABA therapy acts as a direct response to challenging behaviors. The goal is to use reactive strategies to bring about behavioral changes while also decreasing the chances of those actions occurring in the future. 
These strategies revolve around the concept of removing or minimizing reinforcement to teach your child that they will not get what they want from engaging in the challenging behavior. You’re reacting to their actions and providing an effective response. 

What to Consider Before Using Reactive Strategies

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) all respond differently to stimuli and educational techniques. Before you start adopting reactive strategies, you should individualize your plans to ensure that they work with your child and their skill set. 
Here are a few essential questions to ask yourself.

What Reinforcements Work for My Child? 

The most important thing is to think about is the type of reinforcement your child enjoys and will benefit from. To do that, you need to know the function those reinforcements and behaviors serve. 
For example, some children relish attention from parents and peers, so they may engage in challenging behaviors to gain attention such as loud noises or pulling on an adult’s arm. Alternatively, they may enjoy sensory reinforcement such as viewing spinning objects or hearing certain sounds.  
Every action serves a function. Understanding the role those actions play will help you find appropriate reinforcers and give you more insight into why challenging behaviors occur.

What Challenging Behaviors Do I Want to Focus On? 

Next, you should understand what behavior you want to decrease. Once you understand the function that behavior may serve, you can be prepared with reactive strategies that limit or eliminate the reinforcement that encourages those behaviors. Your reactive strategies should be individualized to your child. That way, you can fine-tune the response to have the most impact possible.

What Replacement Behavior is an Appropriate Alternative? 

Finally, you should figure out a proper replacement behavior, which is a behavior the child can engage in instead of the challenging behaviors to gain access to similar items. Remember—all actions serve a function or meet a need for your child! You can encourage appropriate behaviors that have the same purpose as the challenging ones to ensure that their needs are still met.

Different Types of Reactive Strategies You Can Use 

There are a few different kinds of reactive strategies worth adopting. Many therapists utilize a mix of techniques to reach the end goal.  


Extinction is an effective reactive strategy that involves removing the reinforcement that maintains a challenging behavior. Not all reinforcement is intentional. There’s a good chance that inadvertent rewards teach your child to continue challenging behaviors despite your best efforts to reduce the likelihood of them occurring. 
With extinction, you’re going to change the way you respond to your child based on the function of that behavior. There are four functions of behavior, and each one governs your child’s actions.


When an action is sensory based, it means that your kid is doing it to enjoy the feeling they experience. It could be scratching their skin because of a bug bite or scratching their eyes because of allergies. We all engage in sensory behaviors every day. You might not notice all the sensory behaviors that you or others engage in throughout the day, likely, because these behaviors do not have a negative social impact upon your life.  

Some children engage in sensory behaviors that serve as a barrier for social interactions. If you child is so focused on viewing spinning objects that they cannot focus on anything else, or engage in challenging behaviors when told to play with something else, you may want to consider some strategies and ABA procedures. 

One way to work on behaviors that serve a sensory function is to remove the sensory reinforcement. Going back to a previous example, you could use extinction procedures on the individual that bites their nails by having them wear fake nails that they cannot bite through. Even though they are engaging in the nail-biting behavior, they will receive no reinforcement from it. Going back to the earlier examples, you can employ extinction techniques by giving them ointment for the bug bite or allergy medicine to alleviate the itch. 


Escape is when the child behaves in a way that gets them out of an activity. 
For example, your child may start kicking you at dinner if they don’t like the food. That’s their attempt to get out of eating it. If you have ever caved in and allowed them to leave the table after kicking their feet, you may have accidently taught them that all they need to do to leave the table is kick their feet.  
Extinction could involve telling them how much of the food they need to eat before they can leave the table. Then, the reinforcement of leaving the table follows the child eating their food. In this case you would be reinforcing your child for following your directions to eat the food they are served.


Some behaviors are done to gain access to attention. Your child could start screaming, pulling on your shirt, or whining. 
In this case, if you turn to look at them or talk to them when they are engaging in these inappropriate behaviors, then you just taught them that is the way to get your attention.

The best way to respond in this case would be to ignore the screaming, pulling, and whining behaviors. Instead, you could turn and give them attention once they are standing beside you quietly or gently touching your arm.  

Access to tangible  

Access to tangible items or activities is the final function of behavior. Here, a child might act out to get to a toy or game they want. They might cry until you buy them a toy at the store or keep asking you for the iPad over and over until you give in. 
When those inappropriate behaviors occur, extinction would involve withholding those tangible items and activities. 

Instruct, Show, Do, and Follow Through 

This technique is all about teaching children that you mean what you say by following through on demands you place. It’s a great way to introduce new skills while also addressing unwanted behaviors to escape tasks or demands in the moment. 
The first step is to provide instruction. Ideally, your child would respond by completing the task you ask of them. If they don’t, you can move onto the next step: “Show.” 
The “Show” step increases your prompt and gives your child a better idea of your expectations. Let’s say that your instructions are to clean up toys. In this step, you could show them what to do by modeling the behavior or gesturing with your finger. It adds a little more clarity and cements the original instruction. 
If your child continues to ignore your demands, you can move onto the “Do and Follow Through” step. 
Here, you’ll help your child follow through with physical prompts. For example, you can use your hand to move your child’s hands as they pick up toys. It’s important that they complete the task fully before gaining access to the reinforcement. 
Another essential thing to consider is that you have time to follow through with the instructions. If you stop after the “Show” step, your child is reinforced by escaping the activity altogether. It shows that you’ll eventually cave, and they can get out of cleaning up their toys.

Over to You 

Adopting effective reactive strategies will help teach your child the desired appropriate replacement behaviors which will get them the same level of reinforcement. While you can use proactive strategies to decrease your child from engaging in challenging behaviors, it’s good to prepare for all outcomes.

If you don’t have reactive strategies in place, you cannot address challenging behaviors and promote learning. Learning how to respond when a challenging behavior occurs can make all the difference. 

Ready to starting using reactive strategies with your child? Download our free resources kit and keep track of the strategies you use with your child!  

Download Our Reactive Strategies Beginner's Kit Today