Supporting individuals who have challenging behaviors means we frequently come across people engaging in activities that we don’t want them to do. You frequently hear caregivers say things like, “stop doing that,” “sit down,” and so on. When I ask staff if there is a better way, they often give me a questioning look. Its sort of like you would imagine someone asking, “Do you want me to stop breathing too?” What we want is for people to stop doing things that get in the way of us providing them with the support they need. Unfortunately, telling someone what not to do doesn’t always work. It can sometimes make the situation worse. When we rely on telling someone what not to do, what are we telling them? I see at least two things.

First, when you tell someone not to do something, you are asking them to stop using the communication methods they have learned. People use communication methods that work for them. The best way to get across what works for us is by modeling it so people can see what we mean. Telling someone not to do something can actually interfere with their ability to learn what we want them to do.

Second, when you tell someone not to do something, you are telling them that their behavior is bad. This can be very harmful to the relationship and make it more difficult for us to work with the person in the future. We want to be sure we are telling people what we want them to do, not what we don’t want them to do.

We Must Be Proactive

To counteract a negative behavior, we must be proactive in our approach and start with the end in mind. If we want to change a behavior, we must consider what would we rather see ahead of time so that we may develop it. Over the years I have referred to this as thinking three steps ahead. Being a proactive support worker requires us to be creative and think on our feet.

We Must be Consistent

Once we have determined the desired behavior, we must be consistent with delivering it. This means that we must provide the same message every time, in the same way, and at the same time. If we are not consistent, we can expect that the behavior will continue or worsen.

You Can’t Force Anyone to Do Anything

Whenever I hear caregivers talking about wanting to “force someone” into the activity, it makes me cringe. When we use the word force with people who have difficulty communicating or moving, they can feel threatened and respond by resisting us even more. It is never helpful to threaten, intimidate or coerce someone into doing something. Instead, we should focus on using positive reinforcement to reward them for engaging in the desired behavior. This is sometimes referred to as “catching someone being good.”

Human beings are creatures of habit. We get into the habit of engaging in behaviors that seem to work for us (even if that involves lying on the ground kicking and screaming). So when we say something like, “stop doing that,” we are, in essence, telling the person to go back to engaging in behaviors. Why? Because those behaviors work for them!


There are better ways to let someone know what you want them to do. Here are a few suggestions:

1) Use positive reinforcement when the person does something you want them to do. This could involve giving them a verbal or physical cue such as a pat on the back, clapping your hands, or saying “good job.”

2) Model the behavior you want to see. This is one of the best ways to teach someone what you want them to do.

3) Use pictures or symbols to help communicate your message. Use a picture board or communication board to give the person a visual of what you want them to do.

5) Get down on their level and make eye contact when you are trying to communicate with them.

6) Use words that are easy for them to understand.

7) Break down tasks into smaller steps and provide lots of positive reinforcement as they learn new ways to accomplish things.

8) Give the person choices by allowing them to decide what they do next, but be sure you inform them of all their options so that they feel empowered to make a choice.

9) If someone is avoiding an activity, try changing your approach. Start with an activity that is challenging for them, but not too difficult. This may require you to start with a simpler version of the desired activity and then gradually work your way up to the more challenging one.

10) Match their pace when teaching them new things or working on challenging behaviors.

Thanks for reading.