When a Client’s Behaviors Interfere with Delivery of Effective Treatment: Evidence-Based Behavioral Approaches


By Christine A. Maul, PhD, CCC-SLP, co-author of Behavioral Principles in Communicative Disorders: Applications to Assessment and Treatment

A 3-year-old child badly in need of one-on-one language stimulation clings to his mother and cries inconsolably whenever she tries to leave the clinic room. An adult being seen for elective accent reduction therapy asks numerous questions that increasingly consume valuable therapeutic time. An elementary school-aged child being treated for a fluency disorder with a token economy system coupled with response cost reacts with torrents of tears whenever a token is taken from her. All of these are cases of behaviors that interfere with the effective delivery of therapy, taken from real-life clinical situations. In all of them, the behaviors were reduced through behavioral techniques: for the 3-year-old, a modified version of extinction was applied; for the adult, questions were reduced using differential reinforcement of low rates of responding; and for the elementary school-aged child, a modification was made of response cost, which is often coupled with conditioned generalized reinforcement, such as a token economy.

Extinction. After consulting with the mother of the 3-year-old child with delayed language, it was decided that a modified version of the process of extinction should be utilized to decrease the child’s crying behavior. Extinction removes the reinforcing contingencies for a person’s undesirable behavior. Ideally, a clinician should work with a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) to identify the exact reinforcing contingencies for a targeted behavior. In this clinical case, however, the clinician, in consultation with the mother, determined that the mother’s continued presence and the attention she gave the child in the clinic room was probably reinforcing the child’s crying behavior.
Therefore, for the next clinic session, the clinician arrived with a bagful of toys and books she hoped would be appealing to the child. The mother agreed to take the child into the clinic room and then leave. The expected tantrum behavior occurred. The clinician positioned herself in front of the door, blocking the child’s “escape” path, with her back to the child and began pulling out toys, one by one. The clinician played with each toy, remarking about how much fun she was having, but keeping her back turned toward the child. She engaged with each toy for only a brief amount of time, and, if there was no reaction from the child, she would exchange the toy she was playing with for another item. She did this with several items, none of which seemed to interest the crying child. Then she pulled out a pop-up book that made a “ding-dong” doorbell sound every time she turned the page and began reading it. The child continued to cry, but every time he heard the doorbell sound, he cried less and less, and began to approach the clinician. The sobs subsided more and more as he peeked around her back to look at the book. Finally, to the delight of the clinician and the mother observing through a one-way mirror, the child crawled into the lap of the clinician who gently started evoking one-word productions from the child through her storybook reading. The whole process took no more than 10 minutes, from the time the clinician turned her back to the time the child approached her, and the child went willingly into the clinic room for all subsequent sessions.

There are important things to remember if a clinician wants to try extinction, or this modified version of extinction. First, the process must be thoroughly explained to the parent, and the parent must be in agreement with the procedure. Second, the first time extinction is applied, an “extinction burst” is likely to occur, when the undesirable behavior escalates to even greater heights. When this happens, the procedure of extinction should continue to be applied; if not, all the client will have learned is how much of the undesirable behavior must be displayed before reinforcement is given. Third, extinction should never be used for physically aggressive or self-injurious behaviors.

Differential reinforcement of low rates of responding. In the case of the adult being seen for foreign accent reduction, the clinician suspected that the excessive question-asking behavior was probably negatively reinforced by providing escape from therapeutic tasks. Sometimes, maybe even often, clients find therapy to be aversive, and if a behavior puts off the hard work involved in therapy sessions, it is likely to increase.

The clinician decided that the rate of question-asking was so high, the most that could be done at first would be to employ a technique designed to reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the question-asking behavior. In differential reinforcement of low rates of responding (DRL), the client is warmly reinforced for performing an undesirable behavior at a lower rate. The clinician in this case explained to the client that the amount of time spent responding to her questions was seriously interfering with the effectiveness of treatment. She asked the client to limit her questions to only three per session. The clinician kept her responses to the questions very brief, and kept a tally of the number of questions asked during each session. If the client met her goal, the clinician warmly congratulated her and let her know how much her cooperation was appreciated. If the client had been a child, the clinician could have reinforced the reduced rate of undesirable behavior by offering a small prize at the end of the session; for adults, however, just warm acknowledgment of a job well done is usually enough.

Clinicians should be aware of the disadvantages of this technique. First, the technique will only serve to reduce a behavior. After the behavior has been reduced through DRL, further techniques will have to be employed to eliminate it. Second, a phenomenon known as generalized suppression of a behavior may occur. Consider the fact that asking questions is not an entirely undesirable behavior. People ask questions to seek out new information and to clarify that which is already known. If the client in the scenario provided eventually ceases to ask a reasonable number of well-considered questions altogether, generalized suppression has occurred.

Response cost and conditioned generalized reinforcement. A token economy system, such as the one employed by the clinician treating the school-aged child with a fluency disorder, is based on the behavioral principle of conditioned generalized reinforcement. People learn to work for conditioned generalized reinforcers that provide access to many other tangible reinforcers. In the natural environment, money is the most commonly sought after conditioned generalized reinforcer. In the clinic room, tokens such as poker chips, stickers, points, or happy faces can be given to a child to reinforce correct responses. The child can then exchange tokens earned at the end of the session for a prize in the clinician’s “treasure chest.”

A token economy can be even more effective when coupled with response cost, a corrective technique in which a token previously given for a correct response is taken away for an incorrect response. Children will usually work hard to keep the tokens they have earned, but sometimes, as is the case in the given scenario, a child may react emotionally when a token is taken away for an incorrect response.

Sometimes clinicians decide to simply cease administering response cost as a corrective technique when a child displays such emotional reactions. The clinician in this case, however, decided to adapt a slightly modified version of response cost. Each fluent response the child made was lavishly reinforced with three or four tokens, placed in a plastic cup. When the child exhibited a dysfluency, the clinician took one token out of the cup but did not remove it from the child’s view. Instead the clinician held the token over the cup, gave the child an expectant look, and encouraged the child to try again—“Come on, I know you can smooth it out!” Almost always, the child was able to produce the utterance fluently, and the token was plopped right back in the cup. Administering response cost in this way increased the child’s production of fluent utterances and eliminated undesired emotional reactions.

These are but a few examples of cases in which the application of techniques based on behavioral principles resulted in the reduction of undesirable behaviors that were interfering with the delivery of effective treatment. There are many other techniques that can be employed to decrease undesirable behaviors and to increase the desirable communicative behaviors SLPs seek to teach their clients. Much more detailed information regarding these and many more techniques, accompanied by protocols for session planning and recording data, are provided in Behavioral Principles in Communicative Disorders: Applications to Assessment and Treatment.


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