Behavioral momentum is, while less discussed, a very important and commonly used piece of a behavior modification program that is far simpler than it might sound. Behavioral momentum acknowledges that behaviors, much like physical items, can begin trending in a direction and seem to carry on in that direction unless something redirects or changes that direction. So, in real life that looks like starting with easier tasks so we can move into more challenging tasks with higher chance of success.
For example, if your child enjoys brushing his teeth but hates making his bed then when we’re getting ready to start the day we should start with the preferred task. Once that’s done, we have the opportunity to reinforce which will increase the chances of brushing teeth happening in the future and improve the likelihood of cooperation while moving into the less preferred task of making their bed.
Like any tool, it can be used well or poorly. Simply knowing the basis of the term doesn’t guarantee effective application. It can be frustrating not knowing what’s going through our children’s minds, that’s likely because it can change day to day. A task that they find easy today could be far more aversive tomorrow. Effective application of behavior momentum requires sensitivity to their motivators, reinforcers, mood, etc. Implementing this tool effectively requires that we are prepared to provide choices and model cooperation for our kids.
When should Behavior Momentum be used?
Transitions can be difficult for many children. Whether the transition is going from the park to home or going from a simple activity to a more difficult one (like from brushing teeth to making the bed from our earlier example); changing situations can be a challenge. It’s often during these times of change that our kids struggle with relinquishing access to that preferred item, person, or activity. This is our opportunity to use our knowledge of Behavior momentum to help them cope with this change.
Using the example of a transition from park to home we can set the expectation early that a transition is coming. That can be as simple as stating “we’ve got 10 minutes before we need to head home”. We can begin to build momentum through reinforcing small transitions we see as they play. Nothing appropriate is too small to reinforce! For example, “Awesome job sharing the swing!” As we reinforce and gain momentum, we can continue to prime them with verbal reminders for the upcoming transition (priming is actions we take or words we use that prepare our students for an upcoming change).
As we prepare to leverage our behavioral momentum into action, we need to take the larger task of the demand and break it down into its most basic steps. While the task is to go to the car so we can head home we can start by saying “Walk with me to the car”. Alternatively, choices can greatly support the efficacy of the demands as well so perhaps we ask, “Would you like to walk or run?” It’s important to think about these tasks in their most basic steps because we, as adults, might view the singular task of going to the car as a simple goal, our children might find the effort level much higher.
Here’s a comparison of how a parent and child might see the same task much differently.
Behavior Momentum in action
Billy does not like to leave the park. His teachers have no issues with transitions to fun activities, but when it comes time to move onto less preferred activities, problem behaviors occur. Because we know that Billy does not like to leave the park, here is how his teachers can use behavioral momentum to prepare for his big transitions. We will start with small steps and build from there.
Teacher: Billy, I’m so excited you earned the park! Remember, we have 10 minutes to play before we have to go back to school for Snack time.
5 Minutes later
Teacher: Great job swinging, Billy! We have 5 minutes left.
2 Minutes later
Teacher: We’ve got 3 minutes until snack time! What are you having for snack today?
Teacher: What?! Those are my favorite! That sounds like a great snack!
2 Minutes later
Teacher: We’ve got 1 minute left until snack time!
Time to go
Teacher: Alright, Billy, our time is up? Let’s go get those Cheetos!
In this example Billy’s teacher maintained his momentum with regular reminders and primed him for the next activity to further aid the transition. She could have also praised smaller transitions that might have occurred naturally on the playground (i.e., Taking turns).
How should behavior momentum be used?
Now that some examples of when behavior momentum is typically applied, we can talk more in depth of how it can be used. Let us not forget that behavior momentum helps to increase the likelihood that a child will respond well to direction. Before asking your child to do something that sounds less fun in their minds, asking them to complete something small can allow them to easily earn reinforcement. This then encourages and motivates them to move on to harder, or less preferred tasks.
Wanda does not like to do her homework and has trouble staying motivated during independent work. Her parents have trouble getting her to stay on task and when they get frustrated, she gets frustrated. Being able to stay on task to complete assignments is an important skill to learn that Wanda can carry with her into adulthood.
When determining how to increase your child’s motivation, the first thing to figure out is what subjects or assignments they do not like (i.e., worksheets, writing, English etc.). Once you find their non-preferred, make a list of subjects or assignments that they will likely complete with no issues (i.e., math, flashcards etc.). Then, begin their homework journey with integrating instruction the child will most likely follow (“pick up your pencil.”, “write your name.”, “read the directions with me.”) and, of course, reinforcing appropriate behavior every step of the way.
This is how Wanda’s parents can use behavior momentum to help her stay on task with non-preferred assignments.
Parents: What do you want to do after you finish your homework?
Wanda: I want to watch TV.
Parents: Great choice! Let’s get started; first, pick up your pencil.
Wanda: picks up pencil
Parents: Awesome, now write your name.
Wanda: writes her name
Parents: Looks great, now let’s read the directions together.
Wanda: reads directions
Parents: Amazing job getting started! When you finish, you can watch TV!
Ten minutes later…
Parents: Great job Wanda, I can’t wait for you to earn your favorite TV show!
In this example, Wanda’s parents started with simple instruction that is most likely to be completed with no problem behavior. Providing verbal praise each time she completes instruction is what helps build behavior momentum to increase the likelihood that Wanda will continue to follow instruction. Asking Wanda what she wants to earn before giving instruction, encourages her to want to earn that high preferred break.
It’s easy to see behavior gains momentum and at times we can have trouble changing the direction. Just as it can be hard for us adults to get going when the alarm clock first goes off on a Monday morning, our children often struggle with breaking out of the direction their behavior is taking them. With some understanding of these basic concepts, we can recognize the challenge certain tasks carry for our students and provide them the support needed to get their behavior moving in the right direction.
When we recognize which behaviors are more likely to take place and start with those easier tasks we can praise those good decisions heavily and have a higher likelihood of success when we bridge into the more difficult tasks. By easing into harder tasks in this way we can support our student’s education, reduce chances of escalation, and overall greatly enhance the efficacy of the time we spend teaching.
By Anne Richardson
Anne is one of the BCBA candidates at Keystone Achievements. She has been a part of our team since Summer of 2020 and working in the special needs community for the last few years. As an RBT and in the school setting Anne has enjoyed seeing kids grow and looks forward to continuing to pursue that passion as a BCBA.