Kristi’s Corner – The Choice is Yours

Using Choice to Increase Compliance During Non-Preferred Activities

Romaniuk, C., Miltenberger, R., Conyers, C., Jenner, N., Jurgens, M., & Ringenberg, C. (2002). The influence of activity choice on problem behaviors maintained by escape versus attention. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 349-362.

Article Review written by: Kristi Hansen

Allowing a person the freedom to choose can be powerful. Research has revealed that free choice is preferred over no-choice, even when the results are the same (Fisher, et al. 1997, Powell & Nelson 1997). The power of choice can play a tremendous role in the delivery of ABA services to children with autism spectrum disorders and other related conditions — but parents and teachers may also easily incorporate choice into routines in the home or classroom.

This study, conducted by Romaniuk, et al. (2002) aimed to determine how effective a choice intervention would be for children whose problem behaviors were maintained by escape versus those whose problem behaviors were maintained by attention. There were seven participants, ranging from 5 to 10-years-old, with diagnoses of cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, mood disorder, mental retardation and other cognitive impairments. All participants were recommended for the study as a result of high rates of disruptive behaviors in the classroom.

It was determined through a functional analysis that three participants exhibited problem behaviors (including physical aggression, yelling, crying, getting out of seat, throwing objects, and refusal statements) that were maintained by escape. Three participants exhibited problem behavior maintained by adult attention, and one participant exhibited behaviors maintained by both escape and attention.

Before the experiment, a pool of 8 to 10 tasks were selected by each student’s regular classroom teacher. During the no-choice condition, the experimenter selected a task from this pool for the student to complete, and problem behaviors that occurred during the task were recorded. During the choice condition, students were given the opportunity to choose from an array of 4 to 6 tasks, also from the same teacher pre-selected pool. Although these tasks were similar in nature, and thus similarly aversive to the students, the three participants whose behaviors were maintained by escape showed significantly lower rates of problem behavior during the choice condition. However, the students whose behaviors were maintained by attention showed no change.

Kristi Hansen, Author & RBT

Straight Talk

Choice is Powerful…

Incorporating choice between typically non-preferred tasks both in the home and in schools can be a game-changer. The researchers in this study discuss this may be because the student is allowed to choose the task that is least aversive (“the lesser of two evils”) to him or her in the moment, so there is less of a reason to try to escape the task. Another potential reason could be that choice gives the individual a sense of control. Romaniuk, et al. (2002) wrote, “…allowing individuals to make choices among tasks may allow them to exercise a type of control over their environment that could only be achieved with the problem behavior in the past,” (p. 359).

…But It’s Not “One Size Fits All”

An important dimension to keep in mind with this study, is that choice made all the difference for the students who engaged in problem behavior as a way to escape, but it did not have the same results for students who engaged in problem behavior to get attention. In order for this to be effective in your own application, you must first understand what your child’s ultimate goal is.

While choice was not effective for those students in the study whose behaviors were maintained by attention, differential reinforcement and extinction were very effective. This essentially means, ignoring the problem behaviors (withholding the attention the student is seeking) and instead giving lots of positive attention and praise for engaging with the task. This way, the student ultimately gets what he or she is after — attention and praise — but only through desired behavior.

Choice Between Reinforcers

Other studies, such as Fisher, et al. (1997) demonstrated that the power of choice is also significant in giving reinforcement, or the reward a student earns for completing tasks. So if you want to praise your child for sharing, you could ask him if he wants a high five or a hug. If you want to reinforce how well he behaved at the lunch table, you can offer him a cookie or some gummy bears for dessert. Of course, the reinforcers you offer should be desired events or items for your individual child. Fisher, et al. (1997) explained, “Integrating choice into behavioral programs may help to lessen the potentially negative effects of reinforcer satiation,” (p. 436). This essentially means that your child won’t get bored of the same reinforcer over and over again and provides more variety.

Implementing Choice is Easy

Whether you’re a parent trying to feed your child lunch or a teacher trying to work on addition skills, you can incorporate choice into daily routines fairly easily. Powell & Nelson (1997) demonstrated that allowing the student to choose between tasks can be an effective intervention without having to be combined with any other element. It could be as simple as: “What food do you want eat next?” or “Which of these math activities do you want to do?” The choice is yours!

Fisher, W.W., Thompson, R.H., Piazza, C.C., Crosland, K., & Gotjen, D. (1997). On the relative reinforcing effects of choice and differential consequences. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 423-438.
Powell, S. & Nelson, B. (1997). Effects of choosing academic assignments on a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 181-183.
Romaniuk, C., Miltenberger, R., Conyers, C., Jenner, N., Jurgens, M., & Ringenberg, C. (2002). The influence of activity choice on problem behaviors maintained by escape versus attention. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 349-362.

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