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Ask a Behaviour Analyst

If you have submitted a question to Billy Cart Behaviour, please be on the lookout for our answer in our newsletter, which you can subscribe to at the bottom of our website. Alternatively, our response may be uploaded as a post on our page. Thank you for reaching out and allowing us to support you in any way we can.

Teacher Question
How do you identify a trigger early in a school setting? What can teachers do to reduce the severity of the possible escalation?

In a school setting, there are a number of complexities which teachers need to navigate. Typically, a teacher may be supporting anywhere from a few students to 20+ in the one classroom. This can make it difficult to identify the early indicators that someone is dysregulated in their class. When possible, the best behavioural strategy that can be recommended is to not trigger the person in the first place... Easier said than done, hey?


This may look like examining the environment and identifying possible or common triggers which may impact a student and brainstorming alternative options for that student to avoid the behaviours in the first place. These accommodations could include adjusting schoolwork expectations, providing regular breaks, have a subtle communication system for students to indicate when they need help or don’t understand a task, proactively providing movement or sensory breaks throughout the day, providing choices of a easy or more challenging task to complete, reducing the sensory input regularly such as quiet time (decreased sound input) or dimming the lights.


However, when being proactive does not work, or we have missed the warning signs, we want to respond as swiftly as possible to the student and identify the mismatch in the environment such as whether the demand or expectation is too high, they do not understand the task, or whether they are over stimulated. Teachers are to monitor their own emotional reactions and try to model a calm approach to the student. Do not raise your voice or reprimand the student, rather provide choices of alternative activities or the option to have a break instead. If you identify that engaging with the student is increasing the escalation, take a few steps back, observe and ensure that other students are not in harms way. This will provide the student the opportunity to self-regulate without the need to also process the verbal instructions you are providing to them.

While I am not a member of the Autistic community and cannot speak on their behalf - from listening to the community there is a preference for identity first language e.g. Autistic, rather than person first e.g. Person with Autism. However, with this in mind, it is important to seek clarification from the individual you are supporting for what language they’d prefer. This is a similar approach that should be used for gender and sexual identities as well.


If you create a safe and accepting space in your work, these conversations can be very affirming for the other person. One way to ask this style of question is “Do you prefer to identity as Autistic, or person with Autism?”, or “Can you please let me know what pronouns you prefer me to use?”. By normalising these questions, we are prioritising a individualistic approach to our support.

Clinical Question
In a recent discussion in class lately has been around use of person vs identity first language in the autistic community. The latest assignment also stipulated person first should only ever be used; however, I feel like it should be up to the individual and not the clinician. What is the best way to navigate this?

Parent Question
How do you know/determine if it’s a “behaviour” (meltdown/incident) or something else ie; syndrome, mental capacity etc. How do you enforce consequences to behaviour when not acceptable behaviour has been displayed, to our loved ones with special needs?

Gosh, hitting us with the hard ones this month! There is a really complex distinction between whether something can be attributed to a diagnoses or is a ‘behaviour’. The first thing I always ask my practitioners is ‘would you expect this to occur for every person (or majority) with that diagnosis?’ If the answer is yes, then it may be something that is correlated with a diagnosis. However, if the answer is no, then this may be a behaviour. For example, not every Autistic individual will abscond, self harm or engage in ‘behaviours’, yet on the other hand, it is expected that individuals with Prader Willi Syndrome would be motivated by food and will seek out food relentlessly. 

If the behaviour has a clear trigger, or reason that starts the behaviour episode, then this is something that can be supported to be reduced or changed as there is a ‘function’ or reason for the behaviour. We would first want to explore the triggers or events that influence the likelihood of the behaviour (i.e. complete a comprehensive functional analysis), and then design an intervention which can replace the ‘behaviour’ with a more functional response. However, the tricky part here, is to ensure that the replacement behaviour is within the person’s skillset, if not, then the replacement behaviour will not be effective. Thus, it is at this point we consider the cognitive or other influences which may impact learning a new skill and adjust our expectations to accomodate for any difference that needs to be supported. 

The second part of this question is around consequences for a ‘behaviour’ to reinforce the expectations of that person. Billy Cart Behaviour do not at any point believe that punishment or taking something away (response cost) is an appropriate consequence for a behaviour. Rather, we like to use this as a teaching opportunity to reiterate the expectations and to proactively prevent the behaviour occurring again. This can be done using some of the following general strategies (for more indepth and individualised strategies, seek a skilled behaviour support practitioner):

  • Respond to the behaviour with what you WANT the person to do instead of what not to do or using the words ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t’ or similar. This may look like “Oliver, put your feet on the ground please” or “Oliver, we play with trucks on the floor”. (For reference, Sarah’s toddler, Oliver, will often gain enjoyment from driving his trucks along the TV while there are other trucks on TV). This provides a clear expectation for the person to follow.

  • Use minimal wording when the person is escalated as they will not be able to respond appropriately or logically when escalated. Be repetitive with your simple expectation.

  • Proactively use visuals or written information to reiterate what is expected. For example, when you park at the shopping centre stating “Remember, we need to stay next to mum in the shops. We can get an icecream at the end”. This provides a clear expectation and a reward for afterwards to support the person to maintain the expected behaviour. 

  • Wait until the behaviour episode has finished and the person has returned to their calm baseline. At this point, rather than focusing on what went wrong, debrief with them and explore what can be done differently while also reiterating the expectations of behaviour. 

  • You could also proactively create a social story which addresses the clear expectations for something which you know may be a trigger for behaviours.

This can be challenging for teachers as they often are balancing the needs of the student who is dysregulated, and the remainder of the students in their class. It can quickly become frustrating for the teacher resulting in the urge to argue or try to justify their expectations or response to the student. However, if the student is dysregulated, their brain is not working at full capacity, rather they are either going ot be in survival mode, or driven by their emotions. Either way, they will not be able to be rationale or to understand a different view to their own when dysregulated. Therefore, as the adult and teacher of this dynamic, it is imperative that the teacher learns to withhold their frustrations to reduce any further dysregulation for the student, and shift focus to co-regulation or providing the student with space to regulate themselves. Once they are regulated, the teacher can then address what the issue was and come to a collaborative solution together.


One way to prevent this from happening is being mindful of your own responses as a teacher, and your own triggers as a human. Being aware of these can support you to identify when you are becoming frustrated or triggered yourself, and then be able to take a step back and disengage from this student. There is no benefit to try reasoning with a dysregulated person, regardless of whether that person is an adult or child. It is similar to the idea of telling someone who is angry or upset to just ‘calm down’, that never ends well for anyone if they are told to calm down… This is the same concept for this student/teacher dynamic. The student will not be able to hear or use their logic when dysregulated, and once we are aware of this, we can then implement realistic expectations on ourselves and the student.

Teacher Question
How can I avoid the student/teacher dance whereby we engage in conflict back and forth which continues the escalation?

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