Habit Reversal Procedures in Children

Nervous habits in children can be extremely difficult to break. These habits are often unknowingly reinforced through feelings of comfort, relaxation, and for relieving feelings of tension and anxiety. Nervous habits, such as nail biting and thumb sucking, normally occur during periods of inactivity. These habits are behavioral excesses that are most likely to occur when experiencing heightened nervous tension or boredom. Nervous habits, such as hair pulling, thumb sucking, or nail biting, can cause social implications and even physical damage if the frequency of the behaviors is extreme. Habit reversal procedures can be used to decrease the frequency of the habit behavior by introducing an alternative, fun activity.

It is important to first teach your child to identify when these habits are most likely to occur. These “triggers” can then be combated with an alternative behavior. After teaching your child to identify when the habit is about to occur, he or she can then be taught a competing response or alternative activity that is incompatible with the target behavior. You can than reinforce the new behavior each time it occurs and each time he or she avoids the habit behavior. Using a token system will reinforce the occurrences of the new behavior by providing feelings of accomplishment and self-confidence. If the desired behavior is reinforced each time it occurs, it is more likely to occur in the future. If the habit behavior should occur at any point during the habit reversal procedure, do not punish the child for the behavior; simply withhold reinforcement. If the undesirable behavior is not reinforced, the result produces a decrease in the future probability of the undesirable behaviors.

Differential reinforcement may also be used in order to increase desired behaviors while decreasing undesirable behaviors. This process takes place through reinforcement for the desired behaviors and withholding reinforcement when or if the undesirable behaviors occur. This procedure can be used to enhance a habit reversal program since it uses a combination of reinforcement and extinction. In order to eliminate the undesirable behavior, you must identify and eliminate the reinforcement associated with the undesirable behavior. Using a combination of reinforcement and extinction can help encourage and maintain the desired behaviors while withholding reward when the undesirable behavior occurs. As continuous reinforcement for desired behaviors are used in the early stages, schedules of reinforcement can gradually lessen over time. Intermittent reinforcement may then be used in order to maintain the desirable behavior, making the behavior more resistant to extinction.

A token system should consist of a chart made up of gold stars, which can be earned each time the child identifies when the habit may occur and chooses to engage in the alternative behavior (such as squeezing a ball, or rolling balls of play-dough). At the end of the week, the child is able to “cash in” the gold stars for an item of choice. If the child has a “slip up” and misses earning a gold star for each day of the week, allow the point system to carry over to the following week. Reinforcing the new behavior immediately and systematically makes future occurrences of engaging in the new behavior more likely.

Examples of alternative habit reversal behaviors may include; squeezing a ball, rolling balls of play-dough, squeezing silly putty, molding clay, sipping water, playing with a rubber band, or playing with a slinky.

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