Antecedent Interventions

What are Antecedent Interventions?

Antecedents are events, people or things that immediately precede problem behavior. Antecedents can be related to the time of day, the physical environment, people who are present, or activities that are occurring within a setting. Being yelled at or teased by other children, being told to complete an assignment, having a toy taken away, or being told to stop engaging in a preferred activity are possible antecedents. Antecedent events can also include the absence of something. The absence of attention, being ignored by peers or adults, or the absence of a favored activity can be an antecedent event.

Once the antecedents that trigger problem behavior are identified, several types of interventions can be used. These strategies involve reducing the future occurrence of problem behavior by eliminating the antecedent event, modifying the content or by changing how the content is presented.

What kinds of Antecedent Interventions are available?

Eliminate the Antecedent Event

Sometimes an antecedent event can be eliminated. In one study, a high school student with disabilities engaged in problem behavior to escape from a vocational task. The antecedent event was negative rule statements made by the teacher ("Remember, you need to work without whining," or "There is no hitting"). The antecedent intervention involved eliminating any negative rule statements while ignoring the student’s problem behavior. Eliminating the verbal rule statements resulted in an immediate reduction in the frequency and intensity of the student’s problem behaviors.

Sometimes, it is not possible or appropriate to completely eliminate a task or event. For example, if a child has difficulty learning how to read and engages in problem behavior to escape from the task, it would not be appropriate to eliminating reading instruction. One alternative would be to temporarily eliminate instruction in reading to decrease the occurrence of problem behavior. Once problem behavior was occurring at low levels, the teacher slowly re-introduces reading activities back into the child’s schedule until reading is occurring at an acceptable level.

Modify the Content to Prevent Problem Behavior

Include Student Interests. One type of Antecedent Intervention involves identifying student preferences and modifying a task associated with problem behaviors so that it incorporates student interests. The purpose of this type of intervention is to decrease the aversive characteristics of an activity. One research study described an antecedent intervention for a young student who engaged in aggression, talked out loud during quiet periods, made noises from in class, left his seat without permission, and destroyed property. The antecedent event was the teacher’s request that the student complete two worksheets which involved tracing and copying lower and upper-case letters of the alphabet. After tracing the letters, the student then colored the objects that corresponded to each letter of the alphabet. These pictures included balloons, animals, and other objects. The antecedent intervention was to incorporate the student’s interest in cars and motorcycles into this letter-tracing activity. Instead of balloons, animals, and objects, the student was asked to color pictures of different types of cars and motorcycles. The student’s problem behavior decrease and his participation increased by modifying the task.

Change Task Difficulty. There is a clear relationship between task difficulty and problem behavior. Difficult tasks are associated with more student errors, frequent corrective feedback, and lower rates of positive reinforcement all of which can result in higher levels of frustration, decreases in student responding, and escape-maintained problem behavior. Antecedent interventions that address task difficulty involve modifying instruction to ensure the student experiences higher levels of academic success.

In one study, an antecedent intervention was implemented for a fourth grade student who engaged in aggression, property destruction, made negative verbal comments, and frequently walked away from tasks and activities. Whenever the student was asked to complete an English worksheet that focused on the use of capital letters, punctuation, and abbreviations, she engaged in problem behavior. The functional behavioral assessment determined that the student was reading at a first grade level. However, her academic reading and writing tasks were at the fourth grade level. The Antecedent Intervention was to modify the reading tasks to compensate for the student’s skill deficits, include illustrations on the worksheets describing how to complete the tasks, and to highlight and underline important words in the instructions.

Sometimes the adaptations needed to decrease the difficulty of a task does not involve lowering expectations of the work. Instead, some interventions involve prompting the student before errors occur in order to decrease mistakes. This approach can increase correct responding and ensure a student's success. Prompting procedures can involve verbal, physical, or gestural prompts that are systematically faded until the student is independently able to complete a task.

Make the Task More Meaningful.Activities that are functional have meaningful outcomes and an immediate impact on the learner's life. Choosing activities that produce immediate reinforcement can naturally increase academic responding and reduce problem behavior. For instance, instead of requiring a student to copy letters from a handwriting book real letters can be written and mailed to a pen pal. Antecedent Interventions could involve asking a student to write captions in a photo album instead of practicing his writing skills in a standard handwriting book. Teaching an isolated skill out of context of a meaningful activity makes it harder for the student to understand the importance of learning the particular task. In one study, an academic activity that involved the student handing coins to a teacher upon request was changed so that students purchased items using correct change.

Change How the Instructional Content is Presented

Behavioral Momentum. One way to make a task or activity less aversive is to ask a student to complete a number of “high probability” (e.g. activities the student is more likely to engage in) tasks before a more difficult or nonpreferred task is presented. This process is called behavioral momentum. Asking the student to engage in a number of “high probability” activities increases the likelihood that he or she will continue to respond to your requests when asked to complete a less preferred task and creates more opportunities to provide positive feedback. One study showed that it is important to vary the high-probability requests each time they are used. When high-probability requests are always presented in the same order, student responding decreases and problem behavior increases, possibly because the requests become associated over time with the less-preferred task

Task Length. Another strategy is to present a variety of brief activities instead of one longer task. Research studies report that giving a student a variety of activities instead of one task of longer duration has been shown to decrease problem behavior and increase student engagement. Decreasing the length of the task and providing more frequent breaks has also been shown to decreases problem behavior. In one study a teacher used the exact same spelling assignment but instead of one long worksheet and a spelling activity the student received a shorter worksheet followed by a writing assignment that took only ten minutes to complete. Providing the same material in smaller chunks resulted in a decrease in the student’s problem behaviors. This type of strategy may increase a student's sense of progress and provide a sense of completion. Another strategy is to intersperse tasks that have already been mastered with more difficult activities in order to increase student engagement and decrease the aversiveness of a challenging assignment.

Increasing the Probability of Desirable Behavior. Activities can be organized in a way that prevents problem behavior. Re-scheduling a high-energy activity right so that it does not occur right before a quiet reading activity is an example of an Antecedent Intervention. Instead, a more proactive approach is to schedule a high-energy activity like recess after reading class. Some interventions use behaviors that are more likely to occur to increase those that are less likely to occur. For instance, a teacher may tell a student that he can spend time finishing a preferred activity after his in-class assignment is completed.

Increase Opportunities for Choice. A number of studies have demonstrated that giving the student a choice of possible tasks can increase on-task responding and decrease problem behavior These research studies indicate that opportunities to make choices in between assignments reduces problem behaviors that are maintained by escape and avoidance. Providing a student who engages in problem behavior several choices at the onset of an activity can decrease problem behavior and increase academic responding, even when the choices between tasks are not preferred

In one study, a teacher evaluated whether problem behavior decreased and academic engagement increased when students were able to choose their academic activities when compared to a task chosen by the teacher. Two fifth grade students were given an individualized menu containing a list of tasks that were on their desk throughout the class period. When the students didn’t have a choice, they were told to complete assignments that were listed on the blackboard. The teacher found that when the students had an opportunity to choose their assignments, problem behaviors decreased and engagement levels increased.

Create Bridging Activities. Sometimes problem behavior occurs during transitions between activities. A student may be more likely to engage in problem behavior while waiting for the next class activity. A “bridging" activity can be used during the transition. For instance, a student may have a preferred activity that she works on when she completes her in-seat assignment and is waiting for her classmates to finish.

Classroom Management Strategies. Some Antecedent Interventions are a natural part of classroom management. Good classroom managers create a comfortable pace and flow of activities in order to keep students engaged and decrease problem behavior. Smooth transitions between activities decreases off-task behavior since students are less likely to be distracted by other events. Keeping the interval between student responses and the next teacher request is associated with correct responding and less off-task behavior.

Predictability. Many students with disabilities show improved engagement in academic tasks and are less likely to engage in problem behavior when they can predict upcoming events. Studies have shown that Antecedent Interventions that increase predictability in a student's life by using daily schedules, modeling new tasks, rehearsing upcoming events, or rescheduling canceled activities on a visual calendar are associated with decreases in problem behavior. These strategies are work even when unexpected changes are still occurring in the student's life.

Many of the Antecedent Interventions described in the research studies are designed to decrease escape-motivated behavior. However, these same strategies can be used to address problem behaviors that are maintained by access to preferred events, attention, or physiological factors.

How are Antecedent Interventions identified?

Information that can be used to design Antecedent Interventions is gathered during a functional behavioral assessment. Ideas for Antecedent Interventions are generated when the student and his or her team meets to brainstorm possible interventions using the PBS Planning Tool.