Setting Event Interventions

What are Setting Event Interventions?

The events that students experience as reinforcing and punishing are always changing based on both the presence and absence of many different environmental and social situations. The term Setting Event is used to describe the events that momentarily change the value of reinforcers and punishers in a student's life. The occurrence of a setting event can explain why a request to complete a task results in problem behavior on one day but not on the next. For instance, students are likely to respond differently to events and situations throughout the school year. A student may find an academic task more aversive and will be more likely to engage in problem behavior to escape from this type of activity the week before the winter holidays. At other times of the year, the student will complete the same academic task and be reinforced by the teacher for completing the assignment. Setting events can be physical, social, or biological. Setting events can precede or occur at the same time as a problem behavior. A student may get into a fight on the playground earlier in the day. During the next class the teacher may be surprised to see the student rip up his assignment and throw it on the floor. A concurrent setting event may include the presence of illness or pain. A student who is experiencing physical discomfort due to a headache may strike at the area that hurts with her fist. Knowing when a setting event is occurring is helpful and provides the team with a number of different intervention options.

What kinds of Setting Event Interventions are available?

Setting Event Interventions include:

  • Minimizing or eliminating the setting event
  • Neutralizing the setting event
  • Adding more prompts for positive behavior
  • Increasing the power of reinforcers temporarily
  • Promoting positive interactions

Minimize or Eliminate the Setting Event

One approach is to eliminate or minimize the likelihood that the setting event will occur. These types of Setting Event Interventions include providing medical treatment for illness, pain, allergies, or other types of internal discomfort. Early identification is very important so that interventions can be implemented before problem behaviors occur. Sometimes there are “early warning signs” that can be used to make sure the student receives medical assistance before discomfort levels rise and increase the likelihood of problem behavior. For instance, a student may experience allergies every spring with early physical signs including rubbing his nose and eyes with increasing frequency. Starting allergy medication at the first onset of rubbing can minimize the impact of the allergy season.

A setting event can be eliminated or minimized by changing a student’s schedule or other aspects of the environment. One research study described a Setting Event Intervention for a young woman with disabilities who had a history of engaging in such severe problem behavior that the school bus personnel refused to take her to and from school. The functional behavioral assessment indicated that the student’s problem behavior increased when the vehicle they were traveling in made frequent stops. The Setting Event Intervention involved taking the student to a school on an alternate route that reduced the number of times the vehicle stopped.

Setting Event Interventions can be implemented when problem behaviors are more likely when a student is fatigued due to sleep deprivation. This type of Setting Event Intervention can involve establishing consistent night time routines at home, obtaining advice from a physician about medications the student is taking, or changing the physical environment temporarily to avoid problem behavior. One approach is to change the expectations on days when a student receives less than seven hours of sleep by decreasing the amount of schoolwork expected or giving the student an opportunity to take a nap at lunch time.

One research study described a Setting Event Intervention for a high school student with disabilities who engaged in high levels of problem behavior when her bus picked her up late or when she had slept less than eight hours the previous evening. Most of the problem behaviors occurred during the student’s first-hour physical education class. The antecedent trigger was a request from the PE teacher to engage in aerobic exercise. The problem behaviors included crying, screaming, running away, spitting, refusing to participate, and hitting others. The Setting Event Intervention involved having the student’s mother call the school on days when a setting event occurred and changing the PE schedule on those days so that the student could begin the class with a stretching activity that the student enjoyed.

Neutralize the Setting Event

Another approach is to intervene after the setting event has occurred but prior to the antecedent trigger associated with problem behavior. This intervention involves "neutralizing" the effects of the setting event by allowing a student to engage in preferred activities. The opportunity to engage in a highly preferred routine or activity changes the response to an antecedent event. For example, one study described a young man who engaged in problem behavior to escape from difficult tasks. Delays or cancellations in planned activities increased the likelihood of problem behaviors. The neutralizing routine included sitting down with another person, rescheduling the cancelled event on a calendar, and then spending ten minutes reviewing the young man’s yearbook, an activity that he found very enjoyable. By implementing these routines prior to a difficult task, problem behavior was less likely.

Add More Prompts for Positive Behavior

Setting Event Interventions can include adding more prompts for appropriate behavior. The goal of this Setting Event Intervention is to increase the probability that the student will use a desirable behavior to gain your attention instead of engaging in problem behavior. Adding more prompts for positive behavior is often combined with an intervention that involves teaching the student new skills that will replace problem behavior. For example, a teacher may know when a student is more likely to engage in self-injury during fine motor tasks (e.g., art class) when she isn't feeling well. On days when the student is unwell the teacher will prompt the student to request a short break more frequently than on other days when the student is feeling fine.

Increasing the Power of Reinforcers Temporarily

Setting event interventions can involve temporarily increasing the power of the reinforcers for positive communication responses to "outweigh" the reinforcers associated with the problem behavior. Since a setting event momentarily changes the value of the reinforcers for desirable behavior, it may be necessary to temporarily provide positive feedback on a more frequent basis. Another strategy would be to increase the value of the reinforcers available for desirable behavior on days when setting events occur. For example, it may be necessary to increase the frequency and quality of attention a student receives in class when a setting event occurs if the student engages in problem behavior to get attention. Another strategy would be to give a student who engages in problem behavior when given difficult task an assignment that includes easier items when a setting event occurs. Another strategy would be to mix the number of easy and difficult tasks so that the student experiences success more frequently on days when setting events occur.

Promoting Positive Interactions

Setting event interventions can be used to promote positive interactions throughout the day by increasing activities that are intrinsically motivating, fostering communication, and increasing the number of positive social interactions. In other words, Setting Event Interventions do not have to be implemented when a student engages in problem behavior. These Setting Event Interventions are proactive and can be used to support all of the students within a class, a student and his siblings at home, or in any other settings where the student lives, learns, and plays. Identifying activities that are intrinsically motivating, providing opportunities for choice-making throughout the day, and creating ensuring students experience success sets the stage for positive behavior to be reinforced. Problem behavior is more likely to occur in negative environments where appropriate communication requests are ignored, choices are few, and reinforcement is thin.

How are Setting Event Interventions different from Antecedent Interventions?

Antecedent Interventions address the physical, social, and physiological events that trigger problem behavior. Setting events address the physical, social, and physiological events that increase the likelihood that an antecedent event will trigger problem behavior. When a setting event cannot be eliminated, it may be necessary to withhold or eliminate the antecedents associated with problem behavior. Decreasing the number of verbal demands, switching activities and changing schedules on days when setting events occur are examples of Antecedent Interventions that can be used in conjunction as part of a Setting Event Intervention.