Behavioral Momentum: What, Why, and How

Behavioral momentum is a term for something you have probably done at some point in your life, whether it be working with students, your own kids, or even other adults in our lives. I bet many of us use this strategy daily with people in our lives and don't even know it! This strategy works great with our more challenging, non-compliant students.


What is Behavioral Momentum?

Behavioral momentum is an evidence-based strategy that involves making requests that are easy (high-probability or HP) for the child before making requests that are more challenging (low-probability or LP). By delivering a series of HP requests before the target, or LP request, you increase the child’s motivation to cooperate because you are building in many opportunities for success.

Why Should I Use Behavioral Momentum?

Behavioral momentum has been proven to be effective with increasing compliance with learners of all ages, particularly those with escape-maintained behavior. This strategy can be a very effective for defiant learners who can sometimes seem oppositional for no reason (there’s always a reason though)! Additionally, by using less punitive strategies (starting with preferred or HP requests rather than spouting off LP demands from the get-go), the learner will associate you as the adult as more reinforcing to be around and not as aversive and deserving of noncompliance.

When Would You Use Behavioral Momentum?

Behavioral momentum is used in a variety of settings, with a variety of individuals. This strategy is often used by staff in classroom or vocational settings, as well as with ABA therapists and parents in the home environment. You can use behavioral momentum when teaching just about anything. The key is having the “momentum” of success prior to the more difficult demand. This will increase the likelihood the learner will comply with the more difficult task.  Behavioral momentum is a strategy most used with children who engage in work refusals and noncompliance.

How Can I Use Behavioral Momentum with My Learners?

This strategy is simple to implement. Behavioral momentum can be used with learners of all ages.

Step 1: Identify both easy (HP) and difficult (LP) tasks/requests for the learner.

Choose what you know your learner will do if you ask, and requests you want the learner to comply with that they are having difficulty doing so now. Examples could be simple tasks for the LP requests that they already do like clapping hands, writing name, high fives, etc. HP requests could be washing hands, completing first question on worksheet, putting away markers, etc. One learner's LP request could be another's HP request, so this is individualized for everyone!

Step 2: Present a pre-determined number (3-5) of HP requests in close succession. After each HP request is complied with, the learner will receive praise or another type of reinforcer (token, high five, sticker, etc.)

An example of this you may see a lot in ABA classrooms is: "give me five" ("nice job!"), "touch your nose" ("great work"), "stand up" ("awesome!")..."

Step 3: Present the LP request/demand. Learner receives reinforcement (could be praise, or more potent reinforcement for the learner) upon complying with LP request.

An example of this (after using the sequence above): "Give me five, touch your nose, stand up...put lunch away! [Child complies] Amazing! Let's use the computer!"

Step 4: Continue this sequence, changing the number of HP requests in a row to keep the reinforcement schedule variable.

You may be implementing this strategy as part of a discrete trial format, so you will be doing these practice sessions in succession. I, however, tend to use behavioral momentum during naturally occurring situations. Thus, I'm not going to immediately run this program again, but instead keep track of number of successive HP requests for when I want to gain compliance again, using naturalistic teaching.

Step 5: Collect data using data collection procedures. Consistency is key to seeing progress.

Whatever data collection system you use, incorporate tracking behavioral momentum as part of it. You should be tracking the learners noncompliance (or compliance, depending on how your goal is written), as well as the number of HP requests the learner is asked in succession to ensure you are decreasing these overtime. It's very hard to keep track of these in your head, especially when you have multiple people working with the learner, so best to keep track of everything using data collection!

Step 6: Gradually reduce the HP requests while maintaining reinforcement for LP requests.

Using data collection procedures described in Step 5, you will be able to see how you are fading out reinforcement for the HP requests. Gradually fading reinforcement for LP requests will ensure the learner comes in contact with naturally occurring reinforcement in the real world (we don't get praised as adults for standing in line when asked, as an example), and makes your life easier (you aren't constantly giving stickers for doing simple tasks the learner can do without reinforcement.

*Remember! If you do not gain compliance with your HP requests, you need to demand easier or more preferred tasks, which means starting the sequence over before presenting the LP demand.

Pin the image below as an easy visual for the above steps!



ABA at Play: scientific research, function-based interventions, antecedent manipulations, fading, evidence-based practices, generalization, behavioral momentum socially significant behavior, individualized supports, reinforcement procedures

Have you used behavioral momentum with your learners? Have you found it to be effective?

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