To see the other posts in this series click HERE.
Ever had a student who exhibits behavioral issues in morning meeting on some days but not on others? Had a student who on some days has a great day at recess with no problems and on other days, recess is a behavioral nightmare? How about a student who you look at him when he gets off the bus and think to yourself, “I knew I should have called in sick today!”? Frequently I encounter these students and their teachers tell me that there is not reason for their challenging behavior, that there is no pattern, or that there was no antecedent to the behavior. When people tell me that the individual’s behavior is variable with good days and bad days or that there is no discernable pattern to the behavior, one of the things I immediately think about is the presence of one or more setting events. So, in continuing to talk about data collection in naturalistic settings, I wanted to spend a full post talking about what setting events are (and aren’t) and how they work.
What Are Setting Events?
Setting events are events that happen BEFORE the antecedent or trigger for the challenging behavior. They essentially are more global types of events (e.g., lack of sleep, illness) that make an antecedent more likely to trigger a challenging behavior than it might be if the setting event didn’t exist. They don’t cause a challenging behavior, but they make it more likely. I think of them like a cloud that rains on the connection between the immediate antecedent to a challenging behavior and the challenging behavior.
Let’s take a couple of examples. This morning my coffee maker was broken and I didn’t get to drink my coffee before working on the computer. When I started working on the computer, it started doing weird things like freezing when I was working on a video. On most days, I just reboot the computer and try again and just keep doing this until it gets done. But today, I was really irritated with it, didn’t feel like waiting for it to reboot, and kept trying to make it work. There may have been some cursing involved. On most days, I accept that if I want to use that old computer for video, I’m going to have to reboot it, but without having my coffee, it just wasn’t going to happen without some challenging behavior.
A classroom example would be a student I worked with many years ago. We discovered that if he had a good morning, he had a good afternoon. However, if we saw some minor problems in the morning like whining and crying, we saw more severe behaviors in the afternoon. We began to run some days to try to figure out how to make his mornings run better. This was a kiddo who really liked to be in control of situations and tell people what to do. So, we set up his morning so that he had lots of choices in the morning routine. The teacher decided it didn’t matter whether he signed in, did his journal or did table tasks first as long as he got all three done. We discovered we had a great morning if he got to choose the order of the activities. And if we had a great morning, we didn’t have severe self-injury in the afternoon. Through collaboration among the team and some careful analysis, we realized this connection–having a rough morning (even though we may never know the “cause” of the rough morning) was an indicator of a rougher afternoon, but it didn’t happen everyday.
Another example is a student who has difficulty sleeping through the night. When he sleeps through the night and is rested, we realized we had few problem behaviors when we asked him to do work. When he got up in the middle of the night, we had a good bit of aggression and self-injury at school when we placed demands on him. In order to figure this out, we had his mom keep a sleep log for us. We actually found it was a bit more subtle and that the behaviors were more likely to occur on the second or third day after he hadn’t slept through the night rather than the first. In order to address it, we continued to have his mom keep the sleep log so that we would know where he was in the sleep cycle. Then we did a combination of modifying his day with maintenance demands (not new material) on the poor sleep days and gave him an extra opportunity to nap through the day until his parents could work with a sleep specialist to try to get his sleep more consistent. This, in combination with other strategies that included teaching him to ask for a break when demands were placed on him, reduced his challenging behavior.
What Setting Events Are Not
Setting events actually have nothing to do with setting. We call them setting events because they “set the occasion” for a challenging behavior to be a response to an antecedent. They often happen in a setting outside of the setting in which the challenging behavior occurs.
Setting events are not antecedents to behavior. That is they don’t occur just before the challenging behavior occurs and they don’t set it off. Instead they increase the likelihood that an antecedent will trigger a challenging behavior.
Setting events are not a reason to blame other settings or people for behaviors.
Just because Dontel has more problems at school when he has a rough morning at home is not a reason to determine that the cause of his behavior is his family or homelife. Sleep, as a setting event, is a good example. Many individuals with autism have difficulty with sleep that affect their behavior at home and at school. If the parents could fix that, believe me they would; telling them he needs to sleep better does not address the problem. Getting help to reset a sleep schedule and making modifications to decrease the impact of the sleep on behavior is going to be more productive.
Setting events are typically not something you can eliminate
Like sleep, illness, etc. these are more global variables that we often don’t have control over. Consequently we can’t eliminate them but have to find a way to accommodate for them to lessen their impact.
How Do We Assess for Setting Events
Setting events are usually pretty global factors and we can’t always pinpoint them clearly with data like we did for the sleep above. However, there are some common ones to look for and some ways to try to gather information that might indicate a relationship if you see inconsistent behavior over time.
First, on the free data sheet I shared in the last post, I included a section for staff to indicate if there was anything going on that day that might affect behavior and included some common setting events. This allows you to track the behavior in relation to those behaviors.
Next, if you suspect a setting event may be involved in the behavior, take a log of it or have the family (or classroom) take a log to compare it to the ABC data frequency and see if there is a relationship.
Finally, there are some setting event checklists and some of the indirect assessment tools like interviews can get at some of the more pervasive and global types of issues that are related to challenging behavior. These can be helpful to discover issues that might need to be assessed in order to determine if they are related to the challenging behavior. Below are some good examples to use:
Escambia County Setting Events Checklist
Westchester Institute for Human Development Positive Strategies Setting Events Checklist
Illinois PBIS Setting Events Checklist
Only data will really tell you if there is a relationship between setting events and challenging behavior. When I talk about developing behavioral support plans, I will address how we can accommodate for them to lessen their impact on behavior if we can’t eliminate them. Until then, what setting events have you observed with your students?
Until next time,