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Changing Behavior in Public Settings?

July 11, 2016


My five-year old has a tendency to act out at the grocery store. How can I make him understand that his temper tantrums and misbehavior disrupt the other customers? Is he too young to comprehend how his behavior affects others?


The grocery store can be difficult for any child, as well as for families. Depending on your personal preferences, shopping can be a chore or a much-anticipated outing. Any number of variables can determine the outcome of a shopping excursion; parking, out-of-stock items, long check-out lines, even companions.

For women, husbands and children can make the simplest excursion somewhat challenging. For men, wives and children can have the same effect. The common denominator in this example is children.

So, what are some of the challenges we face with our children? In thinking through this question, we have identified just over 100 skills that can be taught related to shopping. No wonder this is a challenge for our children on the spectrum. Direction following, keeping hands to oneself, social interactions with strangers, and lots and lots of waiting are some of the more challenging skills our children face. Let’s not forget to thank the marketers who devised check-out lines with point of purchase delights almost everyone has to touch while they are waiting.

What’s a parent to do? Very simply, use ABA techniques.

First, identify problem areas; does it begin with just getting out of the car and walking into the store or somewhere in between? Next, think small. Address the first challenging area and practice, practice, practice.

If your child is challenged by walking into the store, just do that one thing and reward it profusely. Shape the behavior. Once your child shows agitation, stop. Always end on success and try to do a little bit more the next week. If he or she can only take 5 steps successfully, that’s your starting point. End at five steps, reward with praise and/or a small treat and try for 7 steps the next week. Continue this until you are actually in the store. Practice daily, if possible.

Make these excursions short. Once you’re actually shopping, purchase two or three items. Involve your child by having a shopping list (picture or text) they can use to check off items placed in a cart.

Be sure the last item is a preferred item for your child. This is their reward for being a “helper.”

Father playing with his little girl at home Father playing with his little girl at home