Creating Supportive Environments

Perhaps you have noticed or been told that your child “acts” a certain way in one environment and a different way in another. From experience, my own children engage in different behaviors at school than they do at home. I often get asked by parents why this occurs. A good place to start to uncover some answers to this question is by looking at the environment.

From a young age, children quickly learn the expectations and consequences for each environment they are a part of. Examples of different environments include the grocery store, swimming pool, park, home, and school. From a behavioral perspective, we believe that people engage in different behaviors across environments due to the contingencies that are put in place. A contingency is the relationship between two events, the behavior and consequence, and one is “contingent” on the other. Contingencies can be natural or contrived and come in the form of reinforcement or punishment. Here is an example:

Antecedent              Behavior                  Consequence

Child wants juice    Child says “Juice”   Parent gives child juice

This consequence reinforces or strengthens the behavior of appropriately asking for juice. Since the child received the juice, the child is more likely to say “Juice” in the future.

Let’s look at another example…

 Antecedent                                                               Behavior                       Consequence

Parent tells child it is time to take a bath           Child runs away          Delays bath

In this example, the behavior was also reinforced or strengthened because the child was able to delay the bath which is a non-preferred activity. Since the child was able to delay the bath, the child is more likely to run away in the future when it is bath time.

This is an example of how easy it can be to accidentally reinforce the behaviors we do not want to see. In this example, it would be important for the parent to follow through with the request and prompt or guide the child to that bathtub.

Consequences occur after the behavior and all behaviors have a consequence. At times, you may find that you have to be reactive; however, there are many things you can do to your environment to help your child be successful and decrease the chances the problem behavior will occur in the first place.

Often children with autism, need a little extra support to learn the expectations for each environment. While contingencies will always be different across environments, I will discuss some general strategies for creating a supportive environment that can work across the board.

  1. Safety First

Children with autism may engage in unsafe behaviors such as self-injurious behavior, elopement, jumping off of items, and climbing.

  • Ensure the room is set up for maximum safety
  • All items your child is not supposed to have are put up and away
  • Locks and gates can be used to ensure safety
  • Use of visuals such as a stop sign or signs signaling what your child is to do and not do in situations where safety is a factor can be useful.
  1. Structure, Consistency, and Predictability

Children with autism often thrive in structured environments that are high in predictability. There are a variety of ways you can make your environment more structured and predictable.

  • Use a visual schedule
  • Create an expectation visual: List what behaviors you expect from your child at various times of the day.
  • Use a first-then visual to show your child once a nonpreferred activity is complete a preferred or reinforcing activity will be next.
  • Balance nonpreferred/difficult and preferred/easy tasks throughout your child’s day.
  • It may be helpful to break nonpreferred/difficult tasks into smaller steps with reinforcement throughout.
  • It is important to keep a consistent daily schedule (e.g. consistent morning routine, bedtime routine, etc.)
  • Have structured play activities—children with autism may have a difficult time playing independently or appropriately. They may need adult facilitation to model, prompt, and reinforce appropriate skills.
  • Providing your child with reminders and prompts for appropriate behavior can help to encourage the behavior you want to see.

It is okay that children act different from one environment to another. It is not expected that children will act the same at home as they do at school or in another environment because the contingencies are different. However, you can set up each environment to be supportive of the behaviors you would like to see your child engage in.


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. New Jersey: Pearson.

Let’s learn aba (n.d.). Retrieved from

Roane, H., Ringdahl, J., & Falcomata, T. (2015). Clinical and organizational applications of applied behavior analysis. San Diego: Elsevier Inc.

Webster, Jerry. (2019, January 26). Contingency — the Important Relationship Between Behavior and Reinforcement. Retrieved from