Nev. program helps improve autistic kids' behavior

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — Kaci Fleetwood was a teacher at Mount Rose Elementary School when she took her first class in 2008 to learn how to handle unruly students by giving them positive reinforcement when they were behaving well.

"Then, lo and behold, later, when my own son went off the developmental charts, I remembered this great resource," Fleetwood told the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://on.rgj.com/UyJ8MU).

That resource is the Positive Behavior Support-Nevada Program, a statewide nonprofit program headquartered at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The program trains parents, teachers and community workers to help children of all ages who have disabilities find alternatives to what is called "challenging behaviors," said Ashley Greenwald, the program's administrator and the clinical director.

Those challenging behaviors run the gamut from tantrums to hitting and biting, she said.

"We assess behavioral problems and how to prevent them by using positive reinforcement," Greenwald said. "A lot of it focuses on preventing challenging behaviors by teaching children new skills, increasing their independence and promoting a positive environment."

Fleetwood said the classes have helped her and her husband, Jarrod Fleetwood, in parenting their 3-year-old son, Gabriel, who has been diagnosed with autism.

"When he has communication problems, instead of saying he is upset, he just says 'no' or has a fit," Fleetwood said. "The classes taught us to look at when that type of behavior happens and at how we respond to it. We found out we were making it worse by the way we reacted, and that was compounding the problem."

One example is how Fleetwood and her husband would do chores around the home as long as Gabriel was occupied and quiet, but they would give him their undivided attention if he was having a tantrum.

"So when he had a tantrum, we paid attention to him, which gave him positive feedback for his tantrum," Fleetwood said. "So to remediate the problem, we had to learn to give him attention when he wasn't acting out."

The Positive Behavior Support-Nevada Program's classes also taught Fleetwood and her husband how to avoid situations that can cause challenging behaviors.

When Gabriel came home from school, Fleetwood said, he sometimes would have a tantrum because he didn't like the snack she had fixed him.

"So the strategy was to have Gabriel pick out the snack he wanted before he leaves, and that creates an environment to stop the problem behavior before it happens," said Fleetwood, who now teaches at Washoe Innovations High School and has a second son, 6-month-old Gavin, who is not autistic.

Fleetwood said taking the classes with her husband or with her mother-in-law had made what they learned more effective because "we come together as a team and we have this support system."

Don Johnson, the program's project director, said the statewide nonprofit program works closely with local school districts to teach educators how to use positive reinforcement in the classroom.

"The best time to work on challenging behaviors is when they are not happening," he said. "The lack of communication skills often times is what leads to problem behaviors because a child doesn't know how to otherwise get his or her point across.

"We alternately are trying to build the capacity of family members to find solutions themselves and lessen the likelihood of future behavior problems, which makes life better for everyone," Johnson said.

Greenwald said the Positive Behavior Support-Nevada Program is designed primarily for parents or other adults who deal with children with disabilities, but it is open to parents who think they could benefit by using the positive behavior technique with their children as well.

The classes cover topics that include potty training, picky eaters, teaching children to use words instead of aggression to express their anger, and how to establish struggle-free routines for mealtimes, bedtime and getting dressed in the morning, she said.

The classes are free for parents whose children have been diagnosed with a disability such as autism or Angelman's Syndrome, but other adults can take the classes for a fee.

The topic-specific classes, such as the ones for potty training or dealing with picky eaters, are $10. They usually are two- or three-hour classes held in the evenings.

The in-depth class to learn how to address challenging behaviors takes four to five weeks and includes classroom materials.

All the classes are held in the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities, located in the William Raggio Education Building on the University of Nevada, Reno campus.

Established in 1999, the Positive Behavior Support - Nevada Program is supported by the Fund for a Healthy Nevada and by the Nevada Aging and Disabilities Service Division.

The program has three training coordinators in Reno, Las Vegas and Elko who coordinate classes for their regions.

"We have trainings in the rural areas once every year or every other year," Greenwald said. "As requests for classes come in, we try to set them up so if people are interested, we want to hear from them."

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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