A Behavior Analyst’s Tips for Picky Eaters

A Behavior Analyst’s Tips for Picky Eaters

Caring for a loved one with developmental disabilities can pose unique challenges, which are not always adequately addressed by conventional methods. We have covered how to tackle toilet troubles and chronic sleeping issues. Below, Dr. Joyce Tu, Ed.D, BCBA-D, shares one program to help parents and caretakers introduce new foods to picky eaters.


From a behavior analyst’s perspective, eating may be addressed using the following framework:

  • The Premack principle (the principle that more likely behaviors, can be used to reinforce less likely behaviors);
  • Shaping (reinforcement of behavior resembling a target behavior);
  • Fading (gradually reducing prompts or reinforcers); and
  • Positive reinforcement (presenting a reinforcer to make behavior more likely).

If this seems too technical, don’t be discouraged; the program itself is fairly simple!  Your child (or other “picky eater”) will be introduced to various types/shapes/sizes of food throughout the day by using these principles, and can gradually expand her daily menu.


First, you’ll need to identify a reinforcer—a favorite food that your “picky eater” already likes.  Then, choose a new food which you would like to introduce to her diet.  Next, for each bite of new food that your “picky eater” eats, immediately give her a bite of her favorite food.  This is “positive reinforcement.”  (See, it isn’t so hard!)

Alternatively, you can start more slowly and present a bite of her favorite food when she first touches the new food.  Then, when your “picky eater” gradually brings the new food closer and closer to her mouth, give her a bite of her favorite food.  This is called “shaping.”

Gradually increase the ratio of new food to a favorite food, to 2:1.  In other words, when your “picky eater” eats two bites of new food, present one piece of her favorite food.  Later, increase the ratio to  3:1, then 4:1. By changing the ratio this way, you are using a “fading” procedure.

When the ratio of new food vs. favorite food has increased to 5:1, you can then introduce a second new food.

When introducing the second new food, have your “picky eater” take a bite of the second new food, then a bite of first new food, then five bites of her favorite food. The ratio of the second new food, to the first new food, to a favorite food should be gradually increased to 2:5:1 (i.e. two bites of the second new food, five bites of the first new food, and one bite of a favorite food).

Gradually increase this ratio of the second new food vs. the first new food, vs a favorite food, to 3:5:1, 4:5:1, etc.—until your “picky eater” begins eating both new foods without your help.

Using the same procedure, you can then introduce other new foods.

Disclaimer: The recommendations provided are general. For specific recommendations for you and/or your child please consult with a behavior analyst.

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Help Your Child Sleep through the Night Using these Simple ABA Techniques

Help Your Child Sleep through the Night Using these Simple ABA Techniques

by Crislyn Ogawa

We’ve posted our tips on tackling toilet troubles. Another common issue for parents and caretakers of children with developmental disabilities is their child’s interrupted or irregular sleep pattern. Below, Dr. Joyce Tu, Ed.D, BCBA-D shares systematic shaping and fading strategies, designed to help regulate your child’s bedtime routine.

This program is best suited to children with chronic sleeping issues (such as sleeping only 2-4 hours daily for a prolonged period). It is not intended for children who may have experienced only a few sleepless nights.



Before You Begin

Limit your child’s sugar and caffeine intake before bedtime. Your child should not eat foods that contain sugar or caffeine at least four hours before bedtime.  Implement at least ½ hour of daily exercise in conjunction with this sleeping program.


On the first night, begin with a 12:00 a.m. bedtime. Prompt your child to perform “getting ready for bed” tasks such as brushing her teeth, using the restroom, changing into pajamas, getting into her own bed, and listening to a bedtime story.

Keeping your child awake until 12:00 a.m. might be the most difficult part of the program. Parents who complete this program successfully often report that they engage their children with activities such as taking walks, playing games, etc., to keep the children awake during the first few weeks.

If your child gets up between 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., prompt her to return to bed with no additional verbal interactions. In other words, do not scold or acknowledge the behavior excessively.

Next Steps

When your child can stay in bed from 12:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. for one week:

Move her bedtime to 11:30 p.m. the next night. Then, when she can stay in bed from this time, move bedtime to 11:00 p.m., then to 10:30 p.m., then 9:00 p.m.

Following these procedures, gradually shape your child’s bedtime to suit your household schedule.

Disclaimer: The recommendations provided are general. For specific recommendations for you and/or your child please consult with a behavior analyst.

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Toilet Training Made Easy


Toilet Training Made Easy

A step-by-step guide for tackling toilet troubles

by Dr. Joyce Tu, Ed.D., BCBA-D

December 5, 2017

Caring for a child, potty accidents come with the territory, especially for those with developmental disabilities such as autism. As common these issues are, the good news is that they are also highly manageable. Our step-by-step guide below aims to tackle even the trickiest of toilet troubles. Let’s dive right in.

Goals of this Process:

  1. Short-range: Seven days in a row with no more than one accident.
  2. Long-range: Your child will use the toilet for every elimination with no assistance.

Before you begin:

This program requires that your child be able to walk, sit for approximately 2-3 minutes, and grasp with her hands.

You will need:

  • Training pants (preferably regular underwear).
  • Simple clothing: no pants/elastic waistband pants, or short shirts for girls.
  • A child-size toilet seat, or child’s potty chair if your child is uncomfortable on the adult toilet. (If you use a potty chair, keep it in the bathroom at all times.)
  • A variety of your child’s favorite drinks.
  • A variety of small food treats that your child likes. (Note: be sure to only make these food treats available as a reward for dry pants! Do not use this treat for anything else.)
  • A variety of your child’s favorite toys and activities.
  • Two or three days of free time with minimal disruption for training.

Understand the two basic procedures:

Procedure 1: Toileting

Using the toilet is a chain of many small steps. Your child must be taught each of these steps to help her learn these habits effectively.


a. Come up with a signal for your child to use to tell you she needs to go to the toilet:

Ask, “where do you go potty?” and vocally prompt the answer “toilet” or “bathroom.” Have your child imitate “toilet” or “bathroom” aloud if necessary. Praise your child for answering “toilet” or “bathroom.” If your child cannot talk, have her use a gesture or a picture.

b. Have your child walk to the bathroom in front of you. Physically prompt your child to do so if necessary.
c. Have your child take down her pants and sit on the toilet.
e. Give your child 2-3 minutes to use the bathroom. Encourage her to do so by stating “go potty.”

If your child eliminates, praise her and provide food treats (or other reinforcers of their choice). If your child does not eliminate, ignore it. Do not scold or express disappointment. Go to the next step.

f. Flush the toilet (or empty the portable potty) only if your child eliminates.
g. Say “Get down” and have your child pull up her pants.
i. If this was performed during a wet version of the “dry pants check” (Procedure 2 below), have your child walk back to the place she wet herself and change to dry pants
j. Continue with the toileting schedule.

Procedure 2: Dry Pants Check

A way to teach your child that you want her to have dry pants all the time.


a. Ask your child “Are you dry?” Help your child place her hand on the crotch area of her pants so that she can feel for wetness.
b. If your child is dry:

Praise her for being dry (e.g., “Nice dry pants”), and give her lots of social reinforcers (e.g., hugs, kisses). Then give your child a small piece of the food treat or a sip of a drink.

c. If your child is wet:

Tell her “No wet pants.” Take her immediately to the toilet (using Procedure 1 above). Have your child do as many of the steps as possible and use hand-over-hand prompting for those steps your child does not know.

For the steps your child can partially perform:
*Pair every step in this procedure with the actual instruction (e.g., “walk to the bathroom”).
*Do not talk to or praise your child during this procedure; only give those verbal instructions to complete the step(s) involved. Your voice should be calm but firm.
*Do not scold or reinforce behavior (such as with a drink or affection) during this procedure.

Day 1:

Step 1. Change & Drink:

After a small breakfast (no starches) change your child’s diaper to training pants. At breakfast have your child drink at least 1 ½ cups (6 oz.) of her favorite drink.

Step 2. Perform Procedures 1 & 2:

Five minutes after breakfast perform a dry pants check (Procedure 2).

If your child is dry, praise her and give her a small piece of her food treat. Then ask, “What do you need to do?” Verbally prompt your child to state, “Go potty.” Proceed to performing toileting (Procedure 1). If your child eliminates, give her lots of praise and a reinforcer of her choice. If your child does not eliminate, say “nice try” and continue with the toileting schedule below.

Step 3. Toileting Schedule One:

After performing the above procedures, repeat the following cycles:

a. Every 10 minutes: Dry pants check (Procedure 2).
b. Every 20 minutes: Toileting (Procedure 1). Do this approximately 10 minutes before your child has a bowel movement (BM).  The BM schedule is based on what you recorded on the original toileting data sheet prior to training. Record whether your child was dry, wet, and/or had a BM.
c. Every 1 hour:  Have your child drink a ½ to 1 cup of her favorite drink.

Step 4. Toileting Schedule Two:

When your child is eliminating in the toilet with no accidents for at least three hours:

a. Every 15 minutes: Dry pants check (Procedure 2).
b. Every 30 minutes: Toileting (Procedure 1).
c. Every 90 minutes: Have your child drink a glass of liquid.

If your child has four or more accidents in a row, have your child repeat the toileting procedure after each accident two times and decrease consumption of the drink to a ½ cup.

Final Steps:

For every three-hour interval your child goes without any accidents:

  • Increase the intervals between dry pants checks and toileting procedures by 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Increase the intervals between liquid consumption by 30 minutes.

Diapers should only be worn when your child is asleep. Eating schedules should be kept the same, but prepare lighter meals with fewer starches.

Day 2 and Beyond:

Continue with the same toileting schedule you ended with on Day 1. When your child is eliminating every two to three hours, stop giving liquids on a scheduled basis and slowly thin out (decrease) reinforcers for eliminating in the toilet.


Adapted from Toilet training in less than a day by Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx

Disclaimer: The recommendations provided are general. For specific recommendations for you and/or your child please consult with a behavior analyst.

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