Author Archives: Alanna Chermak

Shafer Star

Jayden just completed his first year at The Shafer Center! He is now 4th grader in the Believe classroom. Everyone loves and is excited for Jayden’s smiles and greetings. He truly warms everyone’s heart.

As a student who continues to work through many behavioral and group learning challenges, Jayden has shown persistent progress in maintaining and exceeding in standard wait times during classroom procedures such as lining up and waiting for a direction; responding to individual directions within a group; sustaining seat time within morning meeting; referring to a schedule and initiating moving through portions of a predicted pattern within a lesson; and displaying flexibility when out of the norm activities take place (such as unpredicted rain causing no outdoor play for recess). Jayden has also had a significant reduction of classroom interfering behaviors (over a 90% reduction from baseline). Wow! These are all tremendous accomplishments and cause of celebration for Jayden! We are so proud!

Jayden has also been more aware of various emotions and stating “I’m mad” or “I’m sad” when certain events would take place that could appropriate illicit these emotions. Jayden will refer to his teacher or therapists when asked “What’s wrong?” and start by stating the emotion and with a lot of hard work communicating and problem solving directly with an adult; it has been possible to isolate a cause and effect for some of his emotions or feelings. This is incredible!!! Jayden has also more appropriately been verbally refusing when he does not want to give a peer a toy or desired item or when making choices. We are so proud of his self-advocacy!
In the last couple of months Jayden has also practiced a modified method of shoe-tying with adapted shoe laces in OT. He has mastered the motor plan to tie his shoes and has generalized this skill to the classroom and in other contexts in just 5 months!
Jayden has also shown an increased interest in his classmates, particularly one friend who he started with. They’re pals and when given the choice to choose a peer, Jayden will frequently choose him. He will also initiate saying hello, observing his peer’s actions, and with support ask questions towards the peer with an interest in knowing the response. Also, since Jayden’s little sister started at the center, he has shown increasingly more school-appropriate sibling greetings and excitement when seeing her. He will often exclaim hello or if he is aware of her location in the building, will state where she is. Way to welcome your little sister to TSC, buddy!
Jayden! We are so proud to see the continued progress you will make every day. We are so proud of all of his hard work every moment and how enthusiastic and loving he is towards his interests and people he loves. Way to go, Jayden!

4th Annual Shaferpalooza Event

Saturday, September 16, 2017
1-4pm at The Shafer Center (Rain or Shine)
Your participation will help us raise money for The Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake.

Our fourth annual Shaferpalooza event is a fun family event for everyone in our extended TSC family to enjoy! We look forward to seeing you soon!

Come and enjoy:

  • Food
  • Music
  • Activities
  • Silent Auction
  • Gift Baskets
  • Autism Resources
  • Fun!

For more information please contact us. We hope to see you there!

Functional Behavior Assessment VS Functional Analysis

Imagine your child just dropped cereal all over the kitchen floor. They look at you and you say, “don’t step on the cereal; it will make a mess!” They lift their foot while looking at you and stomp on it. “Ugh” you say as they laugh. Now, you are left with the question: why did my child do that?

What causes behavior? To start to find a cause, we want to first define behavior itself. What is behavior? Behavior is any interaction between someone and the environment. Hailing a cab? Behavior. Taking a bite? Behavior. Hitting a sibling? Behavior. Saying, “I love you”? Behavior. If you can do it, it is behavior.

So what causes behavior? As you may suspect, this is not a simple answer. To illustrate the complexity of identifying causes of behavior, let’s use a food analogy. Consider the omelet – what CAUSES an omelet? Is it just eggs? No. Is it the grumble in your stomach that makes you grab a pan and turn on the stove? Not alone. Maybe it is going into the kitchen and getting a whisk? Still not the only thing that causes an omelet. To cause an omelet, you need lots of ingredients and events to come together in the right way. Behavior is a little like that; no single event or ingredient leads to behavior. There are many variables that have to come together to cause a behavior. Functional behavior assessment (FBA) and functional analysis (FA) are ways to figure out what causes behavior.

Technically, the reasons for behavior are called functions. This refers to how the behavior works (functions) as part of the environment. The omelet, for example, is a function of eggs, milk, a whisk, a pan, and some heat; the omelet functions to reduce hunger, increase energy, impress your mother-in-law, maybe. You can see from this analogy that the omelet (our stand in for behavior) is both a function of some events, and functions to change some other events. Behavior is the same way. Essentially, all behavior is a function of a few basic events:

  • Learning history (you can’t learn something you haven’t been exposed to)
  • Biological function (think neurons, hormones, muscles)
  • Environmental variables (basically everything in the world outside your skin).

The environmental variables part is the focus of FBA and FA. Although the other parts are equally important in determining behavior, they just aren’t the focus of FBA and FA.

Why do we care about function? We care about function because behavior happens for a reason and once we find that reason, we can change something about the behavior. Knowing the function tells us what to change before the behavior occurs to make it less likely, and what to teach the child to do instead to achieve the same outcome that previously was a function of problem behavior.

  • We can prevent problem behavior to begin with: Knowing what leads to problem behavior can help us prevent it – if Bobby screams when he has been playing alone for too long, we can work on giving him more social interaction to prevent screaming in the first place.
  • Function-based treatment works best: Evidence shows that teaching children to meet their functions with appropriate skills is more effective at getting rid of problem behavior than punishment or medication alone.
  • It tells us exactly what to teach instead: Knowing this information helps appropriately design interventions to decrease problem behavior and increase appropriate behaviors. For example, if Sally hits every time you say “I-Pad is all done”, and then you give her back the I-Pad, hitting probably functions to get toys back. A good intervention will teach Sally to get the I-Pad by requesting it appropriately.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) includes all the different ways to learn about behavior by testing behavior directly (an analysis) and ways that do not (all other types of assessment):

  • Review of existing data
  • Interviews (asking the parent, teacher, or even the student themselves about behavior)
  • Observation of the behavior without testing anything directly(further ABC data)
  • Functional analysis

For our omelet, we might start by reviewing recipes for omelets – but you will find they are not all the same. We can also ask some people who make lots of omelets (what happens before? What happens during? What happens after?), or we could watch someone make an omelet. All of these examples are like FBA, in that they do not necessarily involve testing omelet making by yourself. You might find out a lot about making omelets, but you can’t be absolutely sure you know how to make one unless you try it and see what happens.

Functional Analysis (FA) is a scientific way of trying it and seeing what happens. It involves testing how certain changes impact the occurrence of problem behavior. Like the omelet, you can find out lots about what people think, write, or do when making an omelet, but that information is not as accurate or exact as information found through direct testing.  An FA is the only way to know for sure what causes behavior (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2014). Causes of behavior fall into four basic categories:

  • Attention: from teacher, parent, peer, etc.
  • Escape/avoidance: of a situation, person or activity
  • Tangible: Obtaining a preferred object or activity
  • Sensory: the behavior fulfills sensory need

In an FA, we test one thing at a time. For example if we are testing attention, there will be nothing in the room, except a person. We will only talk to the child when they engage in the behavior we are testing. That way we find out if behavior might function to gain attention. We repeat these tests multiple times until we have stable results that make us confident behavior is most likely to occur when certain things happen – that gives us the function! Here are some other ways we test:

  • Escape/avoidance: something the child does not like is removed when the behavior occurs.
  • Tangible: Something the child likes will be made available when the behavior occurs.
  • Ignore/toy play: the child is observed to see if the behavior occurs without being provided with a task, attention, or preferred item when the behavior occurs. We want to see how much behavior occurs when we don’t change anything or we just let the child play with toys. Seeing a lot of behavior during this time leads us to believe the behavior is making its own reinforcement (automatic function).

How do we use the information? By knowing what situations the behavior occurs in more, we can decrease problem behavior by making behavior plans that focus on the function. We can also use this information to teach appropriate behaviors that gives the child what they want. Appropriate behaviors include raising your hand for the teacher’s attention, asking for a break from academic work or asking to play with a toy. It is possible that the analysis will tell us there are more than one reason the behavior is happening (behavior can be really complex!). It may also tell us more about the situations where the behavior does not occur. All of this information is useful to the behavior analyst when making behavior plans.

What are the limitations? Ideally these assessments will provide us with a clear function(s) of the behavior, which will help to develop a successful intervention. Sometimes in the FA, making a testing situation leaves out something small, but important, that happens in the natural environment (maybe the child only wants a green train). This is a great example of when other sources of information such as descriptive assessments, direct observation, and interviews are helpful in providing more information to make the testing situations seem real or help with treatment decisions. Another limitation, is an FA may produce a temporary increase in problem behavior. The problem behavior may continue or happen more often if the assessment is ended before an appropriate behavior is taught.  To avoid this we end the analysis as soon as we have enough data to teach us something about the behavior.

Conclusion FBA and FA are assessments – they are ways of gathering information about behavior. Specifically, they help us identify what makes problem behavior likely in the first place, and what outcomes keep it going strong. Assessment includes everything we do to learn about behavior – analysis includes only direct tests of the causes of behavior.  Once we know what the function of behavior is, we can teach a better way to get that function met.  Both FBA and FA answer the questions: “why does my child do that?” and lead us towards figuring out “how do we change it?” These procedures are how behavior analysts and families quickly and effectively figure out how to teach kids what to do instead of problem behavior.

Remember – diagnoses don’t cause behavior. Sometimes people can be tempted to cite medical or psychological diagnoses as causes of behavior. Example: “Why does my child have social and communication deficits – because of Autism! How do I know my child has Autism? Because of the symptomatic social and communicative deficits!” This is circular logic, and actually doesn’t help identify anything we can treat that causes behavior. Diagnoses are a standard way of describing a set of symptoms. Diagnoses, in themselves, don’t cause anything at all.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Pub. Co.Iwata, B. A., Dorsey, M. F., Slifer, K. J., Bauman, K. E., & Richman, G. S. (1994)

Toward a functional analysis of self-injury. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 197–209.

Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2014). Behavior analysis for lasting change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Other Informational Links

By Allison Piper and Jennifer Chase

The Shafer Center Commencement Speech

I’m so excited to see all of you here today. The graduation of your children from The Shafer Center is an important milestone that must be recognized and celebrated. Whenever these events occur, I do naturally think of when Hayden experienced them. I think about what I know now, and what I wish I knew back then. As a parent who is further ahead in this journey, here is what I think you should know:

  • Know that your children are smart, bright and intelligent
  • Know that they will continue to learn
  • Know that they will make friends in their own way and in their own time
  • Know that they become more and more independent
  • Know that because of their independence that they will continue to push your buttons and challenge your thinking
  • Know that their skills, hobbies and interest will develop and expand into things you could have never imagined
  • Know that you are and will always be the most important people in their lives
  • Know that we will miss them very much
  • Know that I loved having Freddie negotiate the borrowing of our trains, that I loved hearing Dillon tell me that he wants to leave here and go to a new school, and that I loved talking to Hana about our love of jewels and all things sparkly
  • Know that even through your children are not here, we will always be here for them – anytime they need or want us

We are so proud of all they have accomplished and thank you so very much for the joy and privileged of including us in your family and your lives.

Please join me in congratulating our 2017 graduates!

By Helen Shafer

For more information on The Shafer Center please call 410-517-1113 or email

Navigate Summer Program

This summer The Shafer Center is excited to bring back our Navigate Summer Program for teens and young adults. The program aims to provide valuable experiences that will allow our teens and young adults to practice essential skills for the workplace and beyond. Through a focus on job readiness, social skills, and leisure skill building, the Navigate will build a foundation to prepare our Scholars for success beyond school.

Our program is built around the concept that the earlier job and life skills are taught, the greater the opportunities are for the future. Throughout the summer, the program aims to guide our Scholars to gain confidence, learn about finances, develop their interests, and make social connections.

Last year the Navigate Summer Program was piloted at The Shafer Center and it was a great learning opportunity, not only for our Navigate Scholars but also for the staff. This year we’ve had the opportunity to fine tune some of our summer curriculum to better prepare our Scholars for the future. Our curriculum includes lessons in:

Job Readiness

  • Daily jobs at The Shafer Center to practice managing work responsibilities
  • Experience with resume building and the job interview process
  • Financial literacy which includes: earnings tracking, budgeting, and financial decision making
  • Job shadow days to gain exposure to different career opportunities

Social Skills

  • Field trips to develop and refine independent social skills
  • Using Improv to learn and practice social skills with friends and coworkers
  • Discussions and journal entries about personal experiences

Leisure Skills

  • Developing and planning lunch trips based on interests
  • Engaging in fun games and leisure activities with peers
  • Completing and discussing interest inventories
  • Field trips to help identify and explore interest areas

Another addition to the program this year will be volunteer opportunities. The Scholars will actively volunteer in the community in order to gain professional experience and insight about themselves. The experience will help them to learn what skills they have that will help them in the workplace in the future. It is also an opportunity for the Scholars to gain an understanding of what type of work environments they would enjoy. Volunteering is a way for the Scholars to practice being an active member of their community.

We received great feedback last summer from one of our very own Scholars, James Burrows.  Last year, James was an 8th grader that joined our program and was quoted having a great time, “I went to Navigate and really enjoyed it”. Though our summer was full of fun activities, we also had some great opportunities to experience the challenges of learning a new job. As James states, “The jobs were also a little challenging, like putting envelopes in people’s mailboxes. We went mini-golfing and it was a little difficult in the 2nd round because it was very hot outside. Even though Navigate was tough, I still enjoyed it and had fun.”  It was great to get this feedback from one of our own Scholars to help us develop our programming to be effective for them; to create life long learning experiences to help them prepare for the future they want. On a field trip to a go-kart track, James drove a go-kart by himself for the first time. That experience inspired him to share the following advice with his peers “I challenge you to do something new. It could be anything you want.” This is an example of what we want all of our Scholars to do; learn by trying something new.

For more information about The Shafer Center contact 410-517-1113

Mad Scientist March!

Throughout the month of March, the classes at The Shafer Center explored physical and chemical science. Students performed a variety of science experiments by following the scientific method (forming a guess or hypothesis, performing the experiment, noticing any “results” or changes, and if their guess or hypothesis was correct or not). Upon discovering their favorite experiment, each class chose one experiment to showcase at the Science Fair that was held at the end of March.

The Inspire classroom created a volcano for their science fair demonstration. Before their experiment, each student wrote out the scientific process that they would follow: they recorded the materials that would be needed, the testable question, and their hypothesis. Then the class observed the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar within their plaster volcano, which they had created in the days prior. After their experiment, each student wrote a sentence explaining the results that they noticed (any changes) and a conclusion about what happened when baking soda was added to vinegar.   For example, “When we used more vinegar the eruption of the volcano was bigger!” and “In conclusion, the volcano was awesome!”  The day before the science fair, the class prepared by attaching their writing to the poster board and sharing the responsibility of decorating it together.


To try the Inspire Volcano:

The Imagine class explored chemical reactions by mixing baking soda and vinegar, as well but forming an entirely different result called “Exploding Colors!” Students added colored vinegar to baking soda and observed the fizzing bubbles that resulted. Students practiced physically and actively following the scientific method and summarized the activity. Students performed the experiment and decorated the board by following step-by-step instructions to form their final product. Throughout the experiment and demonstration for the Science Fair, students were also working on many skills relevant to their individual goals which included color identification, fine motor, and sequencing the steps of a task.  One teacher shared her experience, “I loved doing the “Exploding Colors” experiment with the Imagine kiddos. The expressions on the kids’ faces were priceless when the fizzing occurred. They were really excited each time we brought out the materials for the experiment and their favorite part was squeezing the colored vinegar onto the baking soda.”

                To try Imagine’s Exploding Colors:

The Believe and Envision classes worked together in observing a physical change by making their own crayons, calling their project “Melting Crayons”! The students were able to learn how to work on a project not only in a group, but with schoolmates from another class. The Believe students quickly adapted to going to a separate, different location to work on a project with peers they are not familiar with working with. They very successfully communicated, with support, and created a cohesive project as a unit with the Envision class. Students practiced following the steps of the scientific method, with an emphasis on making and confirming predictions. With these classes working together, students had the opportunity to practice skills across a variety of areas, including academic and social. Students followed the scientific method by actively preparing the materials needed (crayons). The students peeled the crayons, sorted them by color, and then followed directions to sequence the steps of the experiment. They started with placing the broken, peeled crayons into the mold and deciding if when placed in the microwave they would remain the same physically or be different. After that, they observed what happened as they were placed into the microwave alongside peers with encouraged commenting, and then finally concluding if the crayons had remained the same in physical presentation or were different. They recorded their results on a recording sheet and when the experimentation was complete, students worked with their peers to put together the poster by placing a title, labeling parts of the board, taking turns cutting, pasting and gluing, and setting it up for the fair. 

To make your own Believe/Envision crayons:

Dream experimented with a chemical and physical change by making rock candy! Students had a true experimental experience as their experiment did not work the first time. They noticed that crystals were not forming through their original scientific process and had to change one of the materials. Students followed science safety as a string (originally) was added to colored, heated sugar. The Dream class followed the scientific method by keeping a science journal tracking the progress of their rock candy. After a couple of days, students noticed that crystals were not forming as they were supposed to on the string and changed the material of the string to a wooden stick and tried the experiment again. Finally, crystals began to form on the stick, creating their homemade rock candy! Students practiced the scientific method and also acknowledging that science experiments do not always work and changes to the process need to be made. Students also practiced recording results or changes (or the lack of), over a period of time and concluding what materials worked best and what the chemical and physical changes were.

To make Dream homemade rock candy:

Please follow the links attached to each class’ experiments to recreate them at home with your child! Students were invested in their experiments and ecstatic to share them on the day of the science fair with friends and family; we’re sure they would love to try other class’ experiments, or even show you their own class experiment by re-creating it at home!

By Ananda Singh

For more information on The Shafer Center contact 410-517-1113 or email

How do I select the right book for my child?

Libraries and book stores can be overwhelming with shelves of hundreds of different books, displaying colorful pages and catchy titles. However, what’s not jumping out at you is actually the most important part of the book. The meat of the book, the words on each of the pages, and the message that it can conveys is often times what we are skipping over when picking out a book.

Have you ever thought to yourself “How do I select the right book for my child?” Here are some strategies to help guide you through the book store or your amazon shopping cart. 

Tips for picking a book for your child:

  1. Take it for a test drive!

The library is a great resource –don’t be afraid to use it. Librarians are always aware of the new books that have come out. Children can get tired of a book pretty fast, and a great way to keep up with their interest is to let them pick out a book to try. If it fizzles you can send it back – if it becomes a favorite, you can buy it! This is also a great way to try out that book on amazon that is jumping out at you with the fancy cover before buying the book your child might not even look at.

  1. Repetitive Phrasing

Books with repetitive phrasing (think, “I don’t know why she swallowed the…..perhaps she’ll…”) are great opportunities for interactive reading. When reading aloud with your child, pause so they can sound out their favorite word, or fill it in with them. When children begin to explore books for the first time, it is the repetitive phrasing that really draws them in to the story. Repetitive phrasing also serves as a huge educational component to help your child follow a story plot. These books also help provide predictability which can help a child with processing. The less they have to remember, the easier it is for them to process!

Hints When Reading with Your Child

  • Pause allowing your child to fill in the word
  • Give an expectant look – it shows your child you are excited to hear what they have to say next
  • Once they have the fill in words help them learn the whole repetitive phrase
  • Take turns reading pages
  • Make it fun, don’t be afraid to be silly

Great Books With repetitive Phrases

  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
  • Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes by James Dean
  • The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen
  • Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney
  • The Little Old Lady Who was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda D. Williams
  • There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly! By Lucille Colandro
  • It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles Shaw
  • If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
  • Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London
  • The Napping House by Audrey Wood
  1. Pictures

Pictures can be a great resource to help build conversations, and for identifying things that your child sees on the page.  Pictures can also help tie in real life items for your child.

Tips for Using Pictures

  • On each page, have your child touch main things that they see. For example: touch apple
  • Too many pictures on a page can be distracting, pick books with clear pictures
  • Ask your child questions about the picture Example: What color is the ball?
  1. Ask the teacher

Teachers are reading books with your children every day, and are always happy to provide suggestions and guidance to books. They know what your child enjoys reading.  Teachers are always exploring new books, and different levels that are appropriate for each student, and can help guide you to the right books that provide introduction to phonics, comprehension and informational texts. Don’t be afraid to reach out!

With so many books on the shelves, we hope that some of these tips will help you narrow down your choices. For more guidance in picking out a good book for your child join us for The Shafer Center book fair starting on April 27th at the Barnes and Noble in Pikesville.  More information will be forthcoming and we hope to see you there!

Happy Reading!

By Alyssa Altman M.S.Ed

For more information on The Shafer Center call 410-517-1113

Parent Training at The Shafer Center

In August 2015 at The Shafer Center, a Parent Training Series was created for parents whose children were recently diagnosed with autism. The parent training series was developed to help parents understand the key components of their child’s programming and teach parents ways to carry over these techniques at home and in the community. The series provides a range of topics which include:

  • Helping parents better understand the recent autism diagnosis
  • Assessing different treatments that are available
  • Learning to use the basic principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) at home and in the community.

The goal of the parent training is to teach parents to understand how their children learn so that they feel empowered to take advantage of learning opportunities in their home and communities.

The trainings are 1 ½ to 2 hours long and are held once a month. For children receiving ABA services through insurance, parent training is a mandatory part of services. Parents attending sign an attendance form and complete a quiz after the training which is used as documentation of their participation for the insurance companies. ABA services can be provided to the children during the trainings and childcare for siblings can also be arranged. These parent trainings are now open to all parents at The Shafer Center.

Please see below for the current list of trainings and an overview of each of the trainings. We welcome you to join us soon. Please refer to the calendar for Parent Trainings scheduled for the 2017-2018 school year. If you are interested in attending a parent training you can RSVP by e-mailing

Diagnosis: Autism – What does that mean?

An overview of the history, symptoms, and prevalence of Autism, early warning signs, and early intervention

Consumer Reports: Autism Services

Training on how to become a savvy, educated consumer when choosing autism services; review of The Shafer Center’s autism treatment checklist to use when evaluating services for your child and practice using the checklist

The ABA Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together

An overview of the principles of ABA to build an understanding in the areas of behavior, reinforcement, and motivation to promote independence and life long learning in our children

Our ABA Services: To The Shafer Center & Beyond!

An overview of The Shafer Center’s admission and assessment process, the many services offered, and locations of those services

Acquiring Skills: The Inside Look at Teaching Extraordinary Children

Training on the methods that we use to teach skills and an overview of the skills that we teach; overview of discrete trial training, verbal behavior therapy, and natural environment teaching; model of teaching these skills   

Gaining Compliance:  Just do it!

Training on the components of providing effective instructions to increase compliance, teaching guided compliance procedures, modeling and role play of methods taught

Behavior: It’s Not Good or Bad

Training on the four functions of behavior, how to identify the functions of a behavior, and an overview of interventions to decrease inappropriate behaviors 

Tackling Tantrums: One Grocery Store at a Time

Training on the role of the functions of behavior in tantrum behavior, data collection procedures to determine function, and interventions to decrease tantrum behaviors and increase appropriate alternative behavior

Let’s Play: Finding Your Inner Child

Training on what play is and why it is so important, examples of types of play with your child and how play relates to skills being taught every day

ABA: Take it Everywhere!

Training on what generalization is, examples of how we work on generalizing skills at The Shafer Center, and ideas for parents to generalize these skills at home and in the community

Strategies for Siblings

Training on how to support Neurotypical siblings of children on the Autism spectrum, examples of common struggles siblings may face, needs at different developmental levels, and how to help build resiliency and coping skills for all of your children.

 Autism Program Checklist for Parents will help guide you so that you can make an informed decision regarding your child’s programing when visiting The Shafer Center for Early Intervention or any other schools and covers topic relevant to programs, staffing, facilities and parent communication. This checklist does not cover basic health and safety standards that all licensed programs must meet as these vary by state.

For more information on The Shafer Center call 410-517-1113 or email

Do you have a picky eater? Here are some helpful strategies.

For most people, eating is fun. Who doesn’t enjoy trying a new restaurant with friends, or digging in to a favorite holiday meal? Although most of us look forward to seconds, some kids would happily pass. Whether it’s refusing to try new foods, avoiding entire food groups, or only eating foods of a certain color, brand, or shape, eating issues actually aren’t that uncommon. So what’s the difference between normal picky eating and a kid who has a problem with foods? And if my child has a problem with food, what do I do?

As part of typical development, children will expand and restrict their diet as they age. Small infants will put anything in their mouth, but typically stay where you leave them, which keeps them away from the really bad stuff. Toddlers, on the other hand, are notorious picky eaters but fast movers. This is probably beneficial; because once a child is mobile you certainly don’t want them eating everything they see! Most children experience some eating changes, but continue with healthy development. Picky eating that goes beyond what is normally expected is called a feeding disorder.

A feeding disorder is a medical diagnosis, which occurs when a child fails to consume an adequate amount or variety of solids or liquids to support healthy development. True feeding disorders probably affect between 3% and 25% of typically developing children (Chatoor  & Ganiban, 2003; Manikam & Perman, 2000), and up to 80% of children with disabilities (Lindberg, Bohlin, & Hagekull, 1991; Reilly, Skuse, Wolke, & Stevenson, 1999; Williams, Field, & Sieverling, 2010). Not every child who has feeding problems has a feeding disorder. While a feeding disorder is a medical diagnosis, food refusal is a behavior that can occur for many children who do not have feeding disorders.

Food refusal is anything a kid does to avoid eating – running from the table, crying, whining, covering their mouth, hitting the spoon, spitting out food, or even aggression. When your kid is refusing food, everyday events can be supremely stressful. Meals become battles. Trips to restaurants are a distant daydream, and holidays are full of unsolicited advice about how much more your kid would eat if you just did X, Y, and Z. One of the main reasons food refusal persists is simply because it makes the food go away (Bachmeyer, 2009; Piazza, 2008). For whatever reason (preference, testing boundaries, texture issues) some kids will work really hard to avoid some foods. If the most effective way a kid can make food go away is food refusal, they will keep it up. The key to weakening food refusal is making sure you don’t fight this battle.

 Although each child’s food refusal is unique to their situation, there are a couple basic strategies all families can use to avoid strengthening food refusal, and offer lots of opportunities for success with new foods.

  1. Don’t start battles you can’t win
    1. The biggest mistake you can make is to tell kids they can’t do, have, play something if they don’t eat a food, and then not follow through with it. Never make a promise you can’t or won’t follow through with.
    2. Confrontation about foods will rarely result in food acceptance. Keep emotion and strife out of mealtime by never issuing ultimatums. Approach new foods as choices, not requirements. Focus on exposure, simple small steps, and lots of good outcomes (praise, second helping of preferred foods, fun activities) for what you want to see more of.
  2. Expose your kids to lots of new foods
    1. They are more likely to try something if it is within reach. The more new foods they see, the more chance they have to try something new.
    2. Make new foods a part of the routine. For example, you could set the expectation that a new food has to stay on the plate for the whole meal. Avoid the temptation to get them to try it – just show them it has to stay on their plate. Exposure can be half the battle anyway.
    3. Offer rewards for trying new things! Maybe your kid can earn an extra helping of desert if they try a new food. If they don’t try it, make sure it is no big deal.
  3. If you feed it, it will grow
    1. Your attention is like food for behaviors. If you “feed” refusal with lots of attention, you can expect to see more refusal. “Feed” food acceptance, nice table manners, and trying new things with a ton of attention! “starve” food refusal as much as possible.
    2. Act bored when your child refuses food, and talk lots about it when they try new things.
  4. Start small and stay consistent
    1. Change does not happen overnight. Pick something small you want to work on, like offering a new breakfast cereal every morning, and keep it up. It may take months before your child tries something new, but every experience takes them one step closer to broadening their palate.

At the end of the day, most kids’ feeding behaviors recover and balance out as they age. Even so, many adults have foods they will not eat, and they are perfectly happy and healthy. Contact your doctor if your child isn’t eating enough to gain weight, is missing meals because of food refusal, is dehydrated, or hurts themselves during mealtime.

Happy eating!

By Laura Melton Grubb, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA

For more information on The Shafer Center call 410-517-1113 or email


Bachmeyer, M. H. (2009). Treatment of selective and inadequate food intake in children: A review and practical guide. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2, 43-50.

Chatoor, I., & Ganiban, J. (2003). Food refusal by infants and young children: Diagnosis and treatment. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 10, 138–146.

Lindberg, L., Bohlin, G., & Hagekull, B. (1991). Early feeding problems in a normal population. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 10, 395–405.

Manikam, R., & Perman, J. (2000). Pediatric Feeding Disorders. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 30, 34-46.

Piazza, C. C. (2008). Feeding disorders and behavior: What have we learned? Developmental Disabilities Research Review, 14, 174-181.

Reilly, S. M., Skuse, D. H., Wolke, D., & Stevenson, J. (1999). Oral-motor dysfunction in children who fail to thrive: organic or non-organic?. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 41, 115–122.

Sieverling, L., Williams, K., Sturmey, P., & Hart, S. (2012). Effects of behavioral skills training on parental treatment of children’s food selectivity. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45, 197-203.

Williams, K. E., Field, D. G., & Seiverling, L. (2010). Food refusal in children: A review of the literature. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31, 625–633.

Inspire Autobiography: Hana, Age 6

Inspire Autobiography

Hana Age 6

My favorite toy is plushies.

My favorite food is marshmallows.

My favorite game is the Olympics.

My family has 4 members.


I live in Parkville.

My school is the Shafer center.


My birthday is February 22.


I have taken a trip to all of the places.


My favorite holiday is thanksgiving.

My favorite season is fall.

My talent is gymnastics.

When I grow up I will be a firefighter.

I wish that looks good.

By Hana

Freddie, Age 9

Joseph, Age 9

Lucas, Age 9