How to Teach Your Child Appropriate Behaviours
In my last professional role I was fortunate enough to work along side a world-renowned Behaviourist and Clinical Psychologist. The skills I learnt there have forever altered the way I perceive the world around me and the acts of myself and others. I worked with children from the age of 18mo to 13 years, some with an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), some with developmental delays and others who were typically developing but providing a challenge to their parents, caregivers and school staff.
It was so uplifting to provide empowerment, learning and support to children, their families, their teachers and aids. So a bit on behaviour management and modification, and the science behind the why.
I would like to start by saying that there are decades of research supporting the principles which were taught to me by my colleague and millions of families the world over who have found a happy balance that comes with giving children consistency, boundaries, and of course positivity. This information is applicable to the entire population of children, and families, and is definitely not only successful in an ASD population.
Tony Gaskins (motivational speaker) said:
“You teach people how to treat you, by what you stop, what you allow and what you reinforce".
I, as a behaviourist at heart, believe this wholeheartedly and although today’s topic is about children, I think this rings true in every relationship.
In my experience, and from many observations and conversations with parents, caregivers and teachers, what you allow to happen, is the same as what you reinforce.
So, how to stop the undesired behaviours, reinforce and encourage the desired?
These principles were taught in every parent training and many, many times over my career.
The three basics of behaviour management or “The Three Keys to Effective Parenting” (Novak, G. & Pelaez, M., Child and Adolescent Development, 2004) (useful for everyone not solely parents) and how to properly implement time-out (below)
1. Be Positive
“Catch the child being good” and provide praise, affection, and positive attention. "I really like the way you_, I can see you’re trying really hard, that’s great, well done, I love it when you listen/do as I ask give me a hug/ high five".
2. Be Contingent
A contingency, in this case refers to when something is incidental to, or dependent on something else. The second part cannot happen unless the first part does, first. This means reinforcing (smiles, hugs, high-fives, affection, praise, rewards) appropriate and desired behaviours and punishing (natural punishers and using time-out) for undesired, antisocial, inappropriate behaviours.
This means you must follow through on what you say will happen.
By doing this your child learns to trust you as a valuable source of information, you are able to predict what will happen to them, this builds respect, understanding, predictability, stability but most of all trust of you. You do what you say you will, they can rely on you and what you tell them (more on this later).
By speaking in terms of and setting up contingencies, you provide cues as to what is expected, and predict for the child consequences of desired and undesired behaviours.
These must be immediate, small consequences that the child can link to the behaviour that just occurred.
Promising a treat to come at the weekend for good behaviour all week is less effective than praise in the moment that the behaviour occurs. In the same way threats of “wait till your father/mother gets home” are not an effective tool to change undesired behaviours.
To be able to use this method effectively you need to be able to see what your child is doing so you can stop them/warn them about undesirable, inappropriate behaviours.
It also helps to use contingencies in speaking. Predicting for the child the outcome for a behaviour. Use this language:
· If, then
· First, then
· When, then
Predicting positive consequences
First you need to put your shoes on, and then we will go to the park.
If you eat your veggies, then you can have dessert.
When you have cleaned up the toys, then we can play another game.
When I have finished the dishes, then I will read a book to you.
In this case the then must be something that is rewarding for the child otherwise there is no motivation for them to do what you are asking.
Predicting negative consequences-
If you hit your brother, then you will go for timeout.
If you fight with your sister, then the toy will have to get put away.
When you shout at me, then I do not want to keep playing this game with you and I will stop the game.
This consequence must be negative for the child to motivate them not to engage in the inappropriate behaviour.
3. Be Consistent
If you say you will do something, or that something will happen, make sure that it does.
Have a clear understanding of desired, appropriate (prosocial) and undesired, inappropriate (antisocial) behaviours. It is necessary to have these written and displayed somewhere around the home/environment. Ideally written in a positive way.
In this house we:
Are kind to each other
Share our toys
Speak nicely to each other
Use our inside speaking voices
Explain how we are feeling
They can also be written as;
We are not mean to each other
We do not take others things
We do not use bad words
We do not shout/scream
We do not hurt each other
We do not hit/bite/kick
But as we are reinforcing positive, prosocial behaviours, it is more useful to list what you would like the child to do rather than not do.
When explaining the rules you can explain what they mean both ways as to-do and not-to-do. You as the parent/caregiver also need to do your best to uphold the family/environment rules. If you desire your children to use inside speaking voices, not shouting and speaking nicely to each other you must also speak nicely to your children and your partner. Children will copy what you and others do, good or bad.
Consistency means following through on what you say you will do, both in reinforcement (praise/rewards) and punishments. If you are clear with children as to what will happen, you must make this come true for them. Otherwise they are empty promises and threats.
Implementing these three strategies consistently showed us as therapists and our clients, excellent results in increasing prosocial behaviours and decreasing antisocial, inappropriate behaviours.
These strategies build trust, clarify expectations, reward the behaviours you would like more of, decrease inappropriate behaviours and provide prediction of outcomes for children leading to reduced anxiety and disordered behaviours.
Books referred to:
Child and Adolescent Development: A Behavioural Sytems Approach by Gary Novak and Martha Pelaez can be found here
To learn more about this check out:
How to have happy, healthy kids
Time-out: How to do it Properly and Lovingly
How to Give Consequences
Understanding and changing challenging behaviours
Choose Your Own Adventure- Tracking Behaviour
Need some more ideas for managing challenging behaviours lovingly? Or want help getting your kids to listen and be helpful? I'd love to help you and your family. Let's work together!
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Here's to you being Happy, Well and Fed (delicious, healthy, inspiring whole foods)