I have been working in Special Education for 9 years and have learned that there is a way to communicate appropriate behaviors in a positive way. I have worked with many students who have very severe mental health and/or behavioral issues and have worked with a specific plan to help those student find success in multiple settings. I have also come to the conclusion that these “Behavior Plans” do not alter the behavior of the child; what they do is unify the way information is relayed to a particular individual so that they can fully understand the expectations and consequences.
When I say 3 steps to a better-behaving child I do mean 3 steps, but these are 3 steps that require 100% commitment. I have done this with very intelligent students, and with non-verbal students, and variations with my own kids. What I am going to share with you can save you hundreds of dollars in a consult with a Behavior Specialist, because I have worked with several good and bad ones.
In order for these 3 steps to work, however, we must operate under the assumption that Behavior is Communication. What we do communicates to our children more than what we say, and what our children do is meant to communicate to us. We have all had babies and could discern the hungry cry from the hurt cry. In the same way, we need to discern what the behaviors from our kids are trying to communicate to us. For example, many times my son (4 years old) will be in front of me, and bothering his sister, and breaking rules so that I have to get up from what I am doing. Is he being a troublemaker or trying to tell his daddy that he needs some attention?
Before I start I should explain that this plan is laid out focusing on rewarding the positive behaviors. You can also take the opposite approach where you take away for bad behaviors, or punish. Personally I prefer a combination of both; reward the good, and punish the negative.
Step 1: Find a Reward You Can Leverage.
A well-used incentive is different from a bribe. We all bribe, and bribes reinforce negative behaviors. Even if your kid acts right for a little bit in order to get a bribe, they’ve learned that if they act like a little hellion then you will eventually reward them with a bribe. A well-used incentive is anything that your child is willing to behave in order to get. Once you have figured that out then you allow them to earn it with high frequency. If your child learns that they can earn something they enjoy relatively easily then they will be more willing to display the same behavior again.
The Key: Success in Step 1 comes from slowly extending the frequency of the incentive. This can look different depending on how it is earned. If it is a time-based incentive, then add a little time until they get accustomed to it, and then again and again. If it is task-based, then add another (preferably smaller) task and then another and another. Be sure to reward higher challenging tasks immediately and extend less challenging ones. Also, make sure you do your best to make your child aware of the frequency changes.
Step 2: Employ a 3rd Party Arbitrator.
This is a crucial step that will help avoid engaging in a power-struggle with your child. This 3rd party arbitrator is whatever tool you use to communicate the expectation. This can be a timer, a to do list, a schedule, etc… Just tonight I told my two kids (4 and 7 years old) to brush their teeth, clean up their bathroom and bedroom floors, and get in the bed in 10 minutes. I set a timer, reminded them at 8 minutes, 7 minutes, and 5 minutes. I didn’t have to continuously say “hurry up!” As they were getting close I used encouraging language, and gave lots of positive attention to reinforce the behavior when they finished with 1 minute left on the timer.
The Key: You must understand that the purpose of the 3rd party arbitrator is to snatch the focus of your child and alleviate your stress. For this to work your language must change. You will need to use terms like the timer says there are ___ minutes left, or that’s not what the schedule/to do list says. It says ___ first and then ___. They can’t argue with something that doesn’t talk.
Step 3: Follow-Through Even When it Hurts.
This is the hardest and most pivotal step of the process. If it is not done right, you could put yourself all the way back to Step 1. The follow-though must be done 100%… 100% of the time. Regardless of how you feel, or how much they deserve their incentive, if they have earned it then they get it. Additionally, if they have not earned it then they don’t get it; there is no partial credit. If you watch baseball. you will notice that the follow-through of a swing looks the same for a homerun and a strikeout.
The Key: This entire step is key, and you will see the payoff when the step is done right. When you reward and punish your child with 100% consistency and it is based off of their choices and behaviors rather than our moods, they will begin to learn that what they say and do has real consequences for them. The sooner they learn this, the sooner they will learn to respect boundaries and meet expectations.
I know I made this seem like it was as simple as ABC, but these are three very important aspects of helping to alter behaviors. Comment below with your thoughts or questions.