Good Choices for Better Behavior Eight Strategies You Can Use Today to Improve Your Child’s Self Control, Listening and Ability to Follow Directions

byMark Gardner, LCSW

Are you tired of telling your child to do something over and over again to little effect? Do you feel like your child never listens? Does your child struggle with bedtime or getting ready to leave the house? Many parents share these difficulties. Fortunately, there are tried and true behavioral management strategies you can begin using today that will help change this state of affairs.

Focusing on a parent’s choices, below is part one of two of the Good Choices Strategy. Outlined are eight techniques that, if used consistently, will increase cooperation and compliance and improve your child’s self control. In a future newsletter, we’ll outline a method to help you manage your child when he/she’s struggling with specific problematic behaviors.

A Parent’s “Good Choices”

These help prevent unacceptable behaviors and foster appropriate behaviors. Some of the following strategies most likely are already in your behavioral-management toolbox; however, you may be able to apply them in additional ways once you have more clarity on their principles.

1) Positive reinforcement

We all feel good when we get attention, especially if it’s when we’ve done something well. However, getting attention for inappropriate behavior can have some positive effect for children (any attention is better than none). So, noticing and giving positive feedback to a child’s correct behaviors can help feel a child feel good and make them want to do them again. Obviously, one can’t do this all the time, but increasing your use of it can significantly shift how a child feels about himself (and perhaps, you about him) and change their behavior.

2) Make sure a child knows what he CAN do in addition to what he can’t do (redirection)

This strategy provides a double benefit by increasing appropriate behaviors and reducing negative behaviors. So, if a child is frustrated when a sibling or peer won’t give up a toy and is about to give a tug, say, “John, it looks like you really want that toy but Jack isn’t done with it yet. Since you can’t take it from him, why don’t you find another toy to play with or something else to do. What can you do?” Rather than: “Don’t take that toy from Jack!” The former gives John something to do with his feelings (of frustration) and his body, namely, a way to feel better, rather than having him sit and stew or possibly lash out.

3) Make sure a child understands what’s expected of him or her

This includes being clear about the rules or expectations for behavior before a child goes into an activity or playtime as well as targeting a specific child’s problematic behavior. If a child is struggling with his/her behavior during a particular time or activity during the day, take a few extra moments before or as this timeframe starts to make sure you know the child knows what is expected from him. Example: Ted always throws his jacket and books on the floor when he runs in the door. Next time, in the car right before you get home, ask Ted what the rule is for his jacket and books.

4) Schedules and routines

These work because of the learning that results from repetition. Doing an activity the same way over and over helps ingrain it in our memory. So, making clear how an activity goes by outlining the sequence of behaviors, say a transition, and doing it the same each time can be very effective.

5) Cueing

This refers to letting a child know that a change in his expected behavior is coming or that he/she may need to adjust his/her behavior. It helps a child end one activity, prepare for the next in his/her mind, and reduces the amount of frustration that usually accompanies a quick transition. So, say dinner follows tv time. Giving a warning – ringing a bell, flashing the room lights, muting the tv – a few minutes before dinner will help children prepare for changing their behavior. Or, for a specific child, one may tell or “cue” her that she may need to be better with their behavior: “Jessica, what does it mean when the lights flash before dinner?”

6) Ignoring and picking your battles

For similar reasons outlined in “positive reinforcement” above, ignoring incorrect behavior (and focusing on reinforcing correct behavior) can reduce its frequency. Also, by ignoring more minor infractions, one can expend your energy on targeting those behaviors that are most problematic.

7) Give a child a role

Tried and true, assigning a helping or constructive role to a child during a difficult activity or time period can reduce negative behaviors. So, for example, Karen hates to put on her socks and shoes in the morning. But, if she has to help walk the dog, something she’s excited to do, she’s got it done in a flash.

8) Use behavioral rituals and songs

A more complex form of redirection, use a sequence of specific behaviors to transition a child from an undesired behavior to an appropriate one or to help with transitions. For example, your child may balk at getting ready for bed, especially taking off his clothes; however, doing so while singing and dancing to a favorite song may take the edge off.