The Good Choices Strategy-Part 2 Helping children improve their self control and be the boss of their behavior

byMark Gardner, LCSW

In an earlier newsletter installment, we reviewed ‘choices’ you, a parent, could make to improve your child’s behavior and/or to help prevent or minimize situations where you would have to set a limit or use a discipline technique. For example, using positive reinforcement to spotlight and increase the frequency of desired behaviors. In this article, you will learn a strategy that allows you to address specific problem behaviors of your child.

The following strategy takes advantage of a child’s ability to understand, monitor, reflect on, and talk about his/her behavior and feelings. It also places the responsibility for correct behavior on the child: you will spend less time telling the child what to do and more time on helping a child make a ‘good choice’ for his/her behavior. The less a caregiver controls a child’s behavior the more the child learns how to control their own behavior.

Another benefit of this strategy is that it allows one to better assess a child’s difficulties that may be interfering with their self control, the topic of our next article on positive discipline.

Here’s how to do it, in ten steps (this is followed below by an explanation of each of the ten steps):

  1. Tell the child what he’s supposed to do.
  2. Make sure the child knows what he’s supposed to do and help him elaborate on the range of appropriate behaviors.
  3. Test the child’s understanding of appropriate behavior.
  4. Explain to him what will happen if he doesn’t behave (the consequences).
  5. Have him tell you what will happen if he “makes a bad choice.”
  6. If possible, monitor his behavior and cue him if it appears he may misbehave.
  7. If he makes a ‘bad choice,’ implement the consequences.
  8. Before the ‘consequence’ phase is over and he returns to regular activities, review with him what has happened and review the good choices he could make next time.
  9. Before a similar activity period or environment, review with the child what happened the last time and what his “good choices” are this time
  10. Repeat this often.

Note that this strategy can easily be combined with other effective techniques like 1-2-3 Magic.

The ten steps explained:

  1. Tell the child what he’s supposed to do.In the beginning, tell the child what he’s supposed to do, be it the rules, routine, expectations, appropriate behaviors, etc. These are the “good choices” for his behavior.
  2. Make sure the child knows what he’s supposed to do and help him elaborate on the range of appropriate behaviors.Have him tell you what he’s supposed to do. Now you know that he knows and he knows that you know. He can never say he didn’t know the rules. Then, get the child to help you come up with the range of appropriate behaviors. Engage his mind in this process. Get him to do the talking. Talking is mental rehearsing.
  3. Test the child’s understanding of appropriate behavior.Talk to the child about what he can do if he has a problem. Do a verbal role play with him: “So, John, say you’re at the sand box and Jack has a bucket you want. What can you do? What would be some good choices?” Pause and let him come up with something. Run through with him the possible options. Keep asking open-ended questions to get him thinking about options for his behavior (rather than telling him outright). Review it again if you need to.
  4. Explain to him what will happen if he doesn’t behave (the consequences).Generally, in behavioral terms, a consequence is what follows one behavior. In helping children with their inappropriate behavior, this can range from limit setting, like some quiet time, to helping him understand that their friends will get mad at him if they don’t share, to being the last one called on for an activity. This connects for a child the impact of his/her behavior and helps them anticipate or rehearse this before misbehavior happens.
  5. Have him tell you what will happen if he “makes a bad choice.”Again, by telling you, you want to know that he remembers what will happen.
  6. If possible, monitor his behavior and cue him if it appears he may misbehave.This allows you to help them make a good choice near the time of potential misbehavior. Tell him: “John, it looks like you were about to take that toy from Jake. What are the rules when we play with our friends? [wait for answer; remind if needed] What else could you do now? [wait for answer; remind if needed] What will happen if you chose to take that toy from Jake? [wait for answer; remind] Ok, John, I hope you’ll make a good choice.”
  7. If he makes a ‘bad choice,’ implement the consequences.This has two effects: 1) You will help connect for him in a very direct way the impact of his behavior (which will be used in steps 8 &9); and 2) You demonstrate to him that you are serious about helping him with his behavior. If he knows you are serious, he’ll take your directions seriously. Begin by intervening: “John, I see you took Jack’s toy. Tell me what happens now that you didn’t make a good choice [wait; review if needed]. How does Jack feel now? What do you have to do now?” This could include apologizing, taking some quiet time, moving to another play area. Be sure to help him implement his consequence.
  8. Before the ‘consequence’ phase is over and he returns to regular activities, review with him what has happened and review the good choices he could make next time.This step is crucial to helping the child internalize the connections between what he did and how he is supposed to act. It allows him to practice his ability to reflect on his behavior, practice using emotional and behavioral language, and helps lodge the incident in his memory. Key elements the child should tell you about: a) what he did (not just what others did; no scapegoating allowed); b) what the impact was of his negative behavior; c) what ‘good choices’ could’ve been or will be if/when this situation occurred again.
  9. Before a similar activity period or environment, review with the child what happened the last time and what his “good choices” are this timeFailure and unpleasant experiences help us learn. (How did you drive after you got your last speeding ticket?) Usually, we will try to avoid having to go through them. Reviewing (or cueing) what happened the last time helps a child recall what happened and, therefore, by helping him keep it in his mind, contributes to their ability to control their behavior the next time. Also review his good choices (looping back to steps 1 & 2).
  10. Repeat this oftenPractice makes perfect. A child’s mental muscles are similar to those used for gross-motor success. Exercise makes them strong.
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