Developing a behavior management system for kids

Behavior management - getting started

The first rule is, take a deep breath, and another....most people turn to behavior management systems out of frustration when numerous attempts have failed and the behaviors have escalated. While behavior management techniques can be helpful in deescalating crisis situations and regaining control of a situation, ideally these systems are put in place before the crisis - and with a bit of luck and practice, you avoid the crisis by using proactive techniques.

One of the major causes of behavioral acting out and escalation is an inability to regulate and manage emotion, usually on the part of the child, but pretty often both the parent and the child become locked in an escalating, negative spiral where emotions take over and impulsivity and poor judgement prevail. As a general rule of thumb, I believe that for each minute you are in an argument, you lose 10 IQ points or 2 years in maturity, so it doesn't take long before both parent and child are psychologically three years old and engaged in mutual, often spiteful and always hurtful combat.

So, why do we get so irrational when we're angry?

For the brain to process information optimally, a fairly balanced physical and physiological state needs to be maintained, particularly when complex learning is required. Mild anxiety can actually facilitate learning, while severe and/or chronic stress can interrupt learning in several ways. When people are emotionally aroused - anxious, angry etc. the brain naturally begins to conserve resources - physically and psychologically. Just as blood tends to move away from hands and feet towards vital organs, our attention becomes centered and focused on a central aspect. This is extremely useful when faced with a sabre tooth tiger, you really want to be focused, but, like most things in life, there's a trade off, the more focused and central your vision, the more likely you are to miss more subtle details or things on the periphery. You therefore use less of your environment to modulate and translate your responses and focus more internally.

The problem with human beings is, we like short cuts, so we tend to make more assumptions when we're anxious or angry and we also selectively perceive what we expect to see, and when we're aroused, we are usually excited, anxious or angry and how we translate the world around us depends very much on what emotional state we perceive that we're in, if we're angry we become more likely to tune into any hostile cues in the environment and magnify them and also discount cues suggesting anything opposed to our schema or mental short cut.

None of this is conscious - thank goodness, right? but these are ongoing processes which shift and shape our views from day to day. Have you ever noticed when you're having a bad day that everything sucks? or when you buy a new car suddenly you notice all the other cars like yours? That's because as much as we may think that we have an objective reality, everyone really sees the world slightly differently, and we underestimate how much of an impact our mood has on our perceptions. So, that's the long answer to that, now, moving on...

Now, what to do

So, what I hope is becoming clear from the above is that disciplining when you are angry is always a poor idea, usually comes from the parent's own anger at being defied, lied to etc and their frustration at not being able to control their child's behavior, which, of course is the whole point of adolescence. Your perceptions at that time are so distorted by your emotions that you are much more likely to issue sweeping proclamations like " you're grounded for the rest of your life" - ever done that? - the problem is, obviously you can't enforce that and so the message your kids get is "she/he doesn't mean it anyway, when she/he calms down she/he'll forget all about it".

Kids tend to be pretty concrete and, just as with parents - actions speak louder than words. If you are expecting to parent successfully based on do as I say, not as I do, you are likely in for an unfortunate surprise. What research in this area has shown is that punishment is not an effective tool for behavior change, and this, not surprisingly has significant implications for discipline. The bottom line is people repeat behaviors for which they are reinforced and that's the most effective way to teach people.

Punishment just doesn't work, it will probably temporarily suppress the behavior, but it provides no explanation of why the behavior is undesirable and, more important still - does not give an example of an appropriate substitute behavior.

This is one of the most common mistakes parents make - and again it's a short cut thing. When kids are playing quietly most parents are only too thrilled to have a minute's peace, only intervening when voices are raised and violence is threatened. Many parent's at this stage get into the "quit, stop, don't" mode and threaten to come and sort things out. There are a few problems with this approach. Firstly, remember the reinforcement thing? Kids need to be praised for their good behavior, this way they learn to associate positive attention with good behaviors. Second, the "quit, stop, don't" is a set up for you - do you mean what you say or not? - if you were a kid, how would you know. If you ask a lot of kids they'll tell you, "I know when my mom means business 'cos she gets that tone, or calls me by my full name", so they only react when you get that tone, which is usually the parental breaking point where you're fed up and want to crack down and regain control.

In the real world we generally mean what we say and things mostly go a lot easier if we're clear about our perceptions and expectations with others, so why not with kids? Clarity is one of the most important ingredients of good discipline. Kids generally want to do what you want them to, but they often genuinely don't know what we mean. As grown up as kids appear these days, things like sarcasm is often taken literally well into the teenage years. A kid will spin off into intellectual debate about whether they would indeed follow their friend off a cliff, which is unfortunately often interpreted as an attitude problem rather than a developmental thing.

So, if you really want a kid to change a behavior you have to both define what the unwanted behavior looks like, be specific and behavioral - when you roll your eyes and look away is better than when you give me attitude, the more specific you are the less wiggle room later if the behavior needs to be confronted. Then state beforehand as neutrally as possible what the consequence will be, better yet, write them out and stick them on the fridge - and don't forget to make them realistic - you have to follow through every time or you run the risk of entrenching bad behavior. Have your kids participate in defining both their goals and consequences - you'd be amazed at how strict they are.

In general consequences are only effective when they directly follow the behavior - "wait till your father gets home" just undermines the mother's power, and they are natural and logical. In other words, they approximate the real world as closely as possible. After all, aren't we really trying to teach our kids how to grow up as good, productive people. This is part of the reason I don't advocate grounding much - except for infractions involving not being able to be trusted outside the home.

For a consequence to have any positive learning value it has to make sense to the child - and if it doesn't have a positive learning value, then it's probably more about the parent's frustration (see rule number 1), besides you get stuck with a grumpy kid when you could be going places, seeing people yourself. So, for example a child who is mean to animals could take on responsibility (under supervision) for care and grooming of the family pet. Not only does this give a positive replacement behavior, but it shows the child a more positive way to interact in the world and the underlying message they get from that is - my parent/s are involved in my life and will make sure that no one is hurt and when I mess up, they show me what would be better and praise me for doing it. This in turn, of course sets up a schema for the child of how one should interact with others when they mess up. Parenting really is a 24/7 thing.

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Comments 8 comments

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

Thank you, thank you, thank you -- phew. I really needed to read this, today of all days. I feel so helpless and angry at myself when I get angry at kids. This made good sense, and my heart thanks you as well as my head.


dr c profile image

dr c 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

My pleasure, thank you for such a lovely comment.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Reqally useful insights and reminders about things that I know but so often don't actually put into p;ractice. As a trainer I use the reinforcement of positive behaviour thing all the time, and then forget to use it myself! Inconruence and all that!

So thanks for the timely reminder.

Love and peace

Tony


dr c profile image

dr c 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thank you so much for your comment


dr c profile image

dr c 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thank you, I'm so glad it was helpful. I'll be doing more articles in this area.


mamahops 7 years ago

Positive reinforcement really does work - thanks for the insite


Enelle Lamb profile image

Enelle Lamb 7 years ago from Canada's 'California'

Good sound advice : ) I will come back and check out the videos, and your other hubs


dr c profile image

dr c 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Great, welcome on board.

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