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How to Discourage Bad Behavior in Children?
Julia: AKA "The Hair Puller"
How do we discourage poor behavior?
Discouraging bad behavior in children can be tricky. Children who are given very little positive reinforcements for their behavior may act out for the attention, even if the attention is negative. Once again, I believe we should try to encourage children to act appropriately because of the logical consequences of their behavior. These consequences can be positive with a kind deed or negative with an inappropriate action. This holds true for children of different ages, but applying logical consequences early on, can have lasting effects.
For example, our just-turned-two year old has been pulling the hair of our 5 year old. (This is actually true. ;)) We've tried sitting down with her, showing her how she's hurting Georgia, and how it is making Georgia feel. However, she's not quite old enough to completely grasp the concept, i.e., she usually smiles. Recently, we've been telling her in a soft tone, "If you pull Georgia's hair, she won't want to play with you, and you'll need to go play by yourself." We then remove her from the play area with Georgia which is really upsetting to her. We calmly tell her that pulling hair hurts and that we are kind to our friends and family. If she wants to play with Georgia she needs to say she's sorry and be gentle. After she realized that every time she pulled hair she was given these consequences the behavior stopped. She realized there are logical consequences for the things that she does. When she's kind and gentle we reinforce this behavior too, e.g., "Look how happy Georgia is when you are gentle." This process is building a foundation for future behaviors.
For children who are developing empathy, we can encourage them to help the person they have hurt. For example, if a child pushes another child and they fall and skin their knee. A teacher can intervene; get at eye-level with the two children; discuss the problem and action; discuss how it makes them feel to hurt one another; and the pusher can help the child by getting ice for them and sit with them while they recouperate. This shows both children the logical consequences for their actions.
I'm not a huge fan of timeouts, but I do think that children need time to calm down and relax when they get upset. The concept is similar but the semantics vary a bit. When our five year old is misbehaving we may say to her, "You need to go spend some time by yourself. When you feel ready to act appropriately, we would love to have you in here with us."
If she is unable to remove herself, we may need to physically pick her up and place her on her bed or wherever we have decided is appropriate. (She has never had a negative feeling toward her room because of these actions.)
The difference between this form of discipline and telling her she is in a timeout, is that she has control. We are not timing her; she is regulating herself and knows when she is able to come out and begin participating again. When she comes back, we welcome her without revisiting the situation. Almost 100% of the time she comes back into the situation with a smile on her face, ready to play appropriately. On the rare occasion that she is not ready to be back in the room, we will tell her she needs a bit more time to relax and to try again in a few minutes.
What tone should we use when disciplining?
As parents and teachers our tone is very important when we are disciplining. A tone that is soft and in control is preferable. Many times children are out of control and scared during times of misbehavior. An adult who is out of control only scares them or even worse makes them feel intimidated . This is hard; I know that I've raised my voice before in frustration and am definitely not even close to perfect. But, I strive to keep an even tone when disciplining. The point is not to scare or intimidate our children. Instead we are trying to build their self-esteem and create responsible, kind human beings.
We make mistakes. It is important for our children to see us make mistakes and how we deal with them. If you raise your voice, apologize and explain what happened, e.g., mama was really frustrated with you and raised her voice. I'm sorry if it scared you. I will try harder next time to take a break when I feel that way and come back when I'm calmer.
What should we do with a child who is constantly misbehaving?
Many times children who misbehave a lot need more structure in their day. Having clear cut expectations of them and what needs to be done provides the boundaries they need. I'm not suggesting the adult be overly strict; I am saying that having a clear cut idea of what is going to happen next provides comfort. Transition times are often difficult, but parents/teachers who give ample time and warning for these transitions helps the child cope with change. There were many instances in the classroom where parents were puzzled by how well their child behaved in the classroom versus home. While there are many factors that influence this, a big component is consistency and structure. The students knew what there day was going to be like when they walked in the room. They knew what behaviors were expected of them and how to treat one another.
One activity that we did in the classroom that can be done at home is talking about family expectations for behavior. The key is having your child be a part of the activity. Sit down with your children and discuss how you want to be treated and how you'd like to treat each other. Try to keep your list to about five brief expectations and write them down. You can put them on the refrigerator and revisit them as often as needed. Let your child do most of the talking and the parent/teacher can tie it together. Be sure to write down your expectations in a positive sentence. For example:
1. We will treat each other with kindness, love and respect.
2. When we disagree we will discuss our problems in a calm voice and try to compromise.
3. We will help in family duties: cleaning up our toys, help with the dishes, etc.
Your expectations may be broad. Talk about what it means to be kind, respectful, etc. If need be, make another list of what actions occur when we're loving, etc. When a child goes against one of these rules, or you do as a parent, recognize what happened, how you went against one of your expectations, and talk about how you will do it differently next time.
Even a child who misbehaves a lot behaves positively sometimes. Find those times and reinforce them. Many times we have to step away from the "bad/troubled" child and choose to see them in a different light. We are the adults and teachers. We have the responsibility to see the positive light in all the children we come in contact with and reinforce that good in them. It is amazing the impact that we can have.
For more information on reinforcing positive behavior in children, I recently wrote this hub.