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Ideas on How to Help Children Build New Behaviors

Updated on September 27, 2014
New, positive behaviors start with positive family relationships and proactive parenting.
New, positive behaviors start with positive family relationships and proactive parenting. | Source

Discourage Bad Behaviors Lovingly

Whether you are helping a child develop better manners at home or are working with a child or adolescent with a diagnosed mental health condition, helping a young person build new behaviors is a gradual process that requires patience and empathy. When helping children build new behaviors, it is important to remember that a child's behaviors are not the core of your child's personality or a sum or his or her worth. In other words, it is important to show disapproval for bad behaviors, but never the child, his or her character, or his or her personality. This will help the child change the behaviors without making her feel guilty, inadequate, discouraged or unloved.

Children often develop their ideas about appropriate and inappropriate behavior by watching influential adults' interactions.
Children often develop their ideas about appropriate and inappropriate behavior by watching influential adults' interactions. | Source

Behavioral Modeling

One of the most effective ways to get a child to change his or her behavior is to model the types of behaviors you would like to see. When important adults in a child's life, such as parents, caregivers, and older display the kinds of behaviors they would like their children to develop, the children will gradually begin to internalize these patterns. In particular, when parents and influential adults model behaviors such as kindness, empathy and honesty, children can learn to emulate these positive, new behaviors. For example, simple acts such as saying "please and thank you" and resolving conflicts calmly, without yelling or aggression, can be valuable behavioral change tools.

Set Boundaries and Expectations

Establishing clear expectations for your children and enforcing them consistently can be an important component of behavioral change. When helping children build new behaviors, explain what types of behaviors are acceptable. Keep in mind that children who have not reached adolescence often have difficulty understanding abstract concepts, such as "respect." Thus, it can be useful to give specific examples of the kind of behaviors that you expect. For instance, you might tell your child that it is unacceptable to talk back to authority figures and that they should respond with "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am." Writing out a list of household rules and expectations can be particularly useful, especially if you have a younger child or a child who may have difficulty remembering rules. If you decide to make a list of written rules, consider having your child help you develop them. If you work on making rules together and discuss why these rules are important, the child may be more likely to follow them and feel as though they are fair.

In addition to establishing rules, it is equally important to make sure the child or adolescent understands what will happen if he or she breaks a rule. As with setting rules, helping the child establish consequences can help them understand the importance of rules and help them see the fairness of potential punishments. That said, it is crucial that you follow through on established punishments when the child does break a rule. If you are inconsistent with discipline, it will make it difficult for the child to engage in the new, positive behaviors consistently.


Positive "Discipline"

Offering praise in addition to discipline can be a good form of behavioral reinforcement. In other words, in addition to punishing negative behaviors, praise and reward children when they successfully model new behaviors. Positive reinforcement can take many forms. Often, simple actions such as a hug and a genuine, loving acknowledgement of the good behavior can be an effective reinforcer. You can also take this a step further and offer tangible rewards for consistent good behavior. For example, if your child models a specific behavior consistently, over an entire week, you could allow him or her to pick a movie to watch and let him or her "direct" a family movie night. Likewise, inexpensive rewards such as trips to the park or the beach can be a good rewards for positive behaviors. These rewards that involve time together can also be good bonding experiences.

Having difficulties thinking of positive, inexpensive rewards? Here are a few ideas:

  • A sleepover with a friend or grandparent
  • Choosing what the family will have for dinner for the night
  • A special mommy/daddy day (one-on-one time with the child)
  • A "get out of a chore free" coupon

Address Issues as Soon as Possible

When reinforcing behavioral expectations, it is important to respond to behaviors as soon as possible as you become aware of them. This helps the child understand the relationship between his or her behavior and the consequences. However, it is also important to respond to undesirable behaviors calmly, so that the situation does not escalate. This might mean telling the child "There are going to be consequences for this behavior and we'll talk about it in an hour." Above all else, do not punish your child when you are feeling angry or sense that you may lose control of your own temper or behaviors. This will do little but undermine your message.

At the time you do issue your child the consequences for behavior, take time to have a discussion about what happened. Let your child share his or her perspective and allow her to express her range of feelings in appropriate ways--whether that be sadness, disappointment, or anger. This discussion can also be a good opportunity to talk to the child about how to prevent future instances of inappropriate behavior.

Try a Token Economy of Behavior Reinforcement

Creating a behavioral reward system called a "token economy" has been established as an effective system for modifying a child's behavior. Token economy is a type of behavior modification that uses rewards to promote new behaviors. Under this system, to change a child's behavior through token economy, provide the child with a small token, such as a sticker or tally mark on a character, when he or she successfully models a new behavior, such as doing his homework without prompting or waiting for an appointment without complaining. If the child displays an inappropriate behavior, take away a token. If she displays a positive behavior, offer a token. After a set period, allow the child to trade in the tokens for a reward that fits the child's interests and your budget. This encourages the child to work toward a goal while encouraging new, positive behaviors.

Professional Interventions

While many children misbehave simply because they have learned bad habits, others act out because of depression, anxiety, frustration, or other issues that are often beyond a parent's control. If your child is consistently defiant, in spite of calm responses to negative behaviors, consider talking to you child's school counselor or a professional therapist. A mental health professional can help you determine if your child is dealing with something other than age-normative misbehavior. For example, depression can closely resemble defiance and anger in young people. In such cases, talking to a neutral third party, such as a therapist, can help the child address the underlying issues. Further, a trained mental health professional can give you ideas for behavioral interventions that are targeted to your child's specific needs. For example, in the case of a child who is acting out because of anxiety, the therapist may have you help your child keep a "feelings log" where she marks down situations that make her uncomfortable. This can help you and the child's therapist address uncomfortable feelings before they turn into negative behaviors.

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Positive Discipline for Toddlers


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