Sometimes when we hear terms like “behavior management,” we think about kids with “behavior problems.” Really, all kids benefit from behavior management because all kids need to learn how to behave. Some kids learn a little more quickly than others and with less work from their parents. Here are a few tips for managing your child’s behavior.
1) Understand the cause. Sometimes, the problems are a result of the way a kid’s brain is wired – are they impulsive by nature, overly cautious and fearful leading to “clingy” or avoidant behavior, or slow in processing directions and complying with instructions? Maybe the misbehavior actually gets them something they like. For example, if you give your child an iPad to stop them from bugging you, they are likely to bug you when they want the iPad. And, if the good behavior doesn’t get them anything, you’re likely to see less of that. Sometimes kids and parents fall into escalation traps, where kids learn they don’t actually have to comply until their parent starts to yell and parents learn their kid doesn’t comply until they start yelling. There are still other potential causes of child behavior problems. If you understand where the behavior is coming from, that’s the first step to figuring out what to do about it.
2) Make rules and enforce them. When I ask parents if they have rules in their house, they almost always tell me “yes, of course.” And when I ask kids what those rules are, they usually respond in a hesitant tone, questioning, “ummmmm…..don’t hit?” Try it. Ask your kids what your house rules are and see if their responses are in line with what you consider to be your rules. Then ask them what their classroom rules are. Most kids can give you a few rules they follow in school. Teachers typically spend some time at the beginning of the year teaching these rules and they almost always have them posted up in the room. They usually have a system with consequences for following the rules and breaking the rules, and the students become very aware of what types of behavior is expected and what they can expect will happen if they follow the rules or break the rules. At home, make rules and then make them known. Rules should tell kids what to do (not what not to do), they should be easy to follow and enforce, and they should be fair. Some examples might include “be cooperative,” “use a pleasant voice and pleasant words,” or “be safe.” Think about consequences for following the rules (i.e., access to privileges) or for breaking the rules (i.e., “if you can’t be safe when you’re playing with your Lightsaber, you won’t be allowed to play with it”). Discuss the rules with your kids and give examples of what following the rule looks like and what breaking the rule looks like.
3) Ignore a minor problem. If you’ve figured out that your child might be misbehaving because they are getting something from it (i.e., attention, an iPad, a cookie), a good strategy to try is to ignore the behavior (thereby taking away what is reinforcing the behavior). Behaviors to ignore might include “potty talk,” whining/complaining, interrupting, and sometimes tantrumming. If you choose to go this route, be strong! When you ignore a behavior that your child is used to getting something out of, your child will try harder. That means, the behavior will get worse. The whining will get louder. You continue to ignore the whining. AND THEN, as soon as your child stops (even if it is just to take a breath), you give them attention. Get right in there with, “thank you for calming down. Now I think I can help you. What do you need?”
4) Teach skills. Going back to understanding the cause of a behavior problem, sometimes kids have challenging behaviors because they are missing a skill or they don’t know what to do or how to do it. If this is the case, we need to teach that skill. For example, some kids don’t know how to wait so they become…well, annoying. These kids might need to hear, “yeah – it’s hard to wait for my attention when I’m talking to someone else. Here’s what you do, you look to see if I’m looking at you and you listen to hear if I’m talking or if the other person is talking. If so, you stay quiet until you hear us stop talking and you see me look at you. Then you can say, ‘excuse me’ and I will either say, ‘yes’ and be ready to listen to you or I will hold up my finger. That will be a code for you that you need to keep waiting quietly. As soon as I can, I will listen to you.” It’s important to practice that new skill and to give positive reinforcement (i.e., a thumbs up, a smile, a compliment like, “great job waiting quietly!”). When you practice waiting, have fun with it – let your kid be the one to make you wait sometimes – and talk about something silly while they practice waiting.
For a more in depth discussion of the causes of child behavior problems and these tips, check out the podcast for a talk “Why Doesn’t My Kid Listen To Me.”