Improving Behaviors

girl smiling outside

It is often said that “behavior is communication.” When a child exhibits negative behavior, it is important to stop and consider WHAT the child is trying to communicate. Are they trying to avoid a request or task? Are they irritable because they are tired or hungry? Are they acting out because they want attention (and even negative attention is still attention)? Every child exhibits negative behaviors from time to time. It’s the response to these behaviors that affects how likely these behaviors will be repeated.

There are several things parents can do to increase positive behaviors:

  • •  Give frequent and descriptive praise.  We all want to hear that we’ve done a good job—it’s human nature! By complimenting our child when they do something correctly or try their best, it lets them know we see their effort and appreciate them. Not only is it important to praise our children, but the praise should be specific. Describe what your child did that was good: “You did an excellent job taking turns during Monopoly!” “Nice job on your math test! You showed all your work and did your best.”
  • •  Look for opportunities to give positive attention throughout the day. Spending short, frequent amounts of time paying attention to your child provides many benefits. It strengthens the bond between you and your child, and your child will know that they do not need to act out in order to get your attention. For example, when your child brings you a drawing they are working on, stopping for a minute or two to look at the drawing and comment on your child’s work provides your child with positive attention.
  • •  Reward desirable behavior. When your child is showing positive behaviors (or even refraining from negative behaviors), reward them in a way that is meaningful to them. Some children love big hugs and big praises, while another child may dislike being touched and would prefer a wink or a smile. Rewards don’t have to cost anything. Some examples of no-cost rewards may be getting to read an extra book at bedtime, getting to help prepare dinner, or cuddling with mom or dad while watching a show of their choice. If the reward is something your child values, it will be reinforcing and motivating to your child.

There are also strategies to decrease negative behaviors:

  • •  Ignore negative behavior. This can be tough! When a child is whining or fussing, parents just want it to stop. Know that individuals—children AND adults—repeat behavior that works for them or gets them what they want. If whining for candy at the grocery store gets my mom to buy candy, what am I going to do next time I go to the grocery store with my mom? I’m going to whine for candy because this behavior has worked in the past.  If the parent eventually allows the child to have their way, unfortunately it teaches the child that whining works—even if they have to increase the whining volume or duration to get what they want.
  • •  Teach your child what TO DO, not just what NOT to do. Often, as parents we tell our children what not to do but neglect to tell them what would be appropriate to do. Instead of “No throwing the ball in the house!”, tell your child what would be appropriate “We don’t play with the ball in the house. You can throw the ball outside, not inside.” Or if your child is running on the stairs, instead of “Stop running on the stairs” tell him/her “No running on the stairs, you need to walk.”
  • •  Take a short break. Sometimes children will misbehave to get out of an activity. It can be helpful to give your child a few minutes to calm down from their tantrum and once calm, have them return to the activity they were engaged in when the misbehavior started. For example, if a parent tells their child to put their toys back in the toy box and the child starts whining and having a tantrum, take a break and give the child a few minutes to calm down. Once the child has calmed, tell them “Now it’s time to finish putting your toys in the toy box.” By returning the child to the activity, the child learns that they can’t use misbehavior or diversion to get out of an unpleasant task.