There have been many books written and programs developed to assist us in how to manage children’s behavior. Two examples include 1-2-3 Magic and Love and Logic. Structure, consistency and follow through are three qualities that the above-mentioned programs have in common.
This article will provide a brief overview and rationale for both effective and ineffective methods used to change children’s behavior. Much of this information is from the work of Alan E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.
Effective methods to promote behavior change
The most powerful method we can use to promote prosocial behavior is modeling. For example, if we want children to express their feelings calmly, it is imperative that we express our own feelings calmly. As parents we must regularly pause and reflect on our own behavior, and make appropriate changes as needed.
In addition, as parents we need to state our expectations using a positive statement. For example, rather than say “don’t hit your brother”, or something general such as “behave,” it is more beneficial for us to give the direction “keep your hands to yourself,” or “thank you for sitting quietly.”
Human behavior is motivated by incentives. In order to increase a desired behavior we need to reinforce the behavior consistently and immediately. We also want to give children ample opportunity to practice the desired behavior. We want to reward positive behavior in graduated steps (otherwise known as shaping).
For example, if the goal is to get a child to do one hour of homework per night, we need to reinforce the behavior in smaller time increments (e.g. every 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 45 minutes) until the child is able to do one hour of homework.
Next, we need to develop a reinforcement menu. Kazdin has recommended that we have at least six choices of positive reinforcement on the menu. The reinforcers should not be expensive, and certainly can be activity based (e.g. 15 minutes of game time with Mom or Dad).