The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

November 16, 2013

More information on child development

By Thomas L. Millard Special to the Herald
The Clinton Herald

---- — 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).

The reinforcers should be administered at least on a daily basis. It is generally ineffective to say “if you behave for a week, we will rent a video this weekend.” First, the word “behave” is too vague, and secondly, one week is too long to make the reinforcer effective in changing behavior. It is often beneficial to create a chart which outlines expected behaviors required to earn reinforcers.

It is helpful to know the function of children’s behavior. Functions can be categorized into gain and escape. Children generally try to gain attention and preferred activities, and escape unwanted tasks, or uncomfortable situations. If children are motivated by attention, they may benefit from specific praise or quality time with parents. Children motivated by access to preferred activities may benefit from earning these activities.

Examples include earning an additional 15 minutes on Wii or 10 minutes longer to play outside. Children motivated by escape may benefit from getting out of a chore for compliance with a parent’s demands.

Ineffective methods to promote behavior change

Punishment techniques such as time-out, taking privileges away and spanking are generally ineffective to promote lasting behavior changes. Punishment teaches our children what not to do, but does not teach them what to do as an alternative. When punishment is ineffective parents tend to use more punitive measures which generally make parents’ behaviors worse, rather than children’s behaviors better.

Time-out is the most commonly recommended punishment technique. It is a myth that one minute of time-out for each year of our children’s age is an appropriate guideline. Kazdin has found that only the first one to two minutes of time-out results in a change in our children’s behavior. Time-out may be helpful in facilitating the effectiveness of a positive behavior management plan.

Reminders and lectures do not result in behavior change. Reminders and lectures may reinforce a child’s negative behaviors by giving them attention for being noncompliant. Also, explaining to children why a behavior is wrong does not, used by itself, increase the likelihood that the negative behavior will cease. For example, as adults, most of us know the benefits of proper nutrition and daily exercise; however that knowledge does not necessarily promote our behavior to change.

Tom Millard is a psychologist with Cornerstone Wellness Center in Clinton.