"Good/Bad Child" vs "Good/Bad
Finally, note that it may be unhelpful to think of
your child's behavior in terms of his/her being "good" or
"bad". Young children think in absolutes, not relative or
situational terms. Children that come to think of themselves as
"bad" may be headed toward personality development that may be
troublesome later. A child should have a self-image of "good",
but learn they can do "good things" and "bad
things". Consistent approval in the form of praise, hugs, smiles
will often serve to reinforce good behavior. Note that desirable
behaviors acquired through modeling in the various areas of a child's
(relatively limited) day-to-day experience will leave little room for
Principals of Behavior Management
I. You can't stop an undesirable behavior
- you can only substitute a more desirable behavior.
There has been a debate for many years whether
unwanted behavior can be stopped through negative consequences, or
punishment, without producing even less desirable consequences. A
well-designed behavioral program encourages desirable subsitute behavior
through positive reward. Punishment focuses the child's attention on an
undesirable past event and the undesirable behavior associated with it.
A good program focuses your child's attention on a good thing that can
happen in the future, and the desirable behavior associated with that
II. A behavioral program should be written down,
and negotiated with the child before implementation. The definitions of
desired behaviors and the rewards may be negotiated; the structure
generally not. The program should include:
A. Identification of Behavioral Goals -
1. specific and precisely defined.
"Pick up your room" is too vague and
invites confusion for both parent and child as to whether a reward has
been earned or not. The vagueness may also make the goal seem
unachievable, since it has no specific, easily understood limits.
You must be able to define goals precisely in language your child can understand.
Example: Keeping his/her own room clean. The level of the
child's participation should be age-appropriate. Results don't have to
be and probably should not be "adult-perfect". You can coach,
but don't boss.
|*Before bedtime, pick up everything off the floor and
bed that "does not belong there", including clothing (goes in
the hamper, closet, on clothing hooks, etc.), toys (goes on the shelf,
in the closet, on your table, etc).
*Major spills or mud tracks get
cleaned up when they occur (whatever else you were planning to
*What does "does not
belong there" mean? Let's write it down.
*Every Saturday morning,
change the sheets on your bed and sweep or vacuum (with help, if needed
for younger children).
2. age appropriate.
First of all, remember, please - children under the age of 7 are
supposed to spend their time playing, not working! Introduce
"chores" in a gradual and age-appropriate fashion, based not
only on cognitive but more importantly on emotional maturity! A very
young child cannot be expected to produce results that even slightly
resemble those of an adult in completeness or accuracy.
Adult help to achieve a goal is OK. A three-year-old
child may be able to pick up toys and clothing (not every time you ask,
not very completely, and not very well), but not effectively
clean up more serious messes, run a vacuum, or change bed linen by
themselves. Mom or Dad can pitch in with younger children, so they are
getting the job done together. This also allows room for modeling to
take place; children generally have a desire to take over behaviors they
see adults doing. It is especially useful if "clean-up-time"
is observed by everyone together.
3. as few as possible.
Inclusion in a behavioral plan should be limited to
behaviors involving safety, socialization, personal hygiene (including
sleeping and eating behavior), and other core living skills, and only if
your child does not seem to be acquiring them through modeling,
instruction, or normal maturation. Too many target behaviors confuse the
child and make success unlikely.
It's OK to say (when it's the truth) that some things
are only for grownups, but it's not OK to say you have to do this but
your sister does not, as long as the requirements are age-appropriate.
And consider what you are modeling for the child when you do the
"grownup things" you do. Comparison with other families is a
bit stickier. It is not unreasonable to consider whether guidelines
adapted by other families with whom the child is familiar may be
modifiable to be acceptable in your family too. Remember, your child has
a point of view that has some merit and should be considered, no matter
what his/her age. In the end, of course, you make the decisions.
B. Motivational Analysis - This is one of the most difficult parts of the
program. What can you use as a reward for performance of the goal
The ideal reward
1.) is something valued by your child.
This seems obvious enough, but settling on a few
ideal rewards involves some thought. Make a list of everything your
child enjoys and you believe he/she will make an effort to obtain.
Brainstorm - put down everything, big and small! And don't forget to
involve your child in making the list. A trip to get ice cream, a hug,
staying up an extra hour, a special new toy, a favorite snack, miniature
golf, going to the movies, renting a movie he/she picks out, a story at
bedtime; how many can you think of? Think of small, immediate rewards
that can be given easily and often, and big ones that can be given only
once in a while.
Consider that the use of material rewards may result in
an unhealthy situation in the case of snacks (and regular meals should
never be contingent on performance), and piles of devalued junk in the
case of toys, such that the reward loses its effect. (Note: subsitutes
or symbols, such as red, gold, or silver stars, or your initials on a
chart, may be used in small increments as proxies for tangible rewards.)
Money is generally an unsuitable reward for behavioral management.
Outside of a small allowance given regardless of behavior (just like
meals), children should learn that money is earned in exchange for goods
or services of real value.
Now - sit down with your child and ask them to put
the rewards in order of value. If they have a good number concept, you
can have them assign values to the choices (e.g., scale of one to ten).
Pick out a couple of small, immediate rewards that can be given
frequently, a couple of medium-size rewards for once a day, and a couple
of big rewards for once a week. Establishing more than one in each
category allows some variety; it's more effective.
2. can be given frequently in small amounts.
At the start of the program, small rewards earned
often for relatively easy-to-manage behavior will allow your child to
get started. Small, frequent rewards prevent a cycle of failure. For
example, if your child never gets as far as earning a once-a-day reward,
the system will fail rapidly. Children with ADHD or other severe
behavioral disturbances generally need some kind of reward as often as
every ten minutes. This is where tokens, stars, or the like are really
necessary. (We used to use M&M's or cookies in the state hospital
where I once worked; but a steady sweets diet is not a good choice).
Once a steady record of good performance is achieved, the small,
frequent rewards can be phased out. These small incremental rewards
should always be accompanied by a smile, encouraging words, or a quick
3. is relevant to the behavior you are trying to
encourage. This is not always possible, but adds to the overall
effectiveness of the plan.
* A child who succeeds in keeping his/her room neat
can earn a new toy, a desired item of clothing, or something to decorate
the room, such as a bedspread or a poster. The connection is that the
new item won't just be adding to a mess.
* A child who achieves improved table manners (as
precisely defined and age-appropriate, remember!) gets to choose the
desert item for the next evening.
* A child who brushes his/her teeth properly and gets
ready for bed and into bed by the designated time gets to select a story
4. is NOT something that has been taken away so it
can be given back as a reward.
Taking away something that is the agreed
property of the child should only be done when the item is being used in
a manner that is clearly offensive by common standards, inappropriate,
or objectively dangerous. (Forced sharing is a related topic, but
outside the scope of this article. In short, it is not recommended.)
Otherwise, confiscation of a child's property
is a punishment, and is not a part of the system presented here. Such
action functions primarily as punishment, and focuses
the child's attention on an undesirable past event and the undesirable
behavior associated with it. A good program focuses your child's
attention on a good thing that can happen in the future, and the
desirable behavior associated with that outcome.
C. Formal Structure and Schedule
Once the first two components are in place, don't
improvise! Use a large calendar with enough blank space to make a chart
for planning and rewarding the goal behavior(s). Write the behavioral
goals in an appropriate place for each day or week. The weekly goal
might be defined as achievement of daily goals for all seven days. If
you have a child who has attentional or impulsivity problems, you may
need to distribute a token reward frequently during the day, and record
a numerical score for number of tokens earned, rather than achievement
of all-or-none daily goal. Reward earned is then recorded for each day
and each week.
A variation of this structure, if you are using token
rewards, is to allow the carryover of tokens from one week into the next
week. Tokens can be stars pasted on the chart, or can be actual tickets
or poker chips given to the child or placed into a special box. Keep the
chart where your child can see the results, and make sure he/she
understands the system and what the results mean.
III. Additional Comments
A. "Bad Marks"
It is unnecessary to use "negative" rewards
to indicate failure to achieve a goal. "Bad marks" denoting
performance of unwanted behavior focuses the child's attention on the
bad behavior, and especially on the emotions that generally motivate
such bad behavior; and they do not add to the program's success.
B. Teaching your child not to do something
If the problems revolve around destructive or
inappropriate behavior, one of the goals (not the only one) can
be the child's ability to refrain from the specified behavior for a
defined period of time. This must be accompanied by the establishment of
desirable substitute behavior(s) as part of the program. A timer with an
alarm to signal intervals, frequent rewards and short goal intervals
(gradually increased), and the child's ability to read a clock are
requirements for such a program.
C. Emotional disturbance and intractible bad behavior
Violent, destructive behavior and tantrums are
generally a signal that a child has psychological problems that are
deeper than just failure to learn good behaviors. These behaviors
indicate that your child may be feeling insecure in his/her family
situation and with his primary caregivers. He/she may have been exposed
to more stress or emotional arousal than he/she is able to manage, or
may be dealing with fears of loss of or separation from their primary
attachment figures, such as Mom or Dad, or some other person to whom
they look for feelings of emotional and physical security. Such problems
are sometimes called attachment disorders, and are beyond the scope of
this article. An improvement in behavior brought about by a behavior
management program may reduce the child's distress if it helps the child
have better interpersonal relationships, but may not do the whole job. A
mental health professional specializing in emotional problems of young
children can help you and your child if this is the case.
D. Explanations are Good
Explaining to your child why he/she should or should
not do things is an important part of even the most mechanical
behavioral program. Before you address these issues, however, make sure
you have a credible explanation that will make sense to your child!
"Pick up your room because Daddy gets very upset when he sees a
mess" is not so good. "Keep your toys off the floor or they
will get broken and we won't buy you replacements" and "Put
your clothes in the hamper or they won't get washed and you won't have
clothes to wear" is much more effective!
E. Real Life Consequences
Real life consequences are nature's perfect behavior
management program. When you can safely allow your child to experience
the consequences of his/her actions, assisted by appropriate empathy and
explanation, you will provide for a natural improvement in behavior. Two
examples are given in D., above. When these consequences are
incorporated into a behavior management program, it is more likely to
produce good results.
F. Using Behavioral Techniques to Reduce Unwanted
Some years ago, I worked at a state institution,
sort of free-lancing with behavioral problems when requested by other staff
members. Joanne, one of the teachers, had a pupil named Michael, whom she
saw once a day. Michael was fourteen years old, and possibly autistic -- or
displayed some of the symptoms. He had trouble with language, and would
often resort to pulling or otherwise physically "manipulating" his
respondent or companion when thus frustrated. He tested below normal in
all components of the WISC except spatial relations, in which he was well above
Michael's Cookie: Teaching delay of gratification with a simple reinforcement schedule.
During Joanne's teaching sessions,
Michael would often request a cookie, and could become quite violent if he
didn't get one right away, doing damage to the room and hitting his teacher.
I wired a light to a timer with big minute and second hands, so that the
light stayed on until the measured period was over. We set the timer for
one minute, and told Michael that each time he asked for a cookie, he had to hit
the button turning on the mechanism, and wait until the light went out; then he
would get his cookie. He was fascinated by this, and quietly watched the
light until it went out. Joanne explained to Michael that he could also
tell how the passage of time was progressing by watching the big clock on the
wall. Michael stopped watching the light exclusively, and watched the
We increased the time in one minute
intervals to five minutes, at which point we increased the interval in units of
five minutes. At ten minutes, Joanne insisted that Michael work on his
lesson while the light was on. This occasioned some temporary upset, but the
"price increase" held. At twenty minutes, we stopped using the light,
and started giving Michael two cookies and a rest period at the end of each
successful interval. Eventually, we got the interval up to one hour, and Michael
was quite content to get a small bag of cookies to eat whenever he wanted, some
right away, some later. His studies progressed from that point, and he
learned to tell time after a fashion.