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Using a Behavior Management Program at Home
2003  Edward Loewenton  Please read copyright notice.

A Behavioral Management Program should be considered a last resort for helping a child substitute desirable behavior for undesirable behavior. Behavior that should be rewarding to do for its own sake, or because the child's important attachment figures approve of it and do it themselves, may be rather fragile if the child has acquired it for rewards unrelated to the behavior itself.

Modeling Adults' Behavior
Children learn best by watching adults to whom they have a positive emotional attachment (generally Mom and Dad), and modeling their behavior accordingly. In a stable, emotionally healthy, loving family where at least one parent or primary caregiver is consistently emotionally available, a child will behave the way their caregivers do. It is then up to the caregivers to set a consistent, positive example, and whenever possible, include the child at a developmentally appropriate level in the desirable behaviors.

For example: neatness and cleanliness can be taught by letting the young child participate in housecleaning, doing dishes, etc, when the grownups do it, at whatever level of ability the child is capable of. Securely attached children will usually want to do what they see the adults doing. When there are things the adults do that the child is clearly not ready for, the child can be given a "children's edition" of the activity for "their very own". This is, among other things, what toys are for. In this way, children can still participate with the adults. When a child has aquired some verbal skills, explanation of the reasons for doing something because it is necessary for health, safety, etc., or not doing something until he/she is older, or because it is harmful to himself or others, has great value. Note that these explanations should be given in calm moments, should be consistent and logical, and benefit from repetition.


"Good/Bad Child" vs "Good/Bad Behavior"
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 undesirable behavior.

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 outcome.

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

These must be
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 do). 
*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.

4. fair.
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 behaviors? 

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 hug.

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.

Examples:
* 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 to hear.

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 Behavior: 
     Michael's Cookie: Teaching delay of gratification with a simple reinforcement schedule. 

      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 normal.

     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 clock, too.

     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.

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