Effective discipline: changing your child's behavior

Filed under: Development/Milestones: Babies, In The News

At some point or another, every parent comes up against a misbehaving offspring. This might look like a full fledged tantrum: with a drop-to-the floor, sack-of-potatoes limp body of a small child who is wailing at the top of her lungs. Or it might be a whining kiddo who is adamantly refusing to do as he was asked.

Either way, misbehaving is a natural and important part of childhood. Children explore boundaries and develop self control, by testing their parents. But oy, it takes patience, persistence, and perhaps a quick history lesson on the parenting practices of the past fifty years to be most effective at guiding your child through this inevitable part of growing up.

When buttons get pushed some parents either react emotionally to their child's bad behavior: responding to a child's tantrum in kind with explosive yelling and even hitting. Other parents might respond to the same situation analytically: rationalizing and explaining in a calm manner.

But according to Slate.com's Alan E. Kazdin, both of these parenting approaches "have one important thing in common: They're likely to be ineffective in changing the unwanted behavior."

While these different approaches have different side effects (kids who are yelled at and hit at home are more likely to use these strategies to solve problems with their peers than those who are not) they are both ineffective methods for changing behavior because they both "embody our natural tendency to fixate on unwanted behavior and unwittingly reinforce it by giving it a lot of attention-and then persist in trying either to punish or to talk it into oblivion, both of which almost never work."

It is of course meaningful and necessary for children to understand their behavior and how it has logical consequences. But a greater understanding of how or why a child misbehaved is unlikely to stop the child from misbehaving. "Understanding is not a strong path to changing behavior," Kadzin says.

Basically, focusing on the negative--rationally or irrationally --only gets you more negative behavior.

Do you ever find yourself falling into this trap?

It's easy to do. Especially when your three year old is hammering your brain into mush by doing every possible annoying thing before you've had you're first cup of coffee--as mine was inclined to do this morning. He seriously had my number from the minute he woke up, and our interactions were basically one big parade of negative reinforcement and negative responses ("I've already told you twice, stop jumping on the bed, yelling really loudly, whining, etc...next time it's a time out.")

And while it is ridiculously easy to slip into this mode of response, especially when lacking coffee, it is also fairly easy to reroute onto a more effective course. "Fortunately, science does tell us how to change behavior and how explanation can be used most effectively," Kadzin tells us.

How can you be more effective at changing your child's behavior? Focus on what you want your child to do, rather than what you want your child to stop doing. Instead of saying "Stop yelling and jumping on the bed" I'd be more effective, and likely get my coffee sooner if I'd said "Go find your Truck book and 'read' it quietly in an indoor voice."

As a teacher this approach is the cornerstone of my approach to classroom managment. I regularly tell kids to do the positive opposite of negative behaviors I see. And I'm always redirecting by telling kiddos what I am looking for, as opposed to what I am not, while at the same time looking for opportunities to praise positive behaviors in action ("I see so many writers with their feet on the floor and their voices off...")

Now, if I can only remember to apply this strategy at home before 7a.m...

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.