Are you a positive discipline disciple? If so, you’re going to love today’s post!
Another of my blogging buddies, Amanda from Not Just Cute, is stepping in while I continue on maternity leave and she’s sharing a wonderful method for dealing with problem behaviors in a positive and effective manner… And make sure you don’t miss the extra-helpful printable for trying the techniques out in your home.
If you’ve been a reader here for a while, then you probably recognize Amanda – she’s my go-to parenting resource. Her blog on intentional whole child development is a fantastic resource for parents and I highly recommend you visit (and bookmark) it today!
“I’ve told him a million times!”
It’s an exasperated complaint I’ve heard frequently from both parents and teachers of young children. They’ve corrected a behavior again and again, and yet it persists. The only change that seems to be occurring is the increase in the adults’ blood pressure!
It seems like willful disobedience. (Or at best, a frustrating case of amnesia.)
But let’s take a look at a few things that will change your perspective and help you make actual progress when you find yourself in a similar situation.
First, a little perspective.
What has it been like for you to change your own behaviors? Personally, I know I’ve been told “a million times” that all I have to do to get into the best shape of my life is to hit the gym at 5 am and stop hitting the chocolate chips at 5 pm.
Simple, right? I mean, I have been told “a million times”, so I should just be able to do it.
But for some reason, I’m quick to hit the snooze on my alarm and slow to put down the chocolate when that familiar craving hits.
I’m sure each of you can relate. Whether it’s the gym, chocolate, nicotine, late night TV, or that extra slice of pizza after you swore you were done, it’s hard for us to change behaviors that have become routine, powerfully reinforced by familiarity and repetition.
And we adults are the ones with the fully developed pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that helps us make good decisions. Ours are fully developed, and we struggle anyway.
Children, however, are still in the process of developing this important area of the brain. (Scientists believe it’s not fully developed until about age 20.) This is the region of the brain that is used when kids are working to navigate social conflicts, communicate their feelings, control their impulses, and make moral judgments about their behavior.
Knowing what to do is only half the battle. Doing what you know takes significantly more skills. It demands impulse control and kids are often in short supply. It requires functions in an area of the brain that is still taking shape.
That doesn’t mean kids can’t change their behavior. They certainly can. But it takes time, work, and patience.
So what can you do?
Making changes to the environment and the cues that come from it are an important – and often overlooked – part of changing habitual behaviors. Change takes our brains off of auto-pilot and gives us space to really think and make a better choice.
Years ago, as my father-in-law was teaching a parenting class, a mother came to him asking him how to fix her son’s behavior. She reported that every day her son would come home from school, slam the door, throw his books on the table, and then the two would start arguing.
My father-in-law surprised her when he suggested that perhaps SHE could be the one to make changes first. It was HER changes that would then change her son’s behavior pattern.
“What would happen if you met him at the door? He couldn’t slam it. What if you had a snack waiting on the table? He probably wouldn’t throw his books there. What if you sat with him and asked him about his day? Maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to jump into an argument.”
The outcome may not always be idyllic (though in this example, the mom reported that those changes worked like a charm), but the main point was that changing the environment and the routine created an opening for changing behaviors.
C.A.R.E. Enough to Change
Habits create their own reinforcing loop made up of cues, behavior, and feedback (usually some form of reward). So to change habits, we have to get out in front of the actual behavior and recognize what the triggers or cues might be.
The system I use to record and think critically about what’s really behind challenging behaviors is described by the acronym CARE. Rather than focusing only on the undesirable behavior, this system helps you to examine the possible Causes, the Action itself, the Responses the behavior elicits, and the Expectations that play a role in the situation.
It may take some time (though you may realize it’s been staring you in the face all along) but as you record your observations with a system like this, clear behavior patterns begin to emerge. Once you know where, when, or how your child’s behaviors are being cued up, you can step in to disrupt that habitual response.
Do meltdowns always seem to occur around 2:00? Maybe your child’s cue is a physical one – hunger or fatigue. Being proactive with a snack or some quiet down time earlier in the afternoon could change the habitual cycle you’ve been observing.
Does the biting always pop up when your child is after a toy? Be proactive by teaching social scripts like this one. Be on the lookout as your child plays, stepping in to coach as you see your child moving in for a toy.
Is there a point in the bedtime routine where it always seems to fall apart? Switch things up. Change the order of the tasks or add something new. For our family, it was the habitual requests for one more item as soon as my husband and I tried to extricate ourselves from the room. So we made a change by adding bedtime baskets to our routine. Worked beautifully!… See also Jillian’s MPMK guest post on a new kind of bed-time routine and quiet-time activities to go along with it.
None of these responses is prescriptive; each is an example of how the principle of disruptive change can break habits and help children overcome their impulses. How that principle gets applied will vary based on what you learn from your CARE observations.
For me, disruptive change meant moving my alarm clock to a different spot. By the time I got across my room, headed for that snooze button, I was reminded by the change in location (and my strategically placed running shoes nearby) that I really DID want to go exercise rather than hit the snooze as I was prone to do by automation.
(As for the chocolate chips….well, since I’m sitting here with an open bag, let’s just say I’m still working on that one.)
Amanda Morgan is a full time mom to four busy boys and a part-time trainer and consultant for a non-profit children’s organization. She writes about intentional whole child development on her blog, Not Just Cute.