When I first became a therapist, I worked in a handful of hospitals, day treatment centers and school settings that implemented behavior modification systems. I think it is just as important to notice what works as well as pick up on why a system might not be effective. In my experience, it is important to have a system that is balanced. One that looks at stopping negative behavior all the while shaping positive behavior that you want to see.
Systems that focus on praise alone will miss the opportunity of teaching a child self discipline and natural consequences. Reflectively, systems that focus on punishing negative behavior or discipline alone miss the chance to build up the child and help him strive for positive behavior. Avoiding punishment is not the same as an internalized locus of control. Click here to read part one of this blog that focuses on developing a level system for disruptive negative behaviors.
I Just Wish my Child Would...
All parents know that feeling. It is the exact moment when you look at your partner and say, "When did things get so out of control? I never thought I'd raise a child who..." In that moment you know...it is time for a change and it needs to happen NOW.
Every time my husband and I decide to do a behavior shaping plan we inevitably ask each other why we waited so long to do it. Shaping behavior really works, if there is already consistency with a good solid level system that tackles negative behavior AND if love and respect for the children are maintained at all times too.
The Art of Shaping Behavior
So what is behavior shaping anyway? Shaping takes a desired behavior and makes certain that it is practiced enough times over the course of a week or two to make it become a routine behavior. The best way to shape positive behavior is by first identifying ONE behavior at a time to shape.
Although you may get the urge to start all over with your children and overhaul your entire parenting plan, it is only recommended to pick one behavior at a time to shape and keep it POSITIVE!
Say the kids are not listening and argue too much. The behavior to aim for is not "stop sassing" a better goal might sound like, "follow directions the first time asked". Maybe you are tired of cleaning up after the children. A goal might be "find ways to be helpful. Each helpful task that you initiate earns you a link."
What is a Link & How Can it Change my Child's Behavior?
Remember those links you made out of construction paper as a child? I have memories of cutting colorful paper into strips, creating a link, connecting the links together and then wrapping them around my Christmas tree. Links are great because they are so visual. These are the same links that work for shaping behavior.
How Does it Work?
After you choose the desired behavior AND measurable one step goal, look for times your child is doing it and reward him with a link. Have your child be on the look out for these behaviors too. Having your child point out that he did the goal is a GREAT way for him to scan his environment and look for ways to behave.
Begin to hang these links from a low 8' ceiling. Link after link of good behavior begins to make it's way to the floor. When the entire chain touches the ground (make it happen in less than a week), something wonderful happens. Make sure you determine what this will be beforehand. It could be an outing to the neighborhood ice cream shop, a small toy or extra privilege. Make it enticing, but not expensive.
"What if my Child Does NOT Do it? Do I Take Away a Link?"
Nope. Never take away a link that has already been earned. This is why it is important to have a level system already in place AND to use your own creativity and parent coaching skills. Misbehavior gets the time out, etc, but positive behavior connects to links.
This approach is collaborative and takes you and your child working together to make this work. Let's say your child's link goal is to follow directions the first time time asked. It is now bedtime and you told her to brush her teeth. She whines about wanting to watch more tv and does not go upstairs. You remind her a second time with a calm, sincere, "Stink. You could have earned a link. Maybe you will remember when it is time to put on your jammies."
Working together is key here. If all of your re-directing tools are punitively based, and you do not try to cheer her on, like a parent coach, chances are the plan will not work. It takes your child, but it also takes you wanting her to succeed and do a good job. Reminding your child that she can earn more links another time will help her not give up and sit in failure.
Nobody Likes to Fail...Not You & Not Your Child
When children reach the failure stage and feel like a really bad kid, they usually quit. If your child has quit, he will probably sabotage the good things, rip down the links, swear and say means things when you try to reward. Failure is tough to fight against. This is why I say NEVER pull down a link once it is earned. Do not take away stars from a star chart. These things they did well...these things do not need to be discounted. Finding a way to creativity get your child to want to behave is key. Making them feel like you are a team and that you WANT them to succeed is huge.
Remember: Disciplining a Child is Not Easy!
It takes tweaking and tweaking and tweaking yet again...and all of the time. Children develop and change at a rapid rate. The older they get, the more they are exposed to the world. When your children are stuck in rut of bad behavior, it is not necessary for you to go to that place of failure either. Realizing that children are supposed to get stuck and misbehave and that it is normal for any parent to feel overwhelmed can help empower you to find your path and to maybe even start cutting out links.
Gabrielle Anderson is the owner of and therapist at the Family Center if Northern Virginia, llc. She sees children as young as three through adulthood.
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