A Powerful Strategy to Improve Behavior Problems

Parent and Child Practicing ABA Therapy in Houston

All kids present with behavior problems periodically – and some of those can really get under our skin over time. However, as parents and teachers, we don’t always address these challenging behaviors in the most effective ways. Often, we end up telling our kids to “stop it” or threatening them with various punitive measures if they don’t. “David, if you don’t stop yelling, you are going to lose video game time!” Um, we might even be yelling at David to stop yelling – not a good example for little David!

As I discussed in my first blog, the relationship is key to kids being receptive to feedback, limits, and even praise. If we have a strong relationship with our kids, they are much more likely to be receptive to what we say and respond positively. So, it is critical to always be reaching out to our kids to try to spend positive time with them to build the relationship.

Now, when our kids do act out or present with challenges, it can be very important to intervene and redirect. But no one likes to be reprimanded for misbehavior, right? Think back to when you were a kid – even when we did misbehave, it didn’t feel good to be reprimanded. How about when our spouse or significant other calls us out for something they don’t like – often that is difficult feedback to take without becoming defensive.

An Alternative to Correcting Misbehavior

Whatever behavior that keeps occurring that you find most frustrating, what is its behavioral opposite? What is it that you want to see? For instance, in the case of little David, if he yells a lot at his sibling, using an inside voice is what we want to hear. If David happens to be in another room with his sibling, we are probably hoping to hear nothing at all! Now, instead of waiting for David to yell…so then we can tell him to stop yelling…listen for his use of an inside voice…particularly in the situations in which he struggles the most.

So, if David his playing with his sibling, William, without any “drama” for a bit, we should be mindful of this and let him know. We could poke our head in the room and say, “David and William, I notice that ya’ll have been playing quietly with one another. I didn’t hear you at all in the other room! I really appreciate how you have been using inside voices.”

This is one version of “catch them for being good.” When I used to work at treatment programs for behaviorally-challenged kids, we would call this “competitive positive behavior.” Sometimes we would give verbal praise to all the kids who were behaving properly before giving a prompt to the child who wasn’t following the rules. For instance, if the direction was to walk in a line behind us, and Jeffrey was out of line clowning around, we might say, “I like the way Aiden, Harrison, Britney, and Jack are walking in a straight line.” Usually, this would be enough of a prompt for Jeffrey to go back in line. At this point we would quickly say something like, “Jeffrey, I really like the way you got back into line! Thanks for listening and following our line rules!”

The Benefits of Praising Competitive Positive Behavior

Here are just a few of the benefits of praising competitive positive behavior:

  1. It feels better to kids to be praised for positive behavior than to be reprimanded for misbehavior.
  2. It is pro-active. We aren’t playing the waiting game to pounce on our kid’s misbehavior.
  3. It is more specific. Telling kids what we don’t want to see doesn’t necessarily tell them what we do want to see.
  4. It serves as a gentle reminder for the behavior we want to see. In the previous example, little David is now more aware of his use of an inside voice. He’s less likely to start yelling because we just praised him…which serves as a reminder…to use an inside voice.

As with anything else, we get better at what we practice. If we practice praising competitive positive behaviors, we will get better at catching them when they happen. Like anything in life, this doesn’t always work. But I can guarantee you that it works at least some of the time – probably a lot of time. With consistent use of this approach, we save both kiddos and ourselves a lot of headaches, frustration, stress, and hurt feelings. Give it a try!

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