Updated: Apr 11
A behavior happens; we respond. It happens again; we respond again. It KEEPS happening - and, we keep responding. Over time, the child learns to repeat the very behavior we don't want, because it is the behavior that gets our attention.
There is a way to stop the cycle.
Over the last twenty years of doing parent education, working with early childhood educators, studying child development, and observing my own girls as they were "cared" into adulthood by our village of early educators and teachers - I have seen time and again the strategy that works better than any other to turn this pattern around...
*Catch them Being Good!
because... "What you focus on will grow." Stephen Covey
I have literally observed children with challenging behaviors (and entire classrooms) change from disruptive to cooperative with this one strategy!
Read this short article and watch the fun video: Naptime Nugget #33: Intentional Reinforcement: Grow happy, successful, & well-behaved kids to explore ways to help increase positive reinforcement to grow happy, successful, & well-behaved kids.
We must fight our natural instinct to notice the negative You may have noticed, if you say, "JOHNNY! Sit down so your friends can see."... three more friends pop to standing (tripling your issue). Or you instruct, "Stop running!" only to have the toddler turn it into a not so fun game of catch? I remember, every time I needed to get something done, my daughters would magically start fighting! Unfortunately, my first responses in all of these cases did not work very well and the refusals and fighting continued... And then, I discovered one major reason why!
*The last thing the child does before you respond, is the behavior that gets reinforced.
This means... if a brother fights with his sister and Dad comes in, over time they will naturally fight more when needing his attention. If a child runs away and you say, "Stay by me and you can have a sucker," you have just rewarded the running and increased the likelihood the child will run in the future! If a child refuses to eat dinner and receives Mom's focus, attention, and pressure to eat, this behavior will increase! And, for young kiddos, it does not necessarily matter if your response is positive or negative. Our youngest value and love all the attention you will give them!
Even after I learned this important fact, I still found it easier to respond when children misbehaved. I learned this is because, as humans - we naturally wired to scan for and respond to threats (a child is not listening or fighting, for example.) In the past, this focus on threat kept us safe and alive. However, if you care for young children, it can actually result in an increase in negative behavior!
The good news? We can train our brains to reinforce the good moments and promote the behaviors we want, reducing those we don't. For this week's blog, we look at how to successfully turn negative behaviors around using your specific attention (the thing kids love most!) In the video and blog,
Tie their behavior with results. What behaviors do you want to see? Start to notice the behavior and link it to the results the child and others experience. "You are helping load groceries into the bag - we are such a team! This makes me so happy!" "You gave your brother a toy, look at that smile on his face! Note many good things the child does and say out loud to another person or even an object "Look how helpful Mary is being! She really is a great helper!" This will ensure the positive behavior you are looking for grows through your intentional kind attention. I talk more about this and how to apply it to different scenarios in the video above.
This method will also reduce stress! Reinforcing good behavior will lead to happy kids as well as take some of the stress out of your day! But, this method will take active thinking, listening and watching. It helps to plan your words ahead of time and apply it to one scenario a week (choose a behavior that challenges you!) Also, identify a specific time you will be on the lookout for positive behaviors.
Be intentional about who you praise. Remember, it is easy to praise the well-behaved child. But, consider one important question: WHO NEEDS PRAISE THE MOST? The child who has no trouble sitting still, following directions, and controlling impulses... or the one who is struggling? Do you need praise when something comes easy for you? NO! It is when we struggle we need encouragement the most. So, make sure to use this strategy with the children having difficulty.
Let's look at a few scenarios where adults have found success with this method:
Scenario 1: Circle Time
Imagine you are at circle time and everyone is getting situated and settling in to listen to a book you are about to read. This is a perfect time to say something like "Look how great you are sitting! I am so excited you are all listening so nicely, it makes me so happy!" Once, when one of my little friends got up at circle, I said excitedly, "Thank you for sitting!" He promptly sat down like a lightening bolt - made me smile.
Did you know you can even provide encouragement and gain cooperation by turning to a co-worker or even an inanimate object and say "It's so neat - Johnny is going to sit in circle today, I am so excited he is going to do that." It seems strange, I know, but it really does work because he has just heard your expectations of him in a positive way and will have difficulty resisting! Have you ever had someone who really believed in you? Did you behave better for them... of course! It is difficult to let somebody down who expresses faith in you.
Scenario 2: Getting in the Car Seat
A parent shared she was getting ready to head out and, just about when they were to the car, her child started refusing to get in her car seat. So, the mom turns to the car (yes, the car!) and actually says "Oh, Mr. Car this is so exciting, my daughter is going to get right in her car seat today." And guess what, SHE DID!
Scenario 3: Snack Time
Snack time is always exciting and it's not uncommon that children get a bit squirrelly. Typical scenario - Adult is getting the snacks ready as quickly as possible and the kids are trying their best to sit at the table for snack. In a multiage group that includes toddlers, the children will last about 30 seconds before they start to get bored and misbehave. If they start to get too antsy, avoid noticing the negative behavior and instead say something like "I am so happy my friends are sitting nice! Thank you!" "You are calmly sitting and waiting - that makes me feel so good!" Or, you can even engage asking, "Who wants to help!"
At the end of the day, children really do need a lot of our attention and it is important that they receive it in a positive and reinforcing way. Get excited about how well they are sitting, listening, or cleaning up their toys and you will show them that they can get their attention needs met without resorting to misbehavior. This will encourage better behavior, cooperation, and better listening skills. Remember, the "Catch'em Being Good" method takes time and practice, so try it out many times in different situations this week and see where it works best for you!
If we make make sure to intentionally reinforce the behavior we truly desire, we will build a wonderful relationship and foster important life skills while we reduce negative behaviors. Can you say, "WORTH IT!" :)
Thank you for all you do. Over time, and with your guidance, love, and understanding, young children will learn to follow the rules and take positive action to get their needs met. What you do makes a difference!