Behavior Tips and Tricks for ParentsJanuary 26, 2024 by Brian Eichert, Psy.D.
One of the most common challenges I encounter in my practice is supporting parents in their journey to effectively navigate difficult behaviors. While there are many parents in the world working hard to manage behaviors, there’s no playbook that outlines exactly how parents should parent, which makes the job ever more challenging. The good news is that there are some evidence-based practices on effective behavior management that could significantly improve behaviors in the home with just small, simple changes.
Every behavior has a function. The question that comes to most of our minds when a child does something we do not like or approve of is often, “Why?!” The good news is that there is always a reason why; the less good news is that kids might not know why they are doing what they are doing, especially in the moment. Consistent with behavior theory and principles of applied behavior analysis, every behavior has a function, which is typically one of the following: to get attention (attention-seeking), access something preferred, escape, or self-soothe/stimulate in a sensory way.
It’s not personal. Most times, when a child engages in a behavior that is targeted or hurtful in some way, it can feel very personal. But the majority of the time, it’s not personal. It is simply trying to meet one of those four functions that underlie every behavior.
Behavior can be shaped. When we are confronted with challenging behavior, it can be very frustrating and overwhelming. Oftentimes it is disruptive, hurtful, stressful, and can become unmanageable. But behavior is something that can be changed and shaped with intervention, such as reinforcement. Reinforcement is the process of doing something to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur again and is most effective when it is consistent with the function of a behavior. For example, reinforcement for a child who is calling out to get attention might include getting positive praise (attention) for sitting quietly or reaching out appropriately. What is also important to know about reinforcement is that it is most effective when it is connected to a specific behavior and is delivered in a timely manner. So instead of praising a child for “being good,” it would be more effective to praise a child for the specific behavior they are engaging in that is good, such as using kind words or having a safe body (as two examples). This also helps to explain why sometimes rewards for behavior that occur just one time a day or at the end of the week might not be meaningful or effective, because they are too far away.
Redirection. It is inevitable that children are going to engage in disruptive behavior. So a helpful tip to best manage that is to expect it. When we expect it, we are able to approach it in a much calmer and more grounded way than when we are surprised or caught off guard. Additionally, it is helpful to remember that when we do offer a redirection, we keep it clear, concise, and consistent. Going into long lectures about behavior and saying different things at different times are not effective.
Forced Choice. Another effective way to redirect behavior is to provide what is referred to as a “forced choice.” Instead of redirecting a child to a specific behavior, parents provide two options for them to choose between, so it feels as though the control is theirs, but the parents are actually the ones in control. For example, instead of saying, “You need to get up right now,” a parent can say, “I see you are not ready to get up yet. Would you like me to give you one minute or two minutes before I help you? You choose.”
In summary, behavior is something that comes with child development, so we can expect it and approach it with grace and understanding instead of frustration and disappointment. Additionally, every behavior has a function, and we can use that knowledge to reinforce and shape the behavior accordingly.
Brian Eichert, Psy.D.
Dr. Eichert earned his Psy.D. in School Psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. Dr. Eichert specializes in working with children, adolescents, and their families experiencing a variety of concerns including behavioral problems, anxiety, and mood disorders. He also has expertise working with adults experiencing difficultiesView Full Bio