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Positive prevention strategies can decrease a child's behaviors

Positive prevention strategies can decrease a child's behaviors

Do you have a child with challenging behavior? Do you avoid certain activities or situations because you are not sure how your child will behave? Do you find yourself yelling a lot, and then feeling guilty about yelling?

While major behavior change can be a slow process (just remember the last time you tried to make that New Year’s exercise resolution stick), there are a few basic things you can do now to get you and your child back on the right track.


Do set reasonable expectations for your child

Some children can follow simple directions without any help, while other children need us to guide or teach them. A 5 year old may be able to sit at the dinner table for 15 to 20 minutes, but a 2 year old can’t. In addition to behaviors that are common for children at a specific age, every child has his or her own personality and needs. Make a goal that is a good one for your child.

If you want your children to do something they are not doing right now, start off by making sure that what you want is reasonable, given your child’s age and personality. Then come up with that goal in a specific, straight-forward way. For example, Kenneth will say please and thank you when he is asking adults for items that he wants.

Do tell your child exactly what you expect

Often, parents assume their children know what they should do. But we forget to tell them what we want them to do. Using age-appropriate language, you should tell every child what your positive target is. For example, “you need to use gentle hands” or “if you don’t want this, say no thank you.” Instead of saying, “don’t jump on the couch,” we should say “please sit nicely” or “jump only on the trampoline.”

Do give your child positive attention for good behavior

If we forget to pay attention to children when they do what we ask them, they will find other ways to get our attention. Even if what they do is not perfect, make sure you notice their attempts to do the right thing. The positive statements should outnumber negative or corrective statements about 4 to 1. This means that for every “stop”, “don’t” or “what did I tell you to do?”, there should be at least four smiles, pats on the back or positive statements. For example, remember to say, “thanks,” “good job,” “nice waiting” or “I like how you asked nicely.”

Do figure out why your children are doing what they are doing

All behavior--good and bad--serves a purpose. Children do not tantrum without a reason. When you are watching your 3-year-old son throw a major fit, step back and ask why did he do that?”

Most behavior happens for one of four reasons: A child wants something he does not have; a child wants to end/avoid something she does not want to do; a child wants attention; or the behavior feels good because a child is seeking sensory input.

So why is he or she tantrumming? Maybe she wanted a cookie. Maybe he was ready for grocery shopping to be done. Maybe she is trying to get you to react because sometimes bad attention is almost as good as good attention. And sometimes a tantrum is related to a sensory problem (a child is overtired, this activity is just one too many, or there is too much noise or too many people). Once you know why a specific behavior happens, you will be able to start thinking about a solution.

Do teach new skills

When you have ideas about why a challenging behavior is happening, you will have some thoughts about what your child should do instead. If she wants something, teach better ways to ask. If he wants to end or avoid something, how could he let you know that? If a situation is too noisy or crowded, can she ask for a break or find a quiet place? New skills will include communication skills (speech or gestures), replacement behaviors (playing with a toy while waiting for something to end) and coping skills (ways to get yourself calm when you are upset).


Do not set unachievable goals for your child

Think about what your child is able to do right now and set a goal that is just a little bit higher. Do not set goals so high that your child will never succeed. If you set goals too high, both you and your child will be frustrated. You may see more problem behaviors when your child is frustrated, and you will be more likely to give up if you don’t see changes in your child.

Do not make every instruction a “don’t” statement

When children do something we don’t like, it is easy to get drawn into giving corrections. But too often, parents spend a lot of time telling children, “don’t shout”, “don’t hit” and “don’t throw.” Instead, tell your children what they should do instead, such as “use a quiet voice”, “use gentle hands” or “treat toys gently.”

Do not focus more attention on bad behaviors than on good behaviors

Think of the last time your child was playing quietly. Did you pay attention or did you think, “Whew! He is quiet!” and then start doing something else? We all have done this. But then, when your child cried or yelled, or you heard a toy crash, did you go running in?

Each time we do this, our children learn that the best way to get a parent (or another caregiver) to pay attention is to do something bad. And if you have more than one child, you might find yourself ping-ponging between children as they compete for a parent’s attention.

Do not give up too quickly

Bad behavior is like any bad habit: It takes some time for behavior to change. Learning new habits will take time. So when you start making changes, be patient. Try any new behavior strategy for at least one week to give it a chance to work.

Do not be too hard on yourself

When your child is not behaving well, or is not doing things that other children are doing, it is easy to blame yourself. All parents have things that they can do better, and all children have days that are challenging. But you can take small, consistent steps to making things better. As you get a better understanding of your child’s behavior, you will be better able to build new, positive habits.

Jumping cartoon

Teaching positive behaviors and decreasing challenging behaviors can seem daunting. But with a few changes to your approach, you can achieve real change. Don’t get bogged down in negative behaviors, yelling or punishment. Instead, focus on teaching new skills, giving children positive attention and gradually helping children learn the behaviors you want them to have.

More expert advice about Tackling Family Problems and Conflict

Photo Credits: mother and son by Tobias Koepe via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Susan Izeman, PhD, BCBA-DBoard Certified Behavior Analyst

Susan Izeman has been working with children and adults with Autism and related disorders for more than 30 years. Sue has worked with children as young as not quite 2 and with adults in their 20s and 30s. Sue is a Board Certified Behavior Analy...

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