Promoting Positive Behavior

 Great ideas for Promoting Positive Behavior in children from PlayDrMom (a child psychologist and mom)
As a parent and a child psychologist I firmly believe in focusing on reinforcing positive behaviors  as opposed to punishing negative ones.  This stems from my knowledge of what behaviorists have studied about human behavior … AND my first hand experience with kids.  Positive reinforcement works … and also helps foster independence, life skills, and self-esteem.  It focuses more on mutual respect than power-differentials.  Punishing (such as time-outs and taking away privileges) works too and it is sometimes needed, but if positive behaviors are reinforced regularly there will be less of a need for the punishments … and in turn less power struggles.

Ways to Reinforce Positive Behaviors

  • Limit Setting – using a consistent plan to set limits for your children can promote better behavior.  Check out my previous post on Limit Setting.
  • PLAY with your kids.  Take time to play with them and let THEM take the lead.  Find some Play Skills for Parents here.
  • Having a Chore Chart to help remind kids of their responsibilities can be another great way to reinforce positive behaviors.  Parents can give rewards for tasks that are completed (see below for ideas for rewards).  The Board Dudes Chore Chart is the best one I have found and it’s what we use at home!

  • Having realistic expectations is a HUGE one.  Many times parents set their children up for poor behavior.  When children people are tired, hungry, un-informed, excluded, overstimulated, understimulated/bored, or ill they tend to get a bit cranky … and undesirable behaviors occur.  Knowing and following your own child’s schedule and limits can help allow positive behaviors to shine through.  Also understanding your child’s own developmental level (not just chronological age) can assist parents in having realistic expectations of their own children.
  • Focus on the positives.  This can be very tricky for parents who are at their wits end with problematic behaviors.  It can also be the key to turning things around.  Many times parents come into my office so focused on all the things that their child is doing wrong … they are blind to all the wondrous parts.  When I feel that the family is trapped in the negative I give them an assignment (that I learned from Scott Riviere, RPT-S).  I give the parents a small memo pad and tell them to write down at least 5 things that their child does right every day.  It could be simple things like … you ate your breakfast, you brushed your teeth, etc.  I instruct the parents to share the list with the child before bedtime every night.  This assignment not only floods the child with positive reinforcement every night … but it also helps the parents shift from focusing on the negative to the positive.

Creating a Positive Behavior Plan 

There are a million ways to do positive behavior plans, picking one that works best for your family/child and your ability to be consistent with it is KEY.  When using a positive behavior plan, it is always best to work on ONE behavior at a time.  Working on too many issues at once can be difficult and stressful for the child.  Another important thing to remember is to CONTINUE the behavior plan for as long as the child wants to continue … even after the behavior is mastered.  This reinforces the positive behavior.  Stopping too early or not being consistent with praise and reward is the most common reason why behavior plans do not work with children.  It also might take a bit of time for the child to get used to the plan … so don’t give up on the plan quickly.  Give it some time … even a few weeks may be necessary… before results are seen.

Behavior plans can be used for any behavior.  Examples are potty training or eliminating hitting/fighting, lying, stealing, talking back, failing to finish homework, pulling out hair (trichotillomania), etc.  If it is a behavior that happens frequently, short increments of time will needed to be measured (such as by the hour or half-day).  For other instances it makes more sense to measure by the day, week, or month.  When the child has mastered a certain amount of time free from doing the undesired behavior the time can then be lengthened.  I describe this to the child as be able to move to the “next level” like in a video game.

Tracking progress can be done in a number of ways … from a simple graph drawn out on paper, to a chart made from a spreadsheet program … to more creative ways like sticker charts and marble or fuzzy jars.

Sticker charts can be just a piece of paper with the goal written on top where the child adds a sticker for each desirable behavior (like each time they use the potty).  Or they can be made into a bar graph … one row for each day of the week, one sticker for each time they completed the desired behavior (like one sticker for each hour they did not talk back to an adult).  This is similar to the way the Chore Chart that is pictured above.  I have also printed out blank calendars and used them to add a sticker for each day the desired behavior was present.

Another way you can track process for behavior plans is to have a Positive Behavior Jar.  For each time the desired behavior is accomplished the child earns a marble or fuzzy/pom pom (like each day you go without arguing with your siblings).  Any type of jar or jug works great … empty and cleaned out Peanut Butter Jars, baby food jars, or Apple Juice containers work well.  Parents should think about the size of the jar and the size of the fuzzy or marble when setting up the plan.  I have used smaller containers when first starting plans and moved to larger jars when the child was ready.  I also have drawn lines on the jars to set certain goals.  I have also used different sized fuzzies to represent different accomplishments.  (For example, in potty training a trying to use the potty = small fuzzy, going pee in the potty = medium fuzzy, and going poop in the potty = a large fuzzy.)

At the onset of starting the Behavior Jar or Sticker Chart it should be clearly communicated what (if any) the reward will be and what exactly will be needed to earn that reward.  For example, the child will earn 1 fuzzy a day for having no accidents and when the jar is full the child will earn a trip to the ice cream store.  It is also of UTMOST importance that once a sticker or fuzzy is earned … it can NOT be taken away.  Don’t ever remove the reinforcement from the child … because then it no longer becomes a positive reinforcement plan.

Rewards for Positive Behaviors 

This can be another area for parents to go astray.  Many parents will aim too high for what types of rewards to give … such as expensive gifts or a trip to Disneyland.  Rewards should be simple and inexpensive.  And they don’t even need to be material things!  Here are some examples of rewards that can be given:

  • a trip to the Dollar Store
  • a new box of crayons
  • sheet of stickers
  • a new book
  • a trip to the playground
  • the ability to choose where to have lunch or dinner
  • make cookies together
  • stay up 10 minutes past bedtime
  • a small toy

Some parents I have worked with create a treasure box that the child can choose something from.  Other times, with older children the reward is larger … such as a video game or an outing … but this is when positive behaviors have been exhibited for a longer time.

Implementing positive behavior strategies in daily family life can not only help eliminate problematic behaviors, but can give children a sense of control and help decrease parental stress.  Verbal praise, simply talking about progress made, and showing the pride you have in your children can go a long way in helping your child’s character development.

I’ve been meaning to write this post on positive behavior plans for awhile … and this week’s MeMe Tales Readathon theme of Character Development nudged me to finally do it.  If you haven’t already signed your kids up, you should go check it out … free eBooks and POSITIVE REINFORCERS to get kids reading!  Also, be sure to check out what other bloggers are linking up for this week’s theme for more great ideas on helping kids develop a strong character.

Join Readathon 2012

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Laura Hutchison

Laura Hutchison (aka PlayDrMom) is a chubby kid turned competitive figure skater tween turned high school pom pon girl turned MSU Spartan turned grad student turned Mrs. HutcH turned Dr. turned Mom. She adores living in the Mitten, is addicted to Diet Coke, and firmly believes that ice cream is a main food group.

Latest posts by Laura Hutchison (see all)

  1. The Iowa Farmer's Wife

    Great post! We do the treasure box and she receives star stickers for chores she does. When she gets to 20 she gets to choose something from the box, but sometimes I’ll say “You have been so helpful (positive, kind, generous, etc) today that you get to choose something from the treasure box.” There are so many great ideas in this post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Susan Case

    Fantastic! Pinning it!

  3. tricia

    Oh- I’ve needed this post. We’ve been traveling and I have completely ruined the routine. Our quarters are cramped and it seems like I’m constantly all over the kids to stop running or jumping (things they normally can do)….today, i bought an outdoor pool and found that they were able to safely expend their energy and it saved all of us from power struggles and tantrums. I hope we can find the balance before it’s time to leave! Naps seem to elude us on this trip! 🙂

  4. JDaniel4's Mom

    What a wonderful post! We are working on mastering positive behaviors at my house. I love your tips.

  5. charlene

    thank you! i needed this reminder… my 4 year old is pushing the boundaries lately and could use some positive reinforcement!! i’ll be putting these to work!

  6. Catherine

    What a GREAT post!! Thanks for sharing. Going to post on my FB page.

  7. Lydia

    I really appreciate the examples you include in your posts. I feel like I understand how to apply a principle being taught. I especially like the idea of write down five positive things about my child and SHARING them. I think it’s a great way to get the positive thinking flowing.

  8. Laura

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments! I am SO glad parents are finding this post helpful!!!

  9. Carrie

    Wow, what a great post!! This is filled with such wonderful information and ideas. Thank you for sharing on Sharing Saturday!

  10. Mackenzie

    You’ve been featured on Saturday Show & Tell @ Cheerios and Lattes this week!
    Mackenzie 🙂

  11. Jodi

    Found you over at Cheerios and Lattes. Love all this stuff. It’s everything we’re working on over in our abode, so it’s great to hear it reinforced. Blessings!

  12. Ruth at number 29

    Brilliant and thought prevoking, thank you!

  13. Kristina

    So many great resources all in one post!

  14. Eileen

    You have some really great ideas and I love that you stressed playing and enjoying your children. I am however concerned with your suggestions that we reward children for doing chores and positive behavior. In my early years of teaching Kindergarten I did just that. I bribed them to have good behavior by offering a prize and it worked fairly well. When I was working on my masters in early childhood I was introduced to some amazing professors and teachers who pointed out that I was teaching children to work for extrinsic rewards (if I do such and such I will get a reward) instead of intrinsic rewards (making good choices because is it right and you feel good about that). It changed my teaching forever. That was 26 years ago. I have to admit that it was harder the new way because children are accustomed to being rewarded respond to ‘bribes’ but in the long run I realized I wasn’t doing them any good. My goal as a parent and teacher is to teach my children to be productive members of society. Do I want them to go up thinking that they only have to do chores around the house if their spouse rewards them, or work extra hard for their boss if their is an external reward? I don’t think so. I am much more inclined to teach them that we are part of a family all have responsibility and if we chose not to do to do our part there are natural consequences. If they don’t pick up their clothes and put in the dirty close basket they don’t get washed. Or mama picks them up and they belong to her until such a time as they start picking them up. At school if a child intentionally broke one of my pencils, popped one of our balls, etc called the parents and explained natural consequences and asked that they have their child work at chores to earn the money to repay our class, not to just give them the money. I would offer suggestions and it has been surprisingly well received all these years. There are times with extremely difficult children that I set up a reward children and then phased it out as behavior improved. At school if we are doing centers and someone chooses to not follow the guidelines , assuming we are very familiar with class procedures, their natural consequence would be to clean up and go to another area or sit entirely out for 3-4 minutes until they are ready to make a good choice. As we are learning about natural consequences I would say something like “You can chose to build with the blocks on the floor (lets say they were throwing them) or play some where else. What do you choose?” They would probably say ‘I’ll build on the floor.’ and I would respond, ‘Great Choice!’ and maybe ‘I’d love to see what you build when you are finished’. One can’t just jump into natural consequences without some real thought because our ‘consequence’ might be appropriate. And the age of the child dictates the consequence of course. In my class of 3-5 year old special needs children I have a magnetic board with everyones name and I move their name up when I see behavior that follows our class rules etc. At the end of the day we celebrate the children’s good choices but I give no external reward or stickers. When my own son was growing up I used natural consequences, praise and time out and loved it. He’s 25 now, and as I’ve learned more, there are things I would do differently but mostly I’d still do it the same. Fortunately the children in my classroom give me continuing practice. I know this is short and just the tip of the iceberg but I feel so passionately that children are already at a disadvantage because so much is handed to them and revolves around them even by the best intended parents. Thanks for listening.

  15. Laura

    Eileen … You have a lot of WONDERFUL points. I, too, agree that children should not be rewarded for everything thing they do. It does set them up for trouble when they always expect external gratification and rewards … instead of internal self worth. This post however was focusing on when kids are struggling with a specific negative behavior that parents should focus on rewarding the positive/or absence of the undesired behavior and setting up behavior plans that focus on the positive rather than the negative. If that was unclear to you perhaps it was unclear to other readers as well.

  16. The Monko

    This is amazing. I am featuring this on my Sunday Parenting Party Post this week (please pop over on sunday and grab an I’ve been featured button). Also posting to our Sunday Parenting Party pinterest board. Thanks so much for linking up – I am going to try some of this stuff with Goblin – we are having listening issues at the mo, maybe praising good listening would help

  17. Laura

    Monko! Thanks so much for the compliment! And for the feature. I’m glad this post is reaching so many!

  18. Stephanie Park

    Hello Dr. Laura. You did it again! Thank You for this blog filled with wonderful information. I post this on my latest blog.

  19. Saba

    Great ideas! How do you feel about the timeout method?

  20. Laura

    Saba, I think for some kids and some families timeouts work great. I especially think time outs are helpful to help kids get in the habit of taking some time to calm down when they get upset.

  21. shrutika

    thank you is all i can say thanks a lot…… u 4 this

  22. I’m definitely keeping this post handy for my growing 18-month-old toddler. She has been a big fan of the temper tantrums recently. Yikes!

    Thanks for this post! I’m bookmarking your site. 🙂

  23. Monica

    I’ve ran out of ideas on how to help my now 5th grader. She is wonderful and a great helped but at school she dossnt stay on task, gets distracted, doesn’t finish her work or hed tests. At home, we sit all day literary!!! Doing simple homework. If we don’t push her, she doesn’t do it and doesn’t care about the consecuenses. Then she feels worthless and dumb fod the grades she gets. I don’t know how to help her any more. We’ve tried everything!!! HELP!!!

  24. Laura

    Monica … have you ever had your daughter tested for a learning disorder, vision problems (such as tracking difficulties), or ADHD? These can sometimes be factors in kids who are continually resistant to do school work.

  25. Erin

    The word positive in the image of the boy on the stairs is spelled wrong.

  26. Laura

    Yup. It is. Totally stinks that I never noticed it and this is my most popular post and pin by far.

  27. jess

    wow! iv never commented on a blog or anything before but just wanted to say what a great post, its very similar to a course im takeing for parents of challenging kids and this is so similar to it, its called the incredible years and it has helped my family alot,i would reccomend these strategies to anyone with a difficult behaviour!

  28. Laura

    Thanks a bunch, Jess!

  29. shonda

    @ monica, I am a clinician who does mental health assessments. I am also a person with adhd who has a husband and 3 kids with adhd and my smallestbhas aspergers to boot. Attention issues are near and dear to my heart. Please have her assessed bc those are indicators of adhd, learning disorders, and or depression in kids. Pls be sure who u take her too knows how to assess the difference. Whatever it is, u want to address it now and not a few yrs from now when it has damaged her self image and her behaviors are more maladaptive! I understand when people don’t want to put kids on medication. In my educated opinion, some need it but not all. There is such a wealth of knowledge about behavioral ways we can help ourselves and our kids cope when we know what we r dealing with. Find a behavioral therapist that u gel with and u and daughter work with them. All of the skills to cope with adhd and other learning problems are helpful to everyone!

    Thanks dr mom. Love & going to bookmark!

  30. Laura

    Shonda, thank you so much for taking the time to comment!

  31. Paola Rojas

    Thanks for the information Dr Laura. I just have a question. How can i apply this tips to my 2 1/2 years old boy? Lately he has been practicing bad behaviors such as talking back, leaving the toys on the floor, he doesnt want to brush his teeth..and!

  32. Laura Hutchison

    Paola, I would target one behavior at a time. Start off with a reinforcement jar (adding marbles or pom poms in everytime he successfully completes the desired task. Give TONs of praise. Focus on the things he is doing right. For his age giving specific one-step directions while looking directly into his eyes at his level (squatting down to his height). Making tasks into little games can also be ver helpful (like, “Let’s see how many of your toys can you get into this basket!”)

  33. Laura Hutchison

    With all the updates to the blog I FINALLY fixed the spelling in the photo! Although it’s already pinned out there + 74.7K … it’s at least correct here now!

  34. Nadia

    Thanks for the directing me to this post, Laura. It will be very helpful, I’m sure;)
    Nadia recently posted…Christmas Tin TreeMy Profile

  35. Kate2014

    I like this post very much, I also believe in positive reinforcement and hope that more parents use it instead of punishment.

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