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 author's top 10 tips on behavior management

As a Pediatric Behavioral Therapist, I am often asked what techniques work best for correcting problem behavior. Here are my top ten suggestions:
  1. Structure and Routine – In order for children to organize and control their own behavior, they need models of how to do that. Providing a clear structure to the daily routine is one of the most important ways of teaching this simply concept that will actually help children control their own behavior.
  2. Consistency – It is not so much what you do as long as you do it consistently. This is because behavior that has been corrected intermittently (e.g., some of the time but not all of the time) is the most difficult behavior to change.
  3. Neutrality – This means not reacting emotionally to problem behavior. No yelling. No threatening. No spanking. Children often act out for attention, or, to  a reaction out of you. If you respond in a cool, calm, controlled manner, the child doesn’t get the attention or reaction they want and the problem behavior will often extinguish itself.
  4. Natural Consequences – When a child misbehaves, the consequence for the misbehavior should be related to the actual incident. If the child broke something in anger, then the child should be made to clean it up and repay the damage in some way. The child could work extra hours to help pay the cost of the damaged item, lend a favorite toy to a friend whom the child hurt, or sacrifice dessert to a sibling.  
  5. Teach Respect for Authorities – One of the most common mistakes I see today is children being treated as the center of the universe with far more power and control than they want or need. This causes the child to become narcisstic and self-centered. Children need to be taught when they are young that parents are in charge, as are teachers, police officers, and others in elderly or authority positions.  Children should be taught to say “Yes Sir,” or “No Maam,” as well as to open doors for seniors and to obey the directions of elders.
  6. Limit TV & Electronic Games – Children learn by modeling others. Children who watch violent programs and games, including offensive or discourteous cartoon characters pick up those behaviors and use them with others. They also are more immune to offensive behavior and violence in the real world.
  7. Assign Chores – Chores help the child learn ownership and pride in their environment and in their own contributions to society. Even two-year-olds can help dust, haul out trash, or put away their toys. As the child ages, chores at school, church, and in the community are essential for teaching them responsibility for self and others.
  8. Absence of Threat – Social skills must be taught, just like reading, writing, and math. We would not think about teaching reading to a child by threatening, yelling, or spanking the child, yet, we often do so when teaching social skills. A child learns best and fastest when in a safe, nurturing environment.
  9. Choices – Children are told what to do, what to say, when to do or say it from the moment they get up in the morning until the moment they go to bed. Offering them choices whenever possible, such as on what to wear, will give them a little control while helping cut down on power struggles on more important issues.
  10. High Expectations – Think about how you want you child to behave and then expect your child to act in that manner. Children will only achieve to the highest level expected of them so if they are expected to not learn or to not obey, they probably will not.
These 10 tips make up the core structure of any effective behavior management plan, whether the home, school, or community.

 About the Author: Catherine Swanson Cain, PhD, LMFT provides counseling and therapy to families of young children with behavior problems or mental health disabilities. She also provides consultation and training to educators, child care providers, and professionals on a variety of behavioral health issues.

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Revised: 10/19/2008.