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Reinforcing small changes in your child's behavior

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By Ray Levy, Ph.D.

One cause of misbehavior

One such patient, Ryan, an oppositional 16-year-old, was continually late on weekends, violating his curfew. His mother would ground him but first engage in a lengthy lecture that usually ended up in a screaming match between the two. Later, to cut down on her worry, she purchased a cell phone for him and instructed him to call her if he was going to be late, hoping the cell phone remedied the situation. The following weekend Ryan took the phone as instructed but didn't turn it on. Again, on returning home late, he was grounded along with a lecture on how insensitive and selfish he was. Several weekends later, he was permitted to go out again. Ryan took his cell phone, turned it on, and when his mother called, had his girlfriend answer it. Ready to pull her hair out, his mother later consulted me on why he does this and why he just can't follow the rules. "Doesn't he see how much easier life would be if he just followed the rules?"

One reason Ryan wasn't following the rules is that he felt whatever he did wouldn't be good enough for his mother. His exact words were, "What's the use?" He was not only dejected but demoralized. He demonstrated his demoralization in even more defiant behavior. "It doesn't matter what I do," Ryan retorted. "Mom will find something wrong with everything I do."

I've heard this cry of demoralization over and over again in my practice from kids 3 years old to late adolescence. In their attempt to get better and improve their behavior, they often move up a step or two on "the ladder of better behavior" only to have their improvement not acknowledged but criticized. Children with AD/HD and LD especially need to know what behaviors we want to see instead, not just what not to do, as we so often let them know through our punishment. Being specific about expected behaviors and movement in the right direction is vitally important and essential to kids with LD. If we are not clear with our expectations and simple encouragement, they relapse to their original poor behavior.

Small steps to help your child

An easy and extremely effective way to change a child's behavior is to note the small improvements or steps that he takes. The psychological term for this is "successive approximations." Successive approximation, or Reinforcing Small Changes, as we refer to it in my practice, involves picking a single misbehavior, determining the smallest sign of change, and then noting when the child has displayed that behavior. For many inappropriate behaviors, or misbehaviors, this is an effective tool to instigate change.

For instance, many parents hate the insolent and disrespectful tone with which their adolescent often talks to them. "How do I make him stop talking to me like that?" is often the response of a parent. Instead of just telling your sullen adolescent not to talk to you that way, find a time he is talking to you with a respectful and appropriate tone, and then say, "Jeff, see how you're talking to me now? That's how I want you to talk to me when you are angry or upset with me. I can hear you much better. Please do more of that." Even if your teenager is talking to you about new computer games or a sports event, he is less defensive and better able to register what he is doing and how he is communicating with you so he can replicate it.

Now just commenting on better behavior once will not ensure that all future problems are solved. Remember, kids don't go from F's to A's in one quick motion but rather with persistence, encouragement, and over time. Hence, you will have to find several times over the course of many days that your adolescent is talking in a respectful tone. Also, the next time he is upset, note after the argument any slight changes you may have perceive; i.e., "Brett, I noticed earlier today when you were upset with me, you didn't use any cuss words. Keep going on that track. You are in the right direction." Your adolescent not only hears what you want him to do more of, but he doesn't get discouraged.

Comments from readers

"I am currently working through behavior issues with my 5 year old. When he doesn't get what he wants, or wants to do something different, he is hitting, spitting, kicking and calling people names. It's frustrating. Noting when he handles himself well and makes good choices is important. I am trying to note the small changes. This didn't start overnight and won't be fixed overnight."