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Reinforcing small changes in your child's behavior

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By Ray Levy, Ph.D.

How to reinforce a small change

  1. Decide what behavior you would like to change, e.g., child has awful table manners, including wiping his mouth on his sleeve and using his hands instead of utensils.
  2. Determine the smallest sign of change, e.g, using his napkin or fork once or twice. (Note: Here is where most parents and teachers fail. They set the bar too high and look for a moderate, not small change, such as, good table manners most of the time. In effect, this is expecting your child to go from F to B+. Not looking for smaller changes will be a guaranteed lesson in demoralization for your child.) Also remember, that a 'sign of change' doesn't necessarily have to be a behavior your child has never exhibited before. Your child may have used his napkin or fork. You just want to increase the likelihood that he will do it more.
  3. Let your child know what the problem is and what behavior you eventually want to see. "Cory, your father and I would like to see your table manners improve. We would like to see you use your napkin and your fork and chew with your mouth closed." (Tell your child what you want to see, not what you don't want to see. Be specific.)
  4. Then notice the smallest sign of change that you can comment on. "Thank you, Cory. I noticed that you used your napkin" (even though he only used it twice the entire meal).
  5. At a later date, let your child know the positive behavior change you observed with a message that you want him to continue and you want to see more of it. "Cory, again I noticed that you were trying to use your napkin more. Also, there were several times that you were chewing with your mouth closed. You are on the right track; do more of that!"

Small changes become big changes

Remember, big behavior changes are a conglomeration of smaller changes and don't occur without those building blocks. In the earlier example of Ryan violating his curfew, what could his mother have done differently? First, she should continue to ground him for violating curfew. Reinforcing small changes does not mean allowing misbehavior to slide. Second, she could have noted the small changes that he exhibited, such as, taking the cell phone with him, having his girlfriend answer it, or coming in 1½ hours late instead of his usual 2½ hours late. Acknowledging any or all of these steps towards better behavior would have amounted in continued, but slow, improvement with Ryan instead of his abject resentment and demoralization.

While improved behavior doesn't occur instantly, we often inadvertently discourage it by not noting small changes. By setting the bar lower, and raising it consistently over time, we are much more likely to get better behavior from our obstinate youngsters.

Finally, as far as Michael calling me a "diaper-head," I've been called worse.

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."