Behavior Management Techniques

Children need direction; indeed, they respond much better to an environment where there are clear expectations and consequences rather than one in which they are allowed free reign. However, they also need empathy and recognition of their emotions, even if those feelings seem “big” for the circumstances.

Having basic discipline techniques under your belt as a parent will allow you to respond to situations in a controlled manner rather than out of anger and frustration. The basic tenets of disciplining children involve setting limits, letting your children know what is acceptable and unacceptable, and developing clear and appropriate consequences for their actions. Your ultimate goal should be to not only get your child to cooperate but to encourage future good behaviors.

Nurturing good behaviors requires that we acknowledge a child’s feelings and teach them how to appropriately express them. This will help give support to your child as they learn to practice tolerating difficult feelings; in this way they develop the capacity to resiliently handle frustrations and the ability to tolerate discomfort as they age and encounter more challenging situations.

Kids don’t usually lash out out of rudeness, meanness or parental failings.  They lash out when they don’t have the capacity to regulate their emotional state or control their impulses.  They often exhibit their worst behaviors with parents as they know the parent is someone who is safe and can be trusted.

Traditionally there are three main ways in which to change children’s behavior: positive reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement means we add something (praise, incentives) so that a desired behavior continues or increases. Positive punishment means we add something (time out, chore, apology note) so that an undesired behavior decreases or stops. Negative punishment means we take something away (toy, privilege) to decrease or stop an undesired behavior.

Positive reinforcement is the best place to start, and all discipline plans should include an element of reward (not necessarily tangible, but reward in that the child is listened to, empathized with, and offered a chance for change.).

The best discipline is intentional rather than reactive– the purpose of this article is to provide you with the tools you need to address behavioral situations as they arise. The following list of suggestions should be considered just that, suggestions. Every parent will find that their individual child/family plan requires some customization based on personality and specific needs. Feel free to consult your pediatrician for help in creating your individual plan.

    This lays the groundwork for all other disciplinary measures. Do not assume that children, at any age, can intuit your expectations. Confusion as well as inconsistency between caregivers will only lead to frustration for your child and yourself. Establish fair and consistent limits on behavior, relay them in a clear and age appropriate fashion, explain why those limits have been chosen and provide praise for following themConsequences should also be laid out, both positive and negative. Warnings when limits are approached allows your child to self correct over time (i.e. “you are grabbing the toy your sister is using, please find a different truck to play with until switch time.)  Determine the number of warnings allowed until you intervene with a hands on redirection (this may vary with the severity of the behavior.) Establishing limits in and of itself may effectively control behavior, as children usually want to please. Clear rules also allow a child to choose his/her behavior, knowing what the consequences will be.  Make sure your requests are CLEAR and SIMPLE- asking a child to “be good” or “go clean your room” is too vague.  Instead, break down tasks into obvious, acheivable chunks- “please go pick up all the toys on your floor and put them in the basket, then let me know when it is done.”  Or “for the next hour while I am making dinner, I would appreciate you and your brother working on legoes together or making a chalk drawing on the driveway, if you have a disagreement you can play separately until dinnertime.”   See 1,2,3 Magic by Thomas Phelan (below in recommended books) for the basic tenets of this approach.
  2. CRYING/TANTRUMS– We have classically taught parents to ignore tantrums, which is the right approach for strategic tantrums, where a child is intentionally behaving in a way to attain a goal.  However, these types of tantrums are not nearly as common as tantrums due to an emotional, anxious, dysregulated child. First ask yourself WHY are they tantruming (are they hungry, tired, anxious, overwhelmed?). Set boundaries- make sure your child can’t hurt himself, destroy things or put others in danger. Then try to connect- get down on your child’s level and empathize/validate their feelings (“you are frustrated, you want to use your sister’s toy and she won’t let you.”)  Allow your child to calm- it may mean giving her a big hug, or quietly sitting by her while she cries.  Once your child is calm, you can both then go over the situation and teach your child a better way to respond (note, this does not mean FIXING the problem, just talking through how your child can better handle the emotions of the situation.) This approach may not always succeed in a calm and redirected child, but when they feel heard and supported it makes them more responsive rather than ignored. Hopefully situations will be somewhat deescalated and the child will eventually calm easier/faster. This communicates to child that “even when you are at your worst, and I don’t like the way you’re acting, I love you and I’m here for you.  I understand you’re having a hard time, and I am here.”
    This is called “CONNECT and REDIRECT,” the Daniel Seigel, Tina Bryson Whole Brain Child approach called “No Drama Discipline” (see recommended books below.)
  3. PRAISE Praise is powerful form of positive reinforcement. It is cheap, it is effective, and it is easy to do. Praise should include what was positive about a behavior so that it can be repeated in the future, i.e. “I like how you finished you homework by organizing your materials in advance.” We call this “catch them being good.” Avoid praising just the act (“good sharing”) or your kids will only repeat the behavior if they know they are being watched- instead praise the intrinsic value of the behavior, i.e. “your brother is so happy that you shared your truck.”  Praise is most effective at the time of the good behavior, but can always be given at a later time.  Don’t be stingy, but at the same time avoid praising every little action, so that a child is not anxious if praise is not constantly forthcoming.
  4. What is SPOILING– responding to and soothing a child in distress isn’t spoiling.  Spoiling is when you structure your child’s world in such a a way that he assumes he will get his way, get exactly what he wants when he wants it, and that everything should come easily to him and be done for him.  You don’t want to overindulge with material items, extraordinary privileges, or shelter from struggles and sadness.  You DO want to empathize with your child over their frustrations, while not necessarily fixing the problem.
    This is a method of teaching appropriate responses- what we want our children to do. When your child does something socially inappropriate, have them practice the appropriate behavior with your coaching. For example, if your child grabs a toy away from another child, give the toy back and have them ask for it politely. This is an effective method of discipline for the toddler and early childhood years.
    This is the strategy of ignoring, or not paying attention to, a behavior you want to stop. It is based on the principle of extinction, which says that a behavior will decrease, if not reinforced. Ignoring assumes that children continue unwanted behaviors to get attention. Ignoring should be used for behaviors that are relatively benign (crying, whining, interrupting, persistent asking of the same, answered question) and not for behaviors that are potentially dangerous or due to a struggling, dysregulated child. Do not respond to the unwanted behavior in any way, including commenting on it to others. You may, if warranted, remove yourself from the situation by leaving the room, or just simply continue with your activities.
  7. CHILL OUTS (*also read below about MINDFULLNESS)
    Chill outs are used before a punishment is meted out. They should be used in elementary age children and older, who are capable of pulling themselves together and using coping mechanisms to calm down and cease an inappropriate behavior. When a child begins to argue, or is about to lose control of a situation, they are encouraged to stop, and take a chill out. Remind your child of the consequences of continuing the unwanted behavior. They should be asked to go to a quiet place where they can calm down and regain control of their behavior. This is a nice strategy as it places control of the situation in the child’s hands, and minimizes the punishment aspect of the interaction.
  8. TIME OUTS (*also read below about MINDFULLNESS)
    A classic time out is a technique that serves to both remove the child from a situation and punish the behavior. Time outs should be used to give a child time to calm and learn self-regulation; when used too frequently for long periods of time it become punishment without opportunity to learn. Time outs should be given in a quiet place, away from the “scene of the crime,” where the child is in full view of the caregiver. They should last approximately one minute for each year of the child’s age, and can be started at about two years of age once your child understands the concept and can sit still for an appropriate period of time. If you need to be with the child during the time out, keep your tone and expression neutral and words at a minimum, you are just there to keep your child safe and in place while they work through their feelings. If your child is very oppositional and struggling, time out may not be the best strategy. It is best used for a small number of simple behaviors (i.e. pushing, hitting, cursing), and used every time the behavior occurs.
    Once clear rules and expectations have been set, more specific goals or behaviors to target can be identified.  Try using “FIRST/THEN” wording, as in FIRST you get dressed, THEN you can choose what breakfast you want.  When choosing a single behavior to change, make sure that the desired behavior is one that your child can do and is easily identified. Goals should be specific, i.e. complete homework before dinner, make the bed before breakfast, return home before curfew. It is almost always preferable to begin with rewards, as positive reinforcement is very effective and pleasurable for all involved. For example, your child does not want to start homework on time. One option is to establish a contingency- a relationship between the behavior and a desired end result- that says you can earn 1 hour of free time if your homework is started by 3:30. Consequences are the alternative punishment, and should “fit the crime,” i.e. not be overly harsh or unduly benign. They should also be logically linked to the behavior (making a mess means helping clean up or if your homework is not started by 3:30, you may not go outside to play.) Not all behaviors can have a positive reinforcement associated with them. Aggressive behaviors should have clear consequences. For example, if you hit your brother you will not be able to watch TV tonight. It is the consistent pairing of the behavior and outcome that produces change- rarely is a single reward or punishment enough to change a behavioral pattern. Be patient and be consistent and you will see change.
    This is among the most effective and long-lasting forms of punishment, but many parents are uncomfortable allowing natural consequences. Obviously consequences that are not clearly understood (i.e. a toddler hitting her head against a hard surface in frustration) should be avoided. On the other hand, if your child prefers to spend her study time daydreaming, thus earning a poor grade on a test, she should be allowed to learn the consequences of her actions. One poor grade, as opposed to days of nagging, may have much more staying power in the future. Better they learn that they are responsible for their own actions early, before learning these hard lessons in adulthood.
    Sometimes behaviors are more complex and need to be broken down into behavior plans. Behavior charts, sticker plans, and token economies are different ways to do this.

    First, a small number of goals should be chosen, five or fewer depending on the age of the child. All behaviors must be doable by the child or adolescent. The behaviors should be simple and concrete. If necessary, a goal may be broken down into smaller, more achievable parts. They should be written in a positive direction, i.e. speaks respectfully without cursing, follows directions before a third warning, cleans room and makes the bed without reminder. Each goal should have a reward associated with it. Rewards can be stickers on a chart, marbles in a jar, points, activities or choices.

    In token plans and sticker charts the points or stickers usually add up to a reward at the end of a defined goal (i.e. 7 stickers or 10 points.) Younger children benefit from more immediate rewards. Older children and adolescents can delay their gratification, and may prefer working towards a longer-term reward that is bigger in scale. Rewards should be reasonable, and do not need to cost money. Ideas include TV or computer time, selecting a favorite meal, alone time with a parent. For adolescents, rewards may include increased responsibilities, such as attending a movie alone with a friend, or a later curfew. Behavior plans should be written out, posted clearly, and reviewed frequently with your child. Older children and teens can sign behavior contracts, the part of the plan where they agree to abide by the goal. These plans require time and consistency. Months may be required to change behaviors permanently. You may find that these plans also have greater interest and staying power if you tweak them a bit- changing the rewards or method of counting points over time.

  12. RIGHTS/PRIVILEGES Remember that many of the things our children consider to be “rights” are really “privileges.”  Access to electronics and social media in particular are privileges that should be earned, both by demonstrating that they can be trusted and by completing more essential tasks (schoolwork, chores) prior to being allowed to access privileges.
  13. RESPONSE COST SYSTEMS These are plans that involve both earning points for positive behaviors and losing points for undesired behaviors. This system works best for older children and teens, who are better able to understand the concept of losing something that was previously earned. For example, if you are targeting fighting between siblings, points may be earned for using words or walking away from a situation, but lost if aggression occurs.  Make sure the costs are not too great to be practical- taking away electronics for a week means you have lost a week of using electronics for leverage.  Instead, remove for a day and give your child a chance to earn the privilege back.  We all know costs like “your birthday party is cancelled” are usually empty threats- go smaller and more practical, and your child will take the cost more seriously.
  14. THE MARBLE JAR  My favorite “token economy” is called the “MARBLE JAR.” This is a method that combines both a response-cost system with early awareness of finance (i.e. “things” cost money, and when you want “things” you need to prioritize and earn them.) Start out with a clear jar filled with marbles (or other small objects appropriate for age- cotton balls, popsicle sticks…) and another container for each child involved. (This can be simple enough for a 2-3 year old to understand, and complex enough to keep a pre-teen engaged.) You may want to have fun and let your child decorate their container as they like. Sit down and discuss 1-5 ways of earning a marble (i.e. making the bed in the morning, basic chores, behavioral goals.) Write these down and display clearly. Then decide on several rewards and their value (i.e. trip to the ice-cream store = 5 marbles.) In addition, as children request items (i.e. a DVD in the grocery store) you can give their “marble value” and list them on the marble chart as items to be earned. Many times you will find your child suddenly doesn’t “need” an item when they realize how many marbles it will “cost”!  In addition, you may want to randomly reward great behaviors or actions when they occur with a marble- as children never know when this will happen, it actually encourages good behavior on a regular basis rather then just when the child is specifically working to earn a marble (i.e. doing a chore.)You can also REMOVE a marble for poor behavior, or for older children not adhering to a goal (i.e. not walking the dog, resulting in a mess.) The beauty of this system is that it puts children in the position of choosing to control their behavior, and of prioritizing and earning privileges and rewards, setting the stage for financial savvy in the future. You will also find that varying the goals and the rewards results in a long-lived behavioral system adaptable to almost any age.
  15. IMPLEMENT “SPECIAL TIME”  Problem behaviors are often attention seeking- even though a behavior may result in negative reinforcement, the attention it garners serves to reward the behavior nonetheless.  For children who need more 1:1 time (going through transitions such as a new sibling, or a move) try to set up “special time”- this is ideally a daily (but at least 3-4 times a week) 15-20 minute session.  One parent (or the other) devotes all of his/her attention to the child and follows the child’s lead in whatever (appropriate) activity the child is interested in at that time (e.g. playing make believe, going to the park, rough housing, reading a story, making play dough, etc.) No interruptions or distractions from siblings or ELECTRONICS allowed.
  16. MINDFULNESS Child psychology has directed a lot of focus on this concept in the last decade. Mindfullness is “mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”  Teaching a child how to recognize and process their emotions is a powerful and lifelong skill.  Two really helpful mindfullness projects are:  The Glitter Jar and The Calm Down Corner.  A Glitter Jar is a jar filled with water, dish soap and glitter- when shaken, the chaos is a good visual represtation of how your child’s brain is feeling during a tantrum/breakdown- having them watch the glitter settle is both calming and representative of their brain quieting as well.  In a Calm Down Corner you are designating a space where children who are having trouble regulating their emotions can go and use a variety of techniques to calm down their brains instead of acting out inappropriately.  The location should be relatively small and cozy, with visuals that can help your child identify what emotion they are working through, and suggestions as to how to handle the emotion.  You can have music, some pillows to punch, manipulatives to play with, signs with breathing exercises or the aforementioned glitter jar.  Movement can be another powerful way of settling a child- GoNoodle is an movement/mindfulness app that is especially useful for children w restless energy, or those who need to physically work out their emotions.
  17. SPANKING– a word (or more) on physical punishment. Spanking (along with humiliation, isolation, verbal abuse) is less effective in changing behavior and is most likely to produce negative outcomes. When disciplince causes pain or fear, this causes the child to paradoxically try to escape the very parent a child is naturally inclined to move towards for safety. This causes disorganized thinking and sends your child into survival mode (fight, freeze, flee) where no learning can take place. This also, obviously, negatively affects the basic parent/child relationship.  If you are having trouble controlling your physical or emotional responses to your child, PLEASE do not be shy about asking for help.  We are not here to judge, we are here to help teach YOU as well as your child how to more effectively manage everyone’s behaviors.

Do electronics really engage your child? Try the iRewardChart, an app that brings the traditional reward chart onto mobile device, with a customizable, interactive interface.

The concept of time- super hard for a young child to understand “in a hour,” or even “in five minutes.”  The CountDownTimer app is a great visual for kids to learn to tolerate short, then longer wait times until they achieve reward (whether it’s parental attention, or snacktime.)  Conversely it also helps children understand how long before a transition will take place (i.e. going from play to bedtime routine.)

Does you child have mulitple “encores” at bedtime? Try  The Bedtime Pass Program

Any discipline used should be fair and consistent. Fair means that the magnitude of the reward or consequence matches the degree of the behavior. Consistent means that the reward or consequence be present every time the behavior occurs. Make sure that all involved in the behavioral plan are in agreement with the goals and consequences, and are able to carry them out. Try not to choose consequences that punish the family or parent (such as canceling a family event.) These will be harder to carry out, and thus pose less of a threat to the child if he knows the punishment is unlikely to occur.
Like most aspects of parenting, don’t be afraid to make mistakes (or admit to them and apologize when they happen.) Talk with your children about what has worked and what hasn’t, and be open to their comments. Involving them in the plan will make it much more successful and meaningful in the long run.

Additional resources:
Child Mind Institute a robust website providing information and support for neurotypical children along with those who have learning or behavioral challenges.
AHA Parenting– Dr Laura Markham’s gentle, calm yet effective approach to parenting makes this a truly valuable parenting resource.

1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 –by Thomas W. Phelan; the basics- and a good book to start with (as soon as your child is born!)

The set of 4 books below by Daniel J. Siegel, MD & Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. is based on a “whole brain” approach to children (teaching them to how to connect their immature, instinctual “lower brain” with the mature, logical, reasonable “upper brain”.)  One of our favorite sets of parenting books:

Dr Laura Markham’s series of books on peaceful parenting are another terrific resource (see her website above):

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee – by Wendy Mogul, PhD; a MUST read about teaching your child resilience, and working on Teaching respect for adults, Chores, Keeping expectations in line with your child’s temperament, Meal-time battles, Coping with frustration, Avoiding over-scheduling and overindulgence, and Helping your child develop independence and self-control
The Difficult Child – by Stanley Turecki, M.D. offers compassionate and practical advice to parents of hard-to-raise children. They often act defiant, stubborn, loud, aggressive, or hyperactive. They can also be clingy, shy, whiny, picky, and impossible at bedtime, mealtimes, and in public places. This includes parenting techniques for children with ADHD
The Highly Sensitive Child, by Elaine Aron, PhD, addresses the needs of children born deeply reflective, sensitive to the subtle, and easily overwhelmed. These qualities can make for smart, conscientious, creative children, but with the wrong parenting or schooling, they can become unusually shy or timid, or begin acting out. HSCs are often mislabeled as overly inhibited, fearful, or “fussy,”or classified as “problem children”
Touchpoints: Birth to 3: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development – by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. Legendary work on the physical, emotional, and behavioral development of young children.