Parenting methods that work: how to teach learned behavior
Parenting requires patience and understanding. The average parent has plenty of both for his or her child and will need it! Between birth and the age of three, children develop language, motor skills and learned behaviors. Learned behaviors are reinforced, so any behaviors, good or bad, a child learns has been reinforced by his or her parents and/or caregivers.
Reinforcing good behavior
The trick is to reinforce good or appropriate behavior and not reinforce bad or inappropriate behavior. This is made difficult by a natural instinct to pay more attention to bad behavior. If your child pulls objects off the table, you may say “Stop!” No matter what tone of voice you use, your response is reinforcing to your child who may just be exhibiting the behavior to get your attention.
Watch for cues and give attention to “good” behaviors
Pay attention to what was going in before your child started pulling objects off the table. Was he or she trying to get your attention in less dangerous ways? Look for cues to a child’s bad behavior and intervene when the child is showing those cues instead of waiting until she or he exhibits bad behavior.
If the behavior is being reinforced by giving your child attention, make sure you give him or her attention when she or he is behaving appropriately. Parents often miss opportunities to reinforce behaviors like playing with his or toys quietly instead while you cook dinner. Although you’re busy, speak to your child while you’re cooking, calling attention to the activity and how much fun he or she is having.
Wait to give reinforcement
If a cue for an inappropriate behavior is something you don’t want to reinforce like whining, just move closer to your child to let him or her know you are there. Usually your being in proximity of your child will satisfy the need for attention. However, if it doesn’t, continue to remain in proximity without reacting until your presence starts to have a positive effect.
Once your child has stopped whining, reinforce good behavior by interacting and giving your child attention, a favorite toy or activity that she or he may want, a favorite food or snack or a trip outside to sit on the porch or go for a walk in his or her stroller. Always reinforce behaviors you want your child to exhibit.
What to do about bad behavior
One of the best ways to teach a young child who’s mastering the concept of cause effect the results of good and bad behavior is to make sure there are consequences for both. If your child knocks her or his glass of milk over intentionally, the natural consequence of that action is that the milk is gone. Do not replace it. If you do, you’ll be replacing it frequently.
However, some bad behaviors may already be learned. In this case, withdraw the reinforcement and the behavior will discontinue. If you’ve been replacing milk every time your child knocks it over to get your attention while you’re making lunch for an older sibling or for some other reason, stop replacing the milk. Tell your toddler that the milk is “all gone” and do not give him or her more.
Inform child of consequences first When trying to “extinguish” a bad behavior, explain to your child what the consequences of a bad behavior will be. If you’re trying to stop your child from knocking over her or his milk, say, “If you knock over your milk, you won’t get any more.” The most difficult part for a parent is following through. Many parents want to give in, especially if a child gets upset or starts crying.
Of course there are some things you cannot allow your child to do because of health and safety. You wouldn’t let him or her touch a hot stove. But if you caution him or that any toys that aren’t put away will be put away for a week, follow through. Once a child has been made aware of the consequences of a behavior, it’s important that those consequences occur.
Therefore, parents should make sure the consequences are reasonable. Don’t threaten to throw away any toys not put away or to not buy any more toys the rest of the year. Both of these consequences are unreasonable unless having the toys locked up repeatedly hasn’t worked and you’re forced to raise the stakes by making the consequences harsher.
Parents are responsible for their children’s learned behavior. Therefore, it’s important that they are not only good parents, but good teachers of which behaviors are appropriate and which are inappropriate.