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The Nuts & Bolts of Behavior Management

By: Drs. Zachary Stern & Jennifer Moore

As long as there are kids present, parents will be faced with the constant decision to implement rewards and consequences when disciplining their children. Since the word discipline comes from the Latin word for instruction or teaching, it’s important for us to consider exactly how our decisions with regard to discipline are shaping our children’s behaviors. There are a few “nuts and bolts” of behavior management that are essential for parents to understand as they look to approach discipline in an informed way.

When we consider the principles of behavior management, it is first important to note the difference between reinforcement and punishment. “Reinforcement” refers to anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. “Punishment,” on the other hand, refers to anything that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. To make it more complicated, there is positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. We refer to something as “positive” when it is added to the situation, and we refer to something as “negative” when it is taken away. Here are some examples and explanations of the four ways that we can shape a child’s behaviors:

Positive Reinforcement: when we add something to the situation and it increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again

Ex. You give your child a special snack for being nice to his sibling. This reward increases the likelihood that he will exhibit similar behavior in the future.

Negative Reinforcement: when we remove something from a situation and it increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again

Ex. Your child begins screaming at dinner because she doesn’t want to eat her vegetables. You take her plate away, which removes the thing she did not want, so she learns to scream when she doesn’t want her food in the future.

Positive Punishment: when we add something to a situation and it decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again

Ex. You place your child in time-out after she rips up her homework. Because she does not like being in time-out, she is less likely to rip up her homework in the future.

Negative Punishment: when we remove something from a situation and it decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again

Ex. You ignore your child when he continuously interrupts your conversation with another adult. Because something desired (attention) is being taken away, he will be less likely to interrupt in the future.

While it is helpful to understand these different principles, it can be very difficult to see how and when they play out in our daily family interactions. If we are not aware of how our decisions are contributing to a situation, or how the decisions of others may be having an effect on us, we can get caught in a coercive cycle of unhealthy and unhelpful responding, which ultimately leads to increased family conflict.

There are two common reinforcement traps that parents often fall into- one negative and one positive:

Negative Reinforcement Trap:

Parent gives command (Aversive event)

Child does not comply, whines, or yells (Coercive response)

Parent gives up and withdraws command in order to avoid tantrum (Removal of aversive event)

RESULT: Child is negatively reinforced, and is more likely to use coercive response more often and more intensely in the future to avoid compliance with command.

Positive Reinforcement Trap:

Parent gives command (Aversive event)

Child does not comply, whines, or yells (Coercive response)

Parent talks with child for several minutes, attempting to “understand” child’s behavior, or “reason” with the child (Positive reinforcement)

RESULT: Child’s coercive behavior is positively reinforced, as he is rewarded with parent’s attention, so child is more likely to use coercive behavior and responses in the future.

As can be seen, these traps are incredibly easy to fall into. Children, like all of us, are very good at trying to exert control over the situations they are in. Through repeated interactions, children learn what to expect from parents, both in terms of what is required and what can be delayed or avoided altogether. It is critical that parents reflect on these types of situations and learn from them, so as to avoid getting stuck in a coercive cycle of responding.

Five strategies to help parents avoid falling into these traps are as follows:

1. Remain Calm: When giving commands or responding to coercive responses, it is crucial to use a calm voice, with calm facial expressions and demeanor. Parents would do well to assess their emotional state prior to initiating commands and responding. If the parent is too emotional, they should pause or take a break to cool down before reengaging.

2. Be Firm but Friendly: Do not negotiate or engage in a debate about the “why.” Parents should be tactful and stern, and should demand respect during the interactions by showing respect.

3. Less Talk, More Action: Parents need to shift their focus away from talking and onto their actions. Parents should deliver a logical consequence, or allow natural consequences to occur on their own. These consequences should be consistent, immediate, salient, and specific.

4. Attend To & Support Positive Behaviors: Parents should actively seek out opportunities to acknowledge when their child is doing the right thing. Parents can recognize this in multiple ways, such as spending special one-on-one time together, offering verbal encouragement (i.e. “You followed my direction!”), or physical encouragement (i.e. hugs or high fives).

5. Ignore Negative Behaviors: As much as possible, parents should avoid responding to negative behaviors and providing attention when a child misbehaves. This means no verbal responding (i.e. “Stop It!”), no physical responding (i.e. grabbing), and even no eye contact. When a child feels that their negative behaviors are not being responded to, they are more likely to try other (more positive) behaviors in order to obtain the desired attention.

While paying close attention to our disciplinary approach and decisions in the moment can be challenging, parents who engage in this process often feel a strong sense of empowerment in reducing conflict in the home. We can teach our children so much by making choices about discipline in an informed way. Give it a try and see what changes occur for your family!

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