Three tips for working with behavior problems


If you are a parent with a child who has behavior problems, you may be desperate for help. It can be overwhelming. Your emotions will range from anger to sadness, embarrassment to despair. While I can’t possibly cover every situation and every potential behavior problem your child might be exhibiting, there are a few tips that might make things easier for your family. I believe these tips are good for all families and teachers and can make a real difference in curbing a multitude of issues.

  1. Establish routines: Consistent positive routines are probably the most important thing you can implement in your family. Children need to know what to expect and tend to respond better to direction when their environment is not chaotic or confusing.

Create a morning routine your children can easily learn and remember. Make a list and write it down. If your child can’t read yet, make a schedule with pictures. Take pictures of them following the routine or something that represents it (like a picture of the toothbrush) and print them out in the right order. You can make the pictures small enough to fit on a single sheet of paper, then laminate it or put it in a protective sleeve. Alternatively, make a short book with pictures and words. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Even stapled pages can make a great resource. Keep it simple.

  • Shower
  • Get dressed
  • Eat breakfast
  • Brush your teeth

The order and what you put in the routine depends on what your family needs. Spend some time teaching your children the routine. Practice it every morning and keep reminding them to check their list. Eventually, they’ll be able to do it without assistance, but don’t expect them to get it quickly.

In the evening, have a similar routine.

  • Brush teeth
  • Put on pajamas
  • Reading time
  • Bed time—Bed time should be the same every night and will vary depending the age of your children and their sleep patterns.

Family commitments may require some alterations and flexibility, so establish a few simple rules like, “Everybody helps clean up after dinner.” These rules not only help them contribute to the family, but keep them from setting their mind on other things they want to do. Screen time and play time come after you’ve done your job.

  1. Focus on the one thing: Whenever I talk to teachers and parents about behavior problems, they are often frustrated and have a hard time articulating what the issue is. I hear things like, “He is disruptive”, “He is disobedient”, etc. There are usually a number of problem behaviors or they wouldn’t be talking to me. My advice is always start with the problem behavior that bothers you the most.

What behavior, if corrected, would start to make things more manageable? My first follow-up question is, “What does that look like?” Try to narrow down the behavior and be specific. What does it look like when he’s disobedient? Is it only at certain times? Is it only when you ask him to do a chore or maybe only when you’re not looking?

Next, I ask, what behavior do you want him to exhibit? The answer cannot be, “Be less disobedient.” That’s not helpful! Remember, be specific. If the child consistently storms out of the room when you ask him to clean up from dinner, then a replacement behavior could be staying in the room and helping clear the table. Start small. Maybe they just need to help for 5 minutes at first.

When your child responds correctly, give lots of praise and consider a reward of some kind. At first, make the rewards frequent and immediately following the desired behavior. A sticker for a young child or points toward a desired purchase/toy for an older child may be appropriate. Give your child some choices or make a list of rewards ahead of time. Make sure the rewards are something you are ok with your child receiving frequently.

Once your child starts responding positively, keep going for awhile, then slowly begin to back off. It may be months or years before you can stop rewards entirely. What you will likely see happen first is he will start getting the new routine. At this point, you can start adding more expectations or new positive behaviors that deal with some of the other problems behaviors. In some cases, your child’s negative behavior will increase for a short time. Don’t be discouraged. He is testing your resolve and rebelling against the new controls. It’s normal. Stick with it and be consistent.

  1. Get some help: One of the most difficult challenges parents face with problem behavior is losing perspective. Emotions get tied up and kids seem to almost intuitively know how to make you mad. After you have established your routines and focused on the “one thing”, your child’s behavior may not be getting better. Sometimes you need an outside person who can see solutions you can’t see. A good counselor, psychologist, or behavior specialist may be able to assist. They can help you narrow down your problem better or tweak your response. In some cases, medical intervention through formal diagnosis and subsequent medication is necessary.

There is one more tip. Don’t forget to breathe. Take some time for yourself and remember your child’s behavior does not define who you are. It does not say anything about your character or your parenting abilities. Keep working at it and be consistent and you will see improvements.

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