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At some stage in every child’s life they will exhibit defiant, impulsive or even disobedient behaviours.

A lot of this is normal, but when behaviour disrupts a child’s everyday functioning, it becomes abnormal and parents should seek professional advice. Parents can make a difference by using evidence-based strategies to encourage positive behaviours.

Effective strategies to improve behaviour

Using positive behavioural strategies not only decreases unwanted behaviour, it promotes positive social behaviour and strengthens relationships. Some strategies will be more effective than others, depending on the child’s preferences. Try a few different strategies, and if one doesn’t work, stop using it. Move to another technique. Try some of these effective strategies:

  • give attention through warmth and affection  when your child is behaving appropriately. Tell them what about their behaviour you like, and smile when praising. For example, “I really like when you listen carefully, we can get so much more done and get to the good things faster”
  • give praise and rewards immediately after the desirable behaviour is displayed, rather than waiting until later
  • think about what your child would value as a reward so it has appeal and drives their motivation to be good. Would they prefer time to play on a device, a toy, food treat, or choice of a movie?
  • for particularly challenging behaviour, consider setting up a reward chart. Reward your child frequently throughout the day by catching them being good and when you notice improvements, gradually reduce how often you reward them
  • offering choices helps them feel ownership over decision making and assist them in evaluating the consequences of their choices
  • know when to ignore, and when to intervene. It’s unrealistic to discipline every challenging behaviour, so ignore the little things. Consider overlooking the occasional mess, whining or slowness to respond to requests
  • give clear instructions and set behaviour expectations, such as “use a talking voice at all times” or “keep your hands and feet to yourself” and so on. Negotiating the expectations with your child will increase their commitment to follow them. You can maximise the effectiveness of setting rules by also negotiating rewards for successfully following them and consequences if they do not
  • before you leave the house, remind them of the rules and the rewards for following them
  • actively listen to your child by stopping what you’re doing and taking time out. Behaviour concerns often arise because the child is seeking your attention.

If you find the behaviour persists after using a range of positive strategies, it’s time to introduce consequences. A continuum of consequences start with the least obtrusive strategies and incrementally increase in severity.

First, use prompts such as eye contact or facial expressions to note disapproval.

Then, remind them of what behaviour you want to encourage. For example, “what should you be doing?”

Move closer to the child and use a calm matter-of-fact tone of voice, or try using a whisper voice.

Redirect behaviour by giving choices. For older children, ask them what would be a better choice of behaviour. For younger children, give them constrained choices. For example, please put the lollies back in the bag or give all of the lollies to me.

Remind the child of the behaviour you do want to see.

Let them know they have three warnings and what the consequence is if they continue. Follow through on this, and don’t change the number of warnings or consequence. 

Finally, when used well, time out can be effective. Consider having an appropriate location for the time-out period. It needs to be quiet, private with minimal stimulation.

Act quickly after the behaviour occurs and give a concise reason for sending them to time-out. Ignore secondary behaviours while in the time-out period (like screaming, wriggling or pleading).

Avoid talking to them until the end of the time-out period.  Before exiting, ask the child to remind you why they were put in time out and what they could have done differently. Catch them being good as soon as you can and remind them how much you love them.

- The Conversation

The Conversation