Workshop at a Local School

Presented to teachers and parents of a local preschool and had such a positive experience! Got some great feedback.  Hope to have many more to come. 


As parents we are constantly on top of our kids, telling them what to do and when.  When we tell them to do something we expect that they do it.  If we struggle with consistency though, the child will pick up on it quick.  Our words will have less value associated with them.  Think about the simple act of calling your child’s name.  Let’s call him “Joe”.

When trying to get Joe’s attention, we might say over and over… “Joe…Joseph…Hey Joe! …Listen up, Joe!” Joe’s name has lost value coming out of our mouth because we’re having to say it multiple times.  When we give an instruction, we should say it one time and if the kid doesn’t comply then we help them comply.  They learn that we are incredibly consistent and that our words have meaning.  So for Joe, if he doesn’t respond after the first “Joe” then we help him respond.  We go right over to him and get in his line of sight and say it again and this time he’ll look.  We can give him Behavior Specific Praise “Thanks for looking when I called your name!” or we can just move on with whatever we needed his attention for “I need your help with…”  Over time, Joe will understand that when we call his name that he is expected to react promptly and accordingly.

Another example of how consistency over time pays off is how we taught our older daughter how to take turns.  We did this when she was maybe around 15-16 months.  My wife and I took our daughter for a walk on a nice day to get some Boba tea. My daughter had never had this tea before and we didn’t want her to have too much because of all the sugar, plus  we wanted some for ourselves.  😉

On our walk home we gave her a sip of the drink and she was hooked!  When we would take it away from her for our turn to drink she would scream and throw her arms up reaching for the cup.  What should we do!?  Just give her the cup back so she stops screaming and making a scene?  We instead taught her how to ask for a turn.  This simple video shows the sign language for “your turn” and “my turn.”

My daughter wasn’t having it!  She kept screaming each time we took the cup. In my head I’m thinking “consistency…we need to show her an alternative  that will get her the cup without having to scream and cry, and stick with it!”  She’s young and it was her first time learning this skill so we were very patient.  In order for her to get the cup back she had to sign “my turn.”  We of course helped her sign the words and she would get the cup even though we used a hand-over-hand prompting technique to get a response.  After only a few back-and-forths she was asking for “my turn” without prompting.

We made crying and reaching an inefficient and ineffective way of getting what she wanted. She would have to work really hard to get her item., rather  we gave her an alternative that was extremely efficient, effective, and easy. She could use this skill all day long…when she wanted a toy, when she wanted  to hold her book, when she wanted to feed herself with a spoon.  She now had a communication tool!  The next time we went for Boba tea there was no screaming or whining. She would both ask for a turn and gave up a turn when someone else requested…two valuable skills for young children! If we hadn’t been consistent, she’d have gone on for many more months with whining and crying for items.

Here are a list of other skills that are great for teaching young children ages 1-3, They can be taught just like the “My Turn” example. With consistency these, words in sign language are so powerful for children!

  • Asking for “More”
  • Telling us “All done”
  • Saying “Thank you”
  • Saying “Please”

What To Do…Part 2

Previously, I wrote about things to do when you’re kid is doing something appropriate.  There’s one more I’d like to include. This one may give you pause, you might squint your eyes to make sure you’re reading it correctly.  Here it is…

When your kid is doing something that you’d like to see more of in the future, you should…take things away from them!  “Huh!?  Like take away their iPad?”  Ok, hear me out…

Again, we are training our kids.  We are showing and telling them the behaviors that we want more of.  So here are some examples:  When she’s cleaning up her room nicely say “Holy cow!  You’ve cleaned up you’re entire floor…don’t worry about your closet, I’ll take care of that” or “You just ate 5 bites of (non-preferred food)!  You don’t have to eat these last two pieces”  or “You’ve been so patient today at the grocery store! Let’s skip our last errand and go straight to the park!”

We are taking away things that are more non-preferred activities/items.  Kids will quickly pick up that when they are exhibiting more positive behaviors, good things happen!  Each of the examples, the “taking away” piece is directly linked to the child’s behavior and the task at hand.  It might not work if there is a big disconnect like, “Wow, you just ate all of your you don’t have to go shopping with me next Saturday.”  That’s an extreme example, but just want to reiterate that the consequence should be directly connected to the behavior and should follow the behavior immediately after it occurs.

Our Reactions

The previous post we talked about a couple of things to do when your child is acting appropriate. Now let’s look briefly at what not to do when your child is still doing something appropriate. Don’t ignore! Play, be close, give attention, and do anything else to let your child know that when they are doing something appropriate, that’s when Mom and/or Dad will be engaging with them at a higher intensity.

In my line of work, I help children with Autism build new skills (social, academic, behavioral). Most of the time we can create behavior change (increase in positive behaviors and decrease of challenging behaviors) through our reactiveness to a child’s behavior. They quickly learn that there are consequences to their behavior and that the more appropriate behaviors receive more preferred consequences (a tangible item, a break, games, etc.). It is not that we are making horrible consequences for the challenging behaviors… actually we just make the consequence either so minuscule that it makes the behavior so ineffective in obtaining a certain outcome or we make the consequence meaningful and linked to the behavior (think, having him cleaning up the floor after they spilled their plate).

Here’s an example… When my daughter was less than 2 years old she did a naughty thing. She bit me! She bit me hard and it hurt! That was a behavior I’d never like to see again, so me having practiced this many times with the children I work with I was prepared. Here’s what I did to combat her challenging behavior (biting). I did…nothing. I didn’t react at all. She bit me and looked at my face, no reaction.

The next day, my wife was laying next to my daughter and guess what. My daughter bit her! My wife sprang up and yelled “ouch! No! That hurt! No biting!” A couple days later, the same thing happened to my wife and she reacted again. Literally, this went on for almost a year. Every few weeks my daughter would bite my wife. My wife would say, “I already told her not to bite!” *

The crazy thing is…my daughter NEVER bit me again. It didn’t do anything. Daddy, didn’t react so what’s the point in doing this again? There was no consequence, and it made her behavior totally ineffective in getting my attention. Even though she was getting yelled at and it may be perceived at negative attention, it made for a very efficient way of getting her Mom’s attention.

Another way to think about it is that our two most common emotions we should be showing our young children are Neutral and Excited. We are neutral when giving our children an instruction/direction and excited when they are doing something appropriate. We are also as neutral as possible when those problem behaviors arise. Of course we show other emotions but for young children we need to be as clear as possible. Using these two emotions keeps the confusion to a minimum for younger kids ages 1-3. There’s less guesswork involved for them. They won’t be thinking “Why’s mommy mad?” or “What just happened to make Daddy so sad?” They will just be thinking “Wow this is fun!” or “Mommy wants me to do something.” Later as the child grows older we can work on empathy and teach children about emotions and the cause & effect of their behavior on others.

Hopefully these examples and tips are coming across as applicable for many different situations. We should be thinking about those little problem behaviors that are getting big reactions from us but aren’t decreasing over time. If the behavior isn’t decreasing, we are actually reinforcing the behavior. Crazy huh!? It isn’t the child that needs to do something different, it’s us! Change how we react and the child will change as well.

* Footnote: My wife is amazing! She responded like anyone else would. She has learned from this experience and knows what to do when silly little behaviors occur that we want to see decreased. Often she reminds me that most of this is natural for me and I’ve been practicing in my profession for so long that I may forget how parents feel and react without any training. So true! With knowledge and practice though anyone can change their behavior…just like she has! I once asked her, “How often do you get frustrated with our child?” She told me “maybe once per week.” Once per week!? This was when our daughter was 2-3 years old. I would think that number is incredibly low for a parent of a toddler. No, our daughter isn’t perfect! We are just equipped with the basic knowledge of behavior and strategies to help ourselves and our daughter communicate more clearly. I’m so proud of my wife for her parenting abilities, she’s a rock star!

What To Do…

…when your child is doing something RIGHT! We often think about and are told how to react when a child does something wrong, but let’s focus first on the opposite. Let’s think of purposeful things we can do when our child is doing something appropriate.

First off, kids need our feedback to let them know they’re on the right track. A couple ways to give that feedback are through: Behavior Specific Praise & Being Amazed.

Behavior Specific Praise (BSP) is just that, praising a specific behavior. Instead of words like “good job” or “awesome” we can give them more specific feedback that they can use the next time they’re in that situation. For example, a kid picks up her toys and we say “nice job picking up your toys.” Not very specific and the child might not know how to replicate that next time. Rather, we could say “Wow, you just put all of your toys back in the right spot. That’s amazing!” You could go into more detail if you’d like (“you put the cars in the car bin, and the dolls in the doll box”).

Giving kids BSP is like a mini training session. We are training them to do a behavior a certain way. “Nice, you just spread shampoo all over your hair..even here at the end!” or “I like how you turned off the lights when you weren’t using them”. These tidbits of knowledge guide the child towards behaviors we’d like to see more of.

Do we have to give BSP after every behavior? No way! That would be too much and would not be as sincere. I like to give specific praise 4-5 out of 10 times when a child is learning something new, and then fade it down to 1/10 once the skill has been mastered.

The funny thing about this form of feedback is that a child will start to think about their behavior in these terms. They will say things like “Mommy, I just sat so patiently in the Doctor’s office” or “I played quietly by myself for the past 10 minutes!” They will focus on their positive behaviors as well, on behaviors we’ve shown them to have more meaning.

Now one last thing about BSP, the kid’s behavior isn’t going to be perfect. Like the shampoo example above, if the kid is just learning a behavior we are going to find the positive! Maybe she didn’t get the shampoo all the way out to her tips but you can assist her in getting it there and then we give her all the credit. We are helping them be successful (not so they have less of a workload) so that the next time they will know what’s expected.

Being Amazed is so much fun to do with kids and they eat it up! Often when parents are at the dinner table with their kids, the focus is mainly on what the kid isn’t eating. “Eat your food” “Take 3 more bites…ok 2 more bites…ok 1 more bite.” “No dessert unless you finish your dinner.” It’s almost like a battle every night at the dinner. Like a pattern has formed and we don’t know how to get out of it.

In our house, rather than focusing on what our kid isn’t eating…we only focus on what she IS eating. We’ve been playing this game since she was just under 2 years old (she’s now 4) and she still gets a kick out of it every time. While she’s eating or done eating, I’ll look around confused…I’ll look under the table, on/under her plate. Then I’ll ask: “Umm…where did her food go?” The whole time she is pointing at her mouth or tummy with a silly grin on her face. I pretend to be shocked that she ate all of her food. We all laugh and we carry on with our dinner.

Do I do something like that at every meal? Nope! Every so often, maybe every few weeks I might do something similar. At the beginning though it was more often, like the 4-5 out of 10 opportunities like I stated before. As a little girl, she loves the attention and she knows that when she eats her food there is a consequence…a good consequence! We never had to lecture her about eating and pressuring her to eat more. She just eats!

This is just one example, but you can be amazed at their behavior throughout the day. “How did you know how to share your toys like that!?” “Where did you learn how to color inside the lines like that!?” These may seem like games, but they are very purposeful. We play these “games” for a present and future outcome. Whatever the behavior, we can be amazed by positive aspects and show our children that those are the aspects we expect and want to see in the future.

Behavior Scale

I like to think of behavior on a scale. On one side are appropriate behaviors we’d like to see from our children…patience, caring, keeping their hands to themselves, good hygiene, etc.

On the other side would be inappropriate behaviors we’d not like to see from our kids…hitting, screaming, tantrums, rudeness, aggression, etc.

Common wisdom says that we should praise appropriate behaviors and punish inappropriate behaviors. Often times though we are giving the majority of our attention to the inappropriate behaviors and the scale is being tilted in that direction. Children are being trained that (even though it may be negative attention) the best way to get an adult’s attention is through displaying a problem behavior.

Rather, we should be loading up the positive side of the scale. Our children should be shown that the best way to get Mom or Dad’s attention is through appropriate behaviors. I recently saw a study that found that 4 out of every 5 interactions with our children should be positive in order to maintain a strong and loving relationship. 4 out of 5!? That means we are going to have to load up the positive side of the scale.

-When our children are sitting calmly in the waiting room…THAT’s when we give them attention.

-When our kid asks nicely for something we should be letting them know how much we appreciate their politeness.

-When my kid shares her toy with a friend, you better believe I’ll be there cheering her on!

This does not mean the inappropriate behaviors will disappear. They will still be there, and when they occur we should redirect them towards an an alternative…or quickly teach them a more appropriate way to get the same outcome.

I was working with a kid a while back that would scream every time we would transition away from a preferred activity/item. This was a very effective behavior for him because adults would allow him to keep playing because they wouldn’t want to cause him to scream or to make him upset.

It is totally appropriate to want to continue playing with a favorite toy, but it is inappropriate to scream. So I quickly taught him an alternative. I told him to say “1 more minute.” He did so and he was praised for asking. After his minute was up, he moved onto the next activity. This new behavior became even more effective than the screaming to keep his desired item. Screaming became ineffective and inefficient because it was no longer being accepted as an appropriate behavior.

This wasn’t effective every time, but that’s not the point. We don’t want robot kids doing what we ask 100% of the time. Sometimes he needed reminders and prompts to “just ask”, but his screaming decreased dramatically and he was asking for another minute consistently. Soon he rarely needed to ask for extra time and would be calm and collected to move on to the next activity.

Kids pick things up fast. We showed him an appropriate way to get something and he used it. On the flip side, we could have easily shown him that the opposite could have been true. We could have made his screaming more effective and he would have used it more and more to get items. So be wise with your interactions with your kids and tip the scale toward the positive!

“Why did you do that?”

When children (or maybe our spouse) does something that irks us, our first response is often asking “Why?” We ask “why” for a couple reasons, to get them to acknowledge that they did something wrong, to shame them, and perhaps to get their explanation.

What’s the child’s typical response? “I don’t know” and a shrug of the shoulders.  We might ask again and stand there with our arms crossed or hands on our hips looking down on them.

This scenario never happens while I’m working with children or in my own home.  Why?  Firstly, it makes for a tense situation for both the child and the adult, but more importantly I know about the Functions of Behavior.

There are only 5 functions (purposes) of human behavior.  A person behaves a certain way for these 5 different reasons:

  • Attention
  • Escape
  • Alone
  • Tangible Item
  • Sensory Input

That’s it!  Once you know these 5 then you can easily see the “why” in your child’s behavior.  If they are choosing an inappropriate way of obtaining one of these 5, then we just teach them the appropriate way.

Here’s a recent example…

My wife and I were standing in the kitchen talking and my daughter (3 yr old) walked up near us and threw her stuffed animal. It sailed through the air and it zoomed between me and my wife. We both stood there frozen for a second.  My daughter was all smiles!

What’s the typical response?  “Why did you do that?” “No throwing!” and most likely there would be tears and some back and forth between parents and child.  Instead, I quickly thought on my feet about the functions of behavior…she’s trying to get our attention. I calmly told her “Looks like you want Mommy’s attention…if you want her attention just say Mommy I want your attention.”  She walks away to the couch and we continue our discussion.

Five minutes later we hear from the couch, “Mommy…I want some attention.” My wife and I looked at each other and smiled.  She went right over and gave her attention as to try and reinforce that behavior.

We do this often, quickly figure out the function and teach the appropriate way to obtain the desired outcome.  It allows parents to focus more and more on what our kids are doing right and to help them build valuable skills…think (sharing, taking turns, asking for  a treat, taking a break, etc)

Who’s The Boss?

As parents, we expect our children to listen to us and follow our directions. We are the boss and we expect compliance and no pushback. When we want our children to do something we use many common phrases…

“How many times do I need to tell you?”

“1…2…”  (the classic count to 3!)

“Do you want to leave/a timeout/a spanking!?”

“Because I said so!”

“I’m not going to tell you again!”

“You’ll be sorry”

“Don’t make me come over there!”

Now, imagine that this isn’t coming out of a parent’s mouth, but rather from YOUR boss.  What if you’re boss said any of these things to you?  How would you feel?  How would you react?  You would most likely feel underappreciated, vent to your spouse, be miserable on your commute home.

This is how are children are feeling and no wonder they are throwing tantrums, being non-compliant, feeling hurt, and talking back.

What if there’s a better way!?  There are alternatives we can put into practice today that can change our relationship with our children – practical strategies that lower both the parents’ and the child’s frustration, increase positive behaviors, and decrease problem behaviors.

This won’t be a quick fix, it will take commitment and consistency!  What if there is a way for you to discover the possibility of making yourself into the best “boss” you can be! You deserve it and so do your children.

Stay tuned for tips and strategies to use with your children that are practical and effective…

Parent Training

I recently was talking with a long time friend of mine as she was going through the adoption process.  She mentioned all of the hours of parent training and hoops she and her husband needed to jump through to become foster and adoptive parents.  It hit me…there are no such requirements placed on biological parents.  People are thrust into parenthood most often without any training or experience with children…actually, I’ve come across quite a few people that DO have experience working with children that struggle with dealing with their children’s behavior.

In my field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA Therapy) there’s so much knowledge about behavior and behavior change.  Most of the knowledge is funneled toward helping children on the Autism Spectrum.  ABA Therapy helps children with Autism gain functional skills, social skills, and increase/decrease appropriate/inappropriate behaviors.

This knowledge of best practices and strategies should be available to the general public.  In this blog I will attempt to disseminate ABA for families of typically developing children.  You will hear about strategies that work, do’s and don’ts of dealing with children’s inappropriate behaviors, and most of all how to build a most positive relationship with your child/children.  When both the parent and the child’s frustration level decreases, a new and special bond can develop.