Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reward and Punishment-- how to change behavior?

How do we affect behavioral change in our children? Attempting to change an undesirable behavior in your child can be so frustrating and time consuming, and can have ripple effects throughout the family--especially when you are tired, running late or haven't had your first cup of coffee.

What if your child refuses to get out of bed and dressed in the morning, how can you change this behavior? Or your child consistently doesn't start a long term assignment until the day before it is due.

As a parent it is so hard not to get angry and want to punish your child. In some ways the instinct is to let your child know that you are the boss, and, therefore, you have the right, as the one in charge, to send your child to his/her room, take away TV or computer privileges, etc. But, I can't tell you how many times in my house this has devolved into a huge power struggle with lots of yelling, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually affect any behavior change in the long term.

Other parents might respond to the same situation analytically: rationalizing and explaining in a calm manner. But according to's Alan E. Kazdin, both of these parenting approaches are likely to be ineffective in changing the unwanted behavior.

It is of course meaningful and necessary for children to understand their behavior and how it has logical consequences. But a greater understanding of how or why a child misbehaved is unlikely to stop the child from misbehaving. "Understanding is not a strong path to changing behavior," Kadzin says.

My question is: does punishment really change the behavior of children in the long term?

According to this American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement:

The word discipline, which comes from the root word disciplinare to teach or instruct refers to the system of teaching and nurturing that prepares children to achieve competence, self-control, self-direction, and caring for others.

An effective discipline system must contain three vital elements: 1) a learning environment characterized by positive, supportive parent-child relationships; 2) a strategy for systematic teaching and strengthening of desired behaviors (proactive); and 3) a strategy for decreasing or eliminating undesired or ineffective behaviors (reactive). Each of these components needs to be functioning adequately for discipline to result in improved child behavior.

As an educator, I know (and this is backed up in numerous studies) that positive reinforcement works much better at changing behaviors in children than negative reinforcement. Focusing on what you want your child to do, rather than what you want your child to stop doing. Whether the positive reinforcement is a check on a chart, verbal praise or points earned towards a prize, it is rewarding the behavior change you would like to see instead of punishing the bad behavior. It will hopefully also set a positive emotional tone in the house. There will be less yelling and anger and, hopefully less attention on the undesired behavior, and more attention on the desired behavior. As an educator this approach is a cornerstone to my understanding of classroom management, but it is hard to apply this strategy at home when I'm tired, running late, or haven't had my first cup of coffee.

Change takes time, and lots of patience, and love. It can take months to fully achieve the behavior modification, and while it will avoid power struggles, you need to live with your child's choices. If you child does not display the desired behavior, the child is not punished; he/she simply does not get the reward. I appreciated this quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics which put parenting into perspective:

Even in the best relationships, however, parents will need to provide behavioral limits that their children will not like, and children will behave in ways that are unacceptable to parents. Disagreement and emotional discord occur in all families, but in families with reinforcing positive parent-child relationships and clear expectations and goals for behavior, these episodes are less frequent and less disruptive.

I found this set of useful strategies from the American Academy of Family Physicians to be a good set of guidelines:


  • Accept your child's basic personality, whether it's shy, social, talkative or active. Basic personality can be changed a little, but not very much.
  • Make a short list of important rules.
  • Avoid power struggles and no-win situations.
  • Try not to go to extremes. When you think you've overreacted, it's better to use your common sense to solve the problem, even if you have to be inconsistent just this once.
  • Try to avoid situations that can make your child cranky, such as becoming overly stimulated; tired, bored, or hungry (I'm adding here-sleepovers with very little actual sleep).
  • Don't criticize your child in front of other people.
  • Describe the child's behavior as bad, but don't label the child as bad.
  • Praise your child often when he or she deserves it.

  • Don't debate the rules at the time of misbehavior but invite the child to participate in rule making at another time, such as at family meetings.

Children who learn that bad behavior is not tolerated and that good behavior is rewarded are learning skills that will last them a lifetime.

Now, of course this whole blog post was just theoretical, and my children are perfect! Yeah, right, ;-). Wish me luck in remembering these strategies.


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