Parents: Your Attention is a powerful reinforcer, wield it wisely
Parents often overlook the simplest and most effective tool for shaping their children’s behavior: their attention. Children are intrinsically wired to search for the attention of a caregiver, and they will oftentimes take it any way they can get it. They are often equally motivated to seek both positive attention and negative attention. Positive attention is attention directed toward a behavior you would like to see repeated, while negative attention is attention directed towards a negative behavior, or those annoying and/or disruptive behaviors that you never want to see again. All too often, parents direct too much of their attention toward negative behaviors and forget to acknowledge positive behaviors, which can lead to an increase in the negative behaviors. Learning a few behavioral concepts can help you learn how to focus your attention to positive behavior.
Use Labeled Praise
When learning how to focus attention to positive behavior, one essential skill to master is the art of delivering Labeled Praise. Labeled praise is when you acknowledge a positive behavior using specific language. Say “Nice job sharing” instead of nice job. This lets children know why they are doing a good job and increases the likelihood they will repeat the behavior. Other examples include “Good job paying close attention”, “Nice job using your inside voice”, or “good job listening to what your sister has to say”. Incorporating labeled praise into your daily repertoire is an effective way to focus your attention to positive behavior on a consistent basis.
Frame things positively: Tell children what you want them to do
Children often want to do the right thing; however, in a given situation, they may not always know what caretakers want them to do. A common response to an annoying, negative behavior is to simply say “Stop!”. It is more effective, however, to frame your response positively by telling your child what you want them to do, instead of what not to do. Say “Walk in the hallway” instead of “no running”, or “Use your inside voice” instead of “quiet down”. Framing things positively greatly improves the chances that others will comply with your requests.
Addressing negative behavior: Selective ignoring, redirection to replacement behavior
Attention to positive behavior is great, but what about negative behaviors? The first line of attack for many negative behaviors should be selective ignoring. Withhold your attention and wait for the behavior to stop, then be sure to redirect them to a replacement behavior. A replacement behavior is an alternative behavior you would like to see in place of the negative behavior. Don’t forget to use labeled praise to acknowledge effective use of replacement behaviors!
Shaping Positive Behavior: the ‘Three-to-One Rule’ for giving negative feedback
When delivering negative feedback, it is common and natural to start an exchange by bringing attention to a negative behavior. This often can lead the child into a negative headspace that makes them significantly less likely to receive the constructive criticism you would like to deliver. Next time, try using labeled praise to acknowledge some positive behaviors before bringing attention to the negative behavior. Sandwich your constructive criticism with compliments, and your message will have a better chance of being received.
Reward systems: Your attention is free, the best rewards should not break the bank
When trying to motivate children to complete homework or adopt new routines, it is natural to think of monetary items as rewards for good behavior. Monetary rewards, however, are ineffective long-term motivators for several reasons. Instead, use your attention as the reward. How? Schedule shared activities as incentives for children to complete homework or other undesired tasks. Family game-time, weekly meals, or even just scheduling time to sit down and take interest in a latest hobby can all be rewarding activities that motivate your children to complete challenging tasks.
Remember: It almost always gets worse before it gets better
It is important to remember that whenever a new behavioral approach or strategy is put into place, the target behavior often gets worse before it improves. It is common for parents or teachers to prematurely abandon a new approach because they think it is making things worse; whereas, in truth, it likely just needs more time. Consistency, persistence and patience are essential.
Be proactive, recruit professional help if you think you need it
Find a structure or approach that works for you, and recruit a professional for an objective, outside perspective. There are different approaches that work for different children and parenting styles. If you feel you are hitting a wall with the approach you are taking then it is best to seek professional help. Search for a specialist, such as a Neuropsychologist or Child Psychologist who can evaluate your situation and help direct you to a well-equipped local provider for support.
If you want to learn more about the principles discussed, they are covered in many places. I was introduced to these concepts while learning about Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which is a powerful method for approaching disruptive, externalizing behavior. The principles discussed today are important components of the “child-directed interaction” portion of PCIT. More information about PCIT can be found at: https://pcit.ucdavis.edu/pcit-web-course/