Great parents focus their attention on positive behavior.
Santa is watching. The elf in on the shelf. Naughty or nice - which list will your child be on this year? It is terribly tempting to allow a child’s negative behavior to get a lot of attention both at home and in the classroom. But what if this strategy is actually reinforcing unwanted behavior or making it more likely to continue?
Research from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at Vanderbilt indicates:
- Most child behavior is strengthened or weakened by what happens after the behavior occurs. For example, a toddler who receives laughter and praise for making a funny face is like to keep making funny faces.
- Often adult attention is captured by child misbehavior; teachers and parents can be, in a sense, hypnotized by a child’s misbehavior, seemingly unable to attend to appropriate behavior by children.
- Attention from primary caregivers is so important to young children that they will continue a behavior that produces negative reactions. The result can be an increase in the very behavior that adults wishes to discourage.
- Although a specific negative behavior may be temporarily weakened by a negative response from the adult, there is no assurance that a more desirable behavior is being identified and encouraged in the process. For example, telling a child that she cannot go outside to play because she bumped her toys all over the floor does not teach the child how to put toys away. The “more desirable behavior” needs to be taught.
Great parents (and teachers!) are intentional about giving attention for positive behavior. They “catch” children being good. This strategy requires adults to give positive attention to positive behavior and do their best to avoid responding when negative behavior is occurring, unless safety is at stake. Positive attention includes: telling the child what he or she did well (be specific!), nonverbal responses like smiles, thumbs-up, pats on the back, presenting favorite toys or other activities.
Warning: Sometimes behavior can become worse because it gets better. Even if challenging behavior decreases, misbehavior is still a fact of parenting life.
Wise parents weather the ups and downs of reshaping challenging behavior by starting small, focusing on progress, and staying consistent. Every small step forward is worthy of acknowledgement. This Christmas, and the days that follow, look for the good and acknowledge it when you see it.