Dealing With Disruptive Behavior

Choose the Right Consequences

A great deal of managing misbehavior is focused on preventing it, but the second important piece is responding properly to it. Let's look at consequences that don't have the desired effect -- encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging negative ones -- and then at some that do.

Ineffective Consequences

Negative attention. Children value attention from the important adults in their life so much that any attention -- positive or negative -- is better than none. Reacting emotionally to your child's misbehavior -- "Don't speak to me like that!" -- will actually increase the behavior over time. Criticizing him in this way can also hurt his self-esteem.

Delayed consequences. It's best to respond immediately. For every moment that passes after a behavior, your child is less likely to link her behavior to the consequence. It becomes punishing for the sake of punishing, and will be much less likely to actually change her behavior.

Disproportionate consequences. At times, you may be so frustrated that you take away a privilege for a week or a month. In addition to being a delayed consequence, this may be developmentally inappropriate for a child who doesn't have a sense of time. A huge consequence can be demoralizing, so that he gives up even trying to behave.

Positive consequences. When your child dawdles instead of putting on her shoes or picking up her blocks, and you get so impatient that you do it for her, you increasing the likelihood that he'll dawdle again next time.

Effective Consequences

Praise for appropriate behavior. Catching your child being good makes the behavior more likely to happen again. Praise is most valuable when it's specific. Instead of saying "Great job!" you can say, "Thank you for putting away your blocks neatly!" Repeating or paraphrasing a child's words ("Thank you for asking me if you could use the computer") shows that you are listening and helps encourage his verbal skills. When you describe a positive behavior, you help your child understand exactly what you expect.

Active ignoring. This strategy should be used only for minor misbehaviors?not for aggression or very destructive behavior. When your child starts to misbehave, you deliberately withdraw your attention. This means no eye contact, no talking, and no nonverbal interaction. No sighing, no smiling, no nothing. The active part is that you're waiting for your child to behave properly. For whining, you are waiting for her to speak in an appropriate tone. For rough play, you are waiting for gentle play. Then give positive attention as soon as the desired behavior starts. When your child shifts to a respectful tone, for instance, you should immediately make eye contact, smile, and say, "Thank you for speaking to me nicely." By withholding your attention until you get positive behavior, you are teaching her what behavior gets you to engage.

Reward menus. Rewards are a tangible way to give your child positive feedback for desired behaviors. Not a bribe, a reward is something a child earns -- it's an acknowledgment that she's doing something that's difficult for her. Rewards are most effective as motivators when your child can select from a range of choices -- which not only gives her a feeling of control, but also reduces the possibility that a given reward will lose its appeal over time. A reward can be a privilege or activity (time on the iPad, a story, a trip to the playground) or a tangible reward (small treasures like marbles or stickers, or points towards a small purchase). Give rewards for specific target behaviors, post them on a chart so your child can see them, deliver or withhold them consistently, and update them every couple of weeks.

Time-outs. A time-out is one of the most effective consequences, but it is also one of the hardest to use correctly. A time-out should be given immediately after your child engages in a negative behavior that you've explained in advance will lead to time-out. If time-outs happen randomly -- once you've been pushed to the limit -- your child won't know what to expect. During a time-out, do not talk to your child until it is over. Rather than having a specific time limit based on your child's age, the time-out should end immediately after your child has been calm and quiet briefly, so she receives the "reward" for acting appropriately. Don't forget this last, very important, step: If you issued the time-out because your child wouldn't comply with a task, tell her to complete the original task. That way, the time-out won't have been a successful avoidance strategy for her.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

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