Eliminating Problem Behaviors through Behavior Modification

14332370220_b39ff4ef03_oYou’ve seen it at the grocery store—kid asks for candy, mom resists, kid throws a fit, mom gives in.

While this situation may be the reality for parents on some trying days, it’s helpful to understand what’s behind this childish behavior. You wouldn’t want to encourage such tantrums, would you?

A couple weeks ago, Steve Andersen, a behavior specialist from the Provo School District, visited one of my elementary education classes. I was surprised at how many simple, yet powerful tips he shared about behavior modification. I’ll impart some of his wisdom, with the hopes of applying these concepts in my own teaching and helping others do the same with their children.

Fundamentals behind behavior:

  1. Behavior is learned.
  2. Behavior is purposeful.
    1. To obtain something.
    2. To escape/avoid something.

Think you’ve heard this before? Hang on, and read carefully: the difference between a peaceful and an out-of-control trip to the store—or the park, or church, or even time at home—may be in the details.

2424023715_bef42bbb6c_oBehavior is learned

So, behavior is learned: we all know we are creatures of habit. We do the same things over and over—order the same entrée every time, take the same route home, tell the same cheesy jokes—because we can expect familiar consequences. (Note: in this context, “consequence” means the result of an action, whether positive, negative, or neutral.)

Children also learn what they can and can’t get away with. If they realize they can cause mayhem in order to get what they want—such as a lollipop or candy bar— they’ll keep doing it. Likewise, if they realize that parents will not give in when they fuss, they’ll stop doing it. That’s right, they’ll stop! But . . . how?

Behavior is purposeful

Since behavior is purposeful, children will realize that their tantrum didn’t obtain something—even if that something is just attention. (For example, in classrooms, many times the class clown just wants a laugh; he doesn’t intentionally try to drive the teacher bonkers. Watch this video to how one theorist would handle similar situations using logical consequences.)

If parents aren’t responding to their fits, children will also realize they can’t avoid or escape eating broccoli, doing chores, or working on homework. If a certain behavior does not cause an intended consequence, the child will try something different until it works, or they will eventually give up.

Giving up, not giving in

Eventually. That’s the part that can get exhausting for parents and teachers. The formal term for disciplining a child to “give up” a problem behavior is called extinction. Here’s what that means: if parents or teachers don’t “give in” to a problem behavior, then the behavior will go extinct—stop, dry up, die off.

Steve told us of a young mother he knew who was accustomed to giving in to everything her 2-year-old daughter wanted. Steve coached her through the extinction process. One night, the toddler begged to eat dessert first instead of dinner. When her mama said no, the baby girl shrieked and hollered and cried and whined—for almost two hours. The mother’s only task was to completely ignore her, which she successfully did.

16571595778_52133c3e7e_oWhen the whirlwind of emotions paused, the mom asked her to comply, and the tears started back up for another 30 minutes, but the mom ignored her again. This cycle continued until, shaking, the 2-year-old decided to surrender. She accepted the consequence. In the next few days following this pattern, she showed a huge improvement in her behavior.

So there you have it—a couple of wise tips and the flat-out reality of improving problematic behaviors. It may not be easy, especially when those wails at the grocery store are louder than police sirens, but Steve, the behavior specialist, insists that with time, the goal behavior will be learned.

—Leah Davis Christopher, Stance

Next week, I’ll describe how to use praise and punishments in discipline.

Video from YouTube. All images from flickr.com/creativecommons. “Crying Kid,” by Phil Dragash. Link to license.  “ButDaddy,” by Bart. Link to license. “Up, Daddy!” by Donnie Ray Jones. Link to license.