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  • Michael Philp

If it sounds complicated to you, it's probably too complicated for your child

I get the privilege of talking to parents about their children and how they manage their child's behaviour at home and reinforce good behaviour. You've probably at some point considered, or tried, a rewards chart for your child in order to get your son or daughter to improve their behaviour at home. Over time I've heard a lot of different ways parents go about this. I've managed to learn a couple of things from these parents 1) that a one size fits all approach rarely works 2) consistency is key and 3) if it's hard to explain to me (eg it has many different variables and contingencies) chances are the child also doesn't get it, the parents don't follow through, and it is likely to fail. For example, a parent told me about their points system, and how different chores or behaviours earned different amounts of points, and once her son achieved 100 points he got a reward. It sounded incredibly onerous to manage from her point of view, her son rarely got near 100 points, and guess what - it failed because it was too complicated. In this blog I'm going to suggest a streamlined approach to implementing a positive behaviour change program, which is based on evidence and easy to manage. There is a wealth of evidence that suggests that children learn better from positive reinforcement (as opposed to negative consequences). But first, let's examine the reasons why positive behaviour programs (or rewards charts etc) tend to fail.

It's too complicated

As the example I described above, I've heard many discipline strategies that involve just too many variables - different point systems, behaviours worth more or less than other behaviours, multiple warnings before a strike and multple strikes before a consequence. But the common theme is that each time it was explained to me, I didn't get it. I'd like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent, so chances are if I didn't get it, neither did the child. And if the child didn't get it, then chances are they gave up trying and the system didn't work and was quickly abandoned.

The rewards chart is started and quickly forgotten about

Consistency is king. Kids thrive on predictability and consistency. However, it takes time to develop predictability and consistency. If you start a program and then forget to follow through, then the message to your child becomes "it doesn't matter what mum and dad says, they'll just forget". I like to encourage parents to think long term - what we are doing is going to help your child to become a well adjusted adult.

Behaviours get worse before they get better

Whenever you try to change a behaviour, it will inevitably get worse before it gets better. If you are trying to work on not giving in to your toddler crying at the shops to get a lolly, chances are your toddler will cry and scream and tantrum even worse. Most of us will then think "this doesn't work". But consistency is key - sticking to the plan of not giving in will mean that your child will eventually learn that mum doesn't give me a lolly when I cry, and they will stop that behaviour. But you've got to be prepared for the long haul first.

A streamlined approach to starting a rewards chart

Firstly, the KISS principle applies. When you are starting a rewards chart it is tempting to put all the behaviours you want to improve on the chart, which can make it too difficult to manage. Pick 3 behaviours that are the most pressing at the moment and stick to those 3. When beginning make it really easy to achieve the reward, say 5 stickers before a reward. You need to make the program engaging for your child otherwise they won't be interested. Once you got it going and your child(ren) understand how it works, you can make it a little bit challenging eg 10 stickers. However, your goal is to give your child a reward - don't make it so hard that you hardly ever give out rewards, that defeats the purpose.

Plan ahead

Rewards need to be given as soon as possible to reinforce the desired behaviour. So think about what would motivate your child, what's their currency? It doesn't have to be expensive either, in fact a reward could be that your child gets to pick what game the family plays for example. I suggest creating a rewards box, like a lucky dip, that can have a variety of options. Also, you may need a contingency plan for when your son or daughter no longer seems interested in the amazing toy they were fascinated with last week.

You need a back up plan

Just because you are doing a positive reinforcement program doesn't mean that you don't implement consequences where required. However, it is important to have a plan for implementing consequences. I'll address that in a future blog, but for the time being I'd recommend reviewing the Magic 1-2-3 and Triple P.

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