This post is part of my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.
I believe that children want to be good. I think even the most challenging children wish, in their core, that they could behave well. I imagine it’s not dissimilar to the way adults want to be more disciplined about exercise, eat a generally balanced diet, or get their finances in order. It would be nice, but sometimes we just can’t seem to keep it up. Breaking poor habits is one of the first of many difficult steps in forming better ones. Wouldn’t it would be much easier if we could just go find our younger selves and keep poor habits from forming in the first place? Until time machines work, then, let’s do our children a favor and help them build good habits before the bad ones begin. This, of course, is also known as prevention. Today, I hope to share with you some reasons why you should be proactive about anticipating and preventing misbehaviors, and how you can more effectively do so.
Every time we had a school assembly, I always had a little chat with my class beforehand. I preferred anticipating problems and promoting positive behavior ahead of time rather than dealing with negative ones in front of the whole school. Our chats usually went something like this:
“So we’re heading to an assembly after recess,” I begin, pausing as the children celebrate. “Yes, it will be fun, BUT I want to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience for everyone. What are some things we can do to make sure everyone has a good time?”
“Sit on our bottoms, so the kids behind us can see better,” one student offers.
“Yes! That’s a good one. Thank you for explaining why it’s important. I know it will be hard to stay seated sometimes, especially if it’s hard to see something or kids in other classes start going on their knees. How does it make you feel when kids get on their knees in front of you?” I ask. “It’s annoying, right? So let’s be careful not to do that to other kids behind us. If someone blocks your view, you can tap the person’s shoulder and kindly ask them to sit on their bottoms. They might not listen to you, which is not cool at all, but it happens. If I see that, I will also try to remind them to sit on their bottoms, but even if that doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you should copy their behavior. Got it?”
They nod their heads solemnly, preparing themselves to be the bigger person. Already, they hold their heads a little higher.
“What else?” I ask.
“We shouldn’t shout, because it gets too loud,” another student says.
“Ah yes, the cafeteria can get really loud when hundreds of kids are talking or shouting. Sometimes, it’s okay to be loud. If the speaker is encouraging you to be loud, go for it! But if they’re trying to get everyone quiet, try to help him out and throw up a peace sign or something, okay?”
We continue in this manner, trying to anticipate potential problem spots and work out how we will behave ahead of time. I paint specific scenarios for them that will likely happen (such as other kids getting up on their knees and blocking my students’ views), but also clearly state my expectation for their behavior in this case. Because of that, my students know they might be irritated, but they also know how they are expected to deal with it and why. When we are at the assembly, I am always pleased to see my students being considerate of other kids and exercising restraint when someone else bothers them. They see the very situations I have predicted come to life, and they know how to respond. Afterward, we debrief on the assembly experience and I point out all the positive behaviors I observed as a means of reinforcement.
These simple pre- and post-activity discussions are powerful for three reasons:
1. I have given them options and tools for appropriate ways to deal with potentially frustrating situations. Many kids just haven’t considered any option other than copying what everyone else is doing—everybody else is going on their knees, why wouldn’t I? Everybody else is talking over the speaker—why shouldn’t I? Unless you can foresee possible poor behavior and offer an alternative, kids often follow the crowd. Imagine how their behavior would have been if I had just taken them to the assembly without a preemptive discussion. Instead of a simple pre-assembly chat, we probably would have ended up with a disappointed post-assembly lecture. They would then have to try to unlearn the poor behavior and hopefully do better next time. Unfortunately, “next time” would be so far away that we would forget our goals by then and the cycle would repeat. It is so much easier, so much more effective, and so much more enjoyable for everyone to simply anticipate potential issues, review appropriate behavior for those situations, and pat ourselves on the back afterward for a job well done.
2. They are learning to trust me. When things happen the way I have predicted, they realize that I know what’s up, and they are more apt to listen to me in the future when I give them instructions or advice for anything. This trust seeps into other areas of our school life and is one of many ways I build my relationship with them.
3. We mentally rehearse good behavior, and when the time comes, we more fluently exhibit that practiced good behavior. When I was younger, I used to practice piano in my head, even when there was no piano with me. These mental practice sessions were pretty true to life—mistakes and all—and when I had the real thing in front of me, I certainly did much better than if I hadn’t mentally practiced at all. True, using a real piano probably would have been even better, but mental rehearsal is much better than nothing. I think the same goes for shaping behavior.
Once they have this positive experience under their belts, they are much more likely to repeat the same positive behavior in future instances. It becomes a simple and pleasant matter of reviewing and reinforcing good behavior.
Let’s take a quick detour to talk about incentives. Some children will not require any incentives to behave. However, if intrinsic motivation is not strong enough to tempt your child to better behavior, then use rewards (especially in the beginning) when you are trying to set a new positive behavior. Sometimes a little incentive goes a long way. However, as the positive behavior is ingrained in the child and becomes the norm, wean them off the rewards and let them know that it is now simply an expectation, and not something they should expect rewards for anymore. They have proven themselves capable of doing this well, you are pleased with that, and you now expect them to continue it on their own. When the desired behaviors have been mastered, not only do rewards stop, but deviation from them should result in consequences. But consequences are a whole other post.
Back to prevention. Since I am now a mother, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how I can apply this practically with my own children as they get older. I think preventative conversations would be particularly helpful for preparing your child to behave well for first-time events, such as a wedding or a plane ride. It would also be useful for everyday events—trekking through the mall, taking a long car ride, eating out at a restaurant, or sitting through a long church service.
Let’s use a trip to the mall as an example. I remember being such a brat when I was a kid. If my parents didn’t get me something I wanted, I punished them by glaring and keeping a 30 foot gap between us until we left. I know… how spoiled, right?! Instead of dealing with it at the mall, or doling out consequences after the fact, I hope to prevent such behavior in our children before it has a chance to develop into a pattern. I imagine our car rides on the way to the mall will go something like this:
“All right kiddos, we’re heading to the mall today.”
“YAY!” (I dunno… do kids like going to malls??)
“Now, here’s the thing about malls. What do people usually go to malls for?” I ask.
“To buy stuff,” answers child #1.
“Right. It’s a pretty crazy place, and there are people who get paid BIG BUCKS to try to get kids like you to want EVERYTHING THAT THEY SELL. Seriously. That’s their job: to make kids want something so badly that they can’t control themselves and they whine and throw tantrums to try to get their parents to buy it for them.”
“Seriously?!” asks child #2.
“Yeah, seriously. I’ll bet you’ll even see a kid or two do exactly that today. People are paid millions of dollars to get you to do that. That’s the world we live in. Now, some parents will give in and buy it to stop the kid from whining. Do you think that’s going to work on me?”
“Nooooooo,” they chorus.
“I mean, you can try it, I guess, but… really… do I seem like the kind of mom who is going to cave like that?”
“Noooooo,” they repeat.
Prevent whining and tantrum-y behavior: check.
“Right. You will probably see stuff that looks cool and see things you didn’t even know you wanted. That happens to me all the time. You can probably even think of some things you want right now. Any ideas?”
“A new lego set!” child #1.
“COLDSTONE!” child #2.
“I don’t want anyyyything Mommy, I just want to spend time with youuuuu!” child #3.
“Aw, that’s sweet, honey.” (Bear in mind that children #2 and #3 have not been conceived yet, so this might be just a bit of wishful thinking…)
“Now,” imaginary me continues, “It’s normal to want stuff. I’ll probably see a dress I want, and I could go for a coffee now, too, but just because we want something doesn’t mean we should get it. Most of the times, we shouldn’t, actually. We already have all the things we need, and we need to be careful about wanting things.”
I am assuming that the kids and I have already had many talks about worldliness and materialism, so hopefully I can just refer back to those ideas on a high level here.
“Okay. So if you see something you really like, you can show me, but we’ll probably leave it at that for today, okay?” I conclude.
“Okay,” they answer.
“And then I’ll say, ‘Oh that looks neat!’ and we’ll keep walking,” I repeat, just to get the point across. This was, after all, my own personal weak point as a child.
It’s much easier for them to say “okay” when it’s all imaginary, but this practice makes it easier for them to say “okay” when it’s real. Rehearsal.
“You know what else is probably gonna happen while we’re there? You’re gonna get bored, tired, and hungry. Bored while your sister is trying on clothes, tired while we stand in line to buy something, and hungry as we walk past Cinnabon and it smells sooooo good. Can you handle it?” I challenge.
“If you’re bored, think of a game to play together. If you’re tired, be glad you have legs, and if you’re hungry, I brought snacks. Mall food is overpriced. But today I want you to practice keeping your whining in your head, not coming out of your mouth. You can tell me if you’re tired, so I know we should think about leaving, but there’s a difference between informing me and whining. Can someone show me what the wrong way is to say it?”
“Mommmmmmmy I’m tiiiiiiiiiiiired can we gooooooooo yet?” offers child #2.
“Good. That’s exactly what I don’t want to hear. Can someone show me the right way to say it?”
“Mom, I’m tired. Do you think we can leave soon?” says child #1.
“Right. And do I need to hear it ten times?”
“Right. Once or twice is probably fine. And if I know you’re tired, trust me, we will try to be considerate and skip any stores we don’t really need to go to. So we’re good?”
Yes, I know. Just wait until the children are out there in real life, instead of in your imagination. But I have had hundreds of talks just like this with individual children and classes full of children for the last eight years, so I don’t think it’s an impossibility. Field trips have gone smoothly: students behaved wonderfully on buses, were well-mannered at exhibits, and no one asked the chaperones to buy them stuff at the store. Playground bickering decreased, computers were treated respectfully, and rainy day recesses were more relaxed and tidy (yes, really!). I know it works, because I remember how frustrated I used to be with these everyday situations before I started these conversations, and I saw the incredible change in how they behaved all the years after.
I have had a lot of these preventative conversations with hundreds of children now, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is a powerful tool. Like I said before, it is so much easier, so much more effective, and so much more enjoyable for everyone to simply anticipate potential problems, rehearse appropriate behavior for those situations, and pat ourselves on the back afterward for a job well done.
You may find that some undesired behaviors are already habits, however, and the path of prevention has long passed. If that’s the case, then stay tuned for my
upcoming series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior. I have learned some valuable lessons over the years, and I hope to impart some of my learning with you!