Behavior Basics

  • Some simple ways to manage behaviors at home.


    This simple technique is a way to prepare your children for transitions, including transitioning to non-preferred or refused activities. 

    How do you use a countdown effectively?

    When you tell your child it's time to turn off the TV, they say "no!". Calmly tell them, "in 5 the TV is going to be turned off" (wait 15-30 seconds), "in 4 the TV is going to be turned off" and so on. After you say "in 1", turn the TV off. This may be a struggle at first, but once children get used to countdowns, it helps them prepare and accept the transition. 


    If your child is younger or has lower language skills, a 3-2-1 countdown with visuals may be easier. Show them the picture of the "3" paired with verbally telling them, "in 3 we are...", continue to 1. 


    You can easily make countdown cards and "laminate" with packing tape!



    Choices are an easy way to give your child control over a situation, and another way to handle refusal behavior.

    How do you use choices effectively?

    When your child refuses to get dressed in the morning, you can help by offering her choices. Simple, clear, and reasonable choices such as, "do you want to wear the pink shirt or the black one?" can help the situation. When giving choices, keep it to 3 maximum (generally 2 choices is best) and your child has to choose one of the choices you offered.


    Mia is having a hard time staying by you in the store. You get down to her eye level, and calmly tell her, "Mia, it is unsafe to run away from me in the store. Do you want to stay by the cart or ride in the cart?" Mia shakes her head no, or refuses. Calmly give her the same two choices again and again, giving her some processing time until she makes a choice. 


    Practice giving your child choices about positive things too, so they can feel more "in control" throughout their day. This will also help associate choices as a positive thing!


    First-Then Prompts

    This simple prompt is similar to choices, and helps with refusal or doing non-preferred things. Use this strategy only if your child gets to do something preferred directly after the non-preferred task. 

    How do you use First-Then prompts effectively?

    When your child refuses to do something you've asked, you can give them a simple "first we..., then we can...", or even just "first..., then..."


    Ashton loves chicken nuggets, but refuses to wash his hands before dinner. You can give him the simple prompt of: "first, we wash our hands and then you can eat your nuggets". Again, if your child has lower language or is younger, make it simpler: "first wash, then nuggets." 


    Now if your child is not motivated by the "then" or in Ashton's case, by eating chicken nuggets, a countdown may be more appropriate.


    Enforceable Statements

    This is a simple way to let your child know what their behavior needs to look like for something positive to happen. Very clear and simple, it lets your child know they will get to do... as soon as they do....

    How do you use Enforceable Statements effectively?

    An enforceable statement should be clear and simple. It tells the child what their behavior needs to be for them to be able to do something that they want to do.


    Odin is throwing his toys at his sister. You remove the toys he throws and give him the statement, "when you can be safe with your toys, you may have them back". Continue to calmly remove each toy until he stops throwing them. You might ask him, "are you ready to be safe with your toys?" and then return them. 


    Kayla is painting at the table and has painted all over her hands and the table. You take the paint and brush away, and tell her "If you want to continue painting, you will need to keep the paint on the paper. Otherwise, you will be all done." Wait several seconds to let Kayla process, then ask her "where does the paint need to stay?"


    Praise, Praise, Praise!

    This is possibly the most effective way to handle behavior. Notice when your child is behaving, and praise them for it. Teachers often live by the phrase "you get what you pay attention to."

    How do you use praise effectively?

    This may sound silly, praise should be natural right? But there is an actual correct way to deliver praise effectively to young children. Praise should be specific, authentic, and let the child know why they did a good job. Try and give 5 positives to every negative - it's harder than you think!


    "I noticed you put your toys away! That is being responsible and keeps your toys safe."

    "Awesome job using your words to tell me what you want. I understand you better when you talk like a big kid!"

    "You are playing very nicely with your little sister! I love to see you being a great, big brother."




Cooperating at Home

  • When expecting children to cooperate with specific tasks at home, make sure they are developmentally appropriate for the child. Here are some things you may expect children to be able to do at different age levels. Please remember all children develop differently and some may not be able to do these until older. 

    Age 3:

    • Put dirty clothes away
    • Put away toys or books
    • Put trash in the trash can
    • Wipe their spot at the table with a cloth
    • Wash their own hands
    • Put on/take off coat


    Age 4:

    • Brush teeth
    • Wash self in bathtub
    • Put dry pet food into a dish
    • Put silverware or cups on table (plates if plastic)
    • Dress and undress
    • Put non-breakable dishes into sink


    Age 5:

    • Understand and be able to restate rules
    • Independently do a simple chore (make bed, put socks in drawer, etc)
    • Remember routine: wash hands before meals without being told, etc
    • Help adult with more complex chores (fold laundry, water plants, etc)


    Children with special needs may need some accommodations to be able to do at-home tasks. Consider the following:

    • Only require them to do part of the task while you do the more difficult part. 
    • Provide instructions in a different way (each part of the task separately, picture cues, hand over hand assistance, etc.)


    If you want your child to begin to participate in at home chores, it is imperative that you explicitly teach children how to do each step of a chore. Try these steps:

    • State simply and clearly what you want to see your child do. It's hard fo parents not to say "where does that go?" or "is that how you put your toys away?" or "don't put your toys there!" and become frustrated. It's paramount to remember, your child may not know exactly what you want to see them do. Try instead: "go put your toys back on the shelf in your bedroom", or "please put this cup gently in the sink". 
    • If your child still seems unsure, try calmly giving them a gesture, point in the direction of where they need to go, or gently take their hand, saying "I can help you" followed with, "maybe next time, you can do it yourself". 
    • Remember to keep the direction simple, if your child isn't able to immediately do it. Instead of saying "put your books and toys away", you might simplify it, by handing your child one book at a time, you putting some away to make it easier, telling them, "you put your books away, now let's do your toys."
    • Once your child has completed the chore, even partially, give them specific immediate praise. "You put away all your books and toys! You are such a good helper!" or "I saw you put your plate and cup in the sink like a big girl!"


    Know that when a young child is learning a new task, it may take longer than expected for them to be able to do it independently. Try and remember that clothes may be in the wrong drawer, toys and books put in the wrong place, etc. This is why it is important to keep it simple, or one step at a time until your child has it down!


    What about when your child refuses to cooperate...

    This is common in preschoolers! Consider that they may not understand the direction, not want to stop what they are doing, or simply are challenging you to get a reaction/attention. Try these strategies if your child continues to refuse:

    • You may need to get their attention. Gently take their hands, get down to their level, say their name, and then explicitly say the direction. 
    • Children may need a warning that they will have to stop what they are currently doing. "In 2 minutes, you will need to stop playing and put these toys on your shelf."
    • Your child may need a concrete "cue" that they need to complete a task, such as putting their toys in their hands followed by a gesture of where they need to put them.
    • If your child misbehaves to get your attention, try, as appropriate, to ignore the negative behaviors and respond with praise to positive behaviors!
    • If your child becomes angry/frustrated/upset, remain calm yourself, acknowledge their feelings and calmly state: "I see you are angry. You want to keep playing, but the toys need to be put away. When you're calm, I will help you put them away." Wait until they are calm to restate the direction.
    • Find something simple that is "fun" that they can do when they have completed the task. This can make the task more motivating. "When you have put away 3 more toys, you can help me pick what to have for lunch!"
    • Try making a game out of a task. See if your child can "race" you, or who can put their toys away faster. Set a timer and see if your child can "beat the clock". 
    • Remember to praise your child as soon as they begin the task and as soon as they complete the task, with or without help!
    • If your child becomes angry/frustrated/upset, remain calm yourself, acknowledge their feelings, and calmly state: "I see you are angry. You want to keep playing but the toys need to be put away. When you're calm, I will help you put them away." Wait until they are calm to restate the direction. 
    • Find something simple that is "fun" that they can do when they have completed the task. This can make the task more motivating. "When you have put away 3 more toys, you can help me pick what to have for lunch!"
    • Try making a game out of a task. See if your child can "race" you, or who can put their toys away faster. Set a timer and see if your child can "beat the clock."
    • Remember to praise your child as soon as they begin the task and as soon as they complete the task, with or without help!

Logical Consequences

  • Logical consequences are an alternative to punishment. Unlike a punishment, logical consequences are a guide for children to understand that their behavior will have consequences in the real world. 

    Here are some tips:

    • They should be practical and enforceable.
    • Consequences must be stated calmly, clearly, and respectfully. 
    • Make sure your child has your attention before letting them know what the consequence will be - don't yell it from across the room. 
    • Consequences need to fit the behavior and be appropriate. 
    • Always let your child know what the consequence will be and be prepared to follow through!

    Here are some examples of consequences that are logical:

    • Your child throws a toy = toy will be taken away.
    • Your child does not put their pajamas on when asked = they have to miss the first few minutes of their favorite show while putting pjs on.
    • Your child dumps water out of the tub = tub toys will be taken away.
    • Your child turns the TV up when asked to turn it down = TV will be turned off.
    • Your child leaves toys out after playing with them = those toys will not be available to play with the following day. 


    Make sure to think about the consequence before telling your child. By telling your child about a consequence, you are giving them a choice; and always give them the chance to change their behavior!


    Use calm, clear, simple language. Example: "If you are using your toys to dump water on the floor, the tub toys will be taken away."


    Remember, children are not born with the ability to make appropriate choices or accept consequences; this will take practice and may result in tears at first. Also, remember the goal is not to punish the child, the goal is to allow them to make a better choice and change their behavior. 


    Lastly, and maybe most importantly, remember to praise your child when they make a good choice or change their behavior for the better! 

Teaching Your Child About Feelings

  • Young children experience many of the same emotions as adults: anger, sadness, frustration, jealousy, silliness, boredom, worry, etc. The difference is young children may not have the cognitive awareness or the verbal language to express these emotions in an appropriate way. 


    Adults can help support and foster understanding of feelings in even very young children. "Feeling safe and secure, loved and nurtured, is the biggest and most important ingredient for a child's healthy social-emotional development." 


    How else can adults help support young children's social-emotional development? 

    • Consider your child's temperament. Do they become easily frustrated? Are they more easy-going, letting things roll off their back? There is no right or wrong, but noticing your child's temperament may help you understand why they may sometimes feel "bigger" emotions than you think are necessary for the situation. 
    • Talk about feelings. This can be beneficial for children in infancy all the way to Kindergarten! Labeling feelings and how we know we are feeling that way can help children better understand how they are feeling. Label feelings in books, when they are happening, try and draw different feelings, etc. 
    • Validate children's "big" feelings while they are happening. "You are crying because you are feeling frustrated and upset", "you threw the toy because you are angry". It is important to calmly validate feelings, not to make the big feeling even bigger!
    • Role play how to deal with strong feelings in healthy ways. "I am angry because I spilled milk on the counter. I think I will take three deep breaths before trying to clean it up."
    • Make different feeling faces in the mirror. For very young children, you may label the emotion, make the face, and have them copy you. As your child grows, you can make a face and have them try and label it, or have them make the face that you label. as your child is 4 or 5, you can give them a scenario and let them try and make a face. "My little sister just knocked down my block tower! How might my face look?"
    • Make a cozy corner in your home. Children may need to be alone sometimes just like adults. Unlike a "time out" , this area can be a choice for your child to go to when they are angry, sad, or upset. This area can have calming items in it, such as a mirror, feelings book, stuffed animals, water bottle, etc.
    • Teach more complex feelings words. Rather than just happy, sad, mad, teach your child about more complex feelings: frustrated, jealous, embarrassed, worried, lonely, proud, overwhelmed, excited, cranky, confused, etc.
    • Suggest ways to handle big emotions. Parents often make the mistake of telling a child to "stop", whether it's screaming, crying, stomping, etc. It can be beneficial to teach your child how they can appropriately and safely deal with these big emotions. You can teach your child to take some deep breaths, go to a cozy corner, hit couch cushions, jump up and down, rip paper, etc. It's important that your child knows "it's ok to feel strong emotions, and there are appropriate ways to handle them so we can feel better." 
    • Be aware of your own emotions. Your child can feel it when something is off. Make sure you take time to calm down before reacting taking a few deep breaths, walking away for a minute, etc. 
    • Ask your child to describe their feelings. Many children won't be able to do this until they have the language and cognitive skills to do so, but listening to how they feel can help calm them down. You might ask "how is your body feeling right now?" "Your face is red, does it feel hot?" "Your fists are clenched, do you feel tense?"