Behavior Basics

Behavior Basics- How Can I Teach My Children to Make Good Behavior Choices

The information on this page comes from the class at Sam Houston State University called Observation and Measurement which was a required music therapy class.

We as parents can come to a point where we are driving ourselves crazy wondering if we are doing this and that right.  We fill ourselves with "what ifs". Am I doing this right? Are they going to turn out okay? If I'm guessing right, it's likely because we love our children and want to see them as happy, successful, and independent beings as they grow up. Does that hit home for you? Don't worry.  Our love for our children and their well being means we are on the "right" path or we have taken the first step.  Now we just need the "how to".  

Whether you are a parent or music therapist, we can help our children learn to make good choices with their behaviors and leave the extra anxiety behind by getting a grasp of how the basics of  behavior work. 

Here are 7 things to remember plus the basics of behavior modification. The information below will be followed by examples. This information is a good reminder to myself as well. 



The main ideas we want to keep in mind are:  



1. All behavior is a result of consequences.  Every human does a behavior because of the payoff/consequence of doing that behavior.  There is always a payoff. (More about this below)
  • Example: Adults go to work during designated working hours because of the payoff.  Payoff may be making money, having a good impression on those they work with, not getting fired, the enjoyment of the job.
  • Example:Babies cry because it will get their needs met.
  • Example: Some toddlers learn to scream when they want something because it gets the adults attention and sometimes results in adults giving them what they want to make them be quiet.
  • Example: Children will not clean their room if there is no payoff. For some children, the enjoyment of a clean room may be enough.  For others, they need a reward that is a greater payoff than being lazy.  Find something that they will enjoy more than that such as candy after, a sticker on a chart, etc.

Behavior that goes un-rewarded WILL extinguish and behavior that goes rewarded WILL continue!  Praise and reward children when they do something good. CATCH them or go out of your way to see them doing something good especially on a behavior they struggle with. 


2. My child is not "bad".  The behavior is "bad".  Separate the behavior from who they are.  Let them know that we all make mistakes (even parents) and you love them unconditionally. 

Example: The kids were so bad today!  Replace that with "The kids had bad behavior today" or "The kids made bad choices."



3. Make sure they hear other words besides "no" and "don't".  In other words, tell them what to do instead of, or in addition to what not to do. 

Example: Instead of saying "don't play on the stairs" you could say, "You may play in the play area or in your room.  That way you won't fall on the stairs".



4. Give choices.  Children gain self-confidence the most from making successful good choices on their own.  Self-confidence is a key factor in gaining independence. 


  • The choices do not have to be one good and one bad.  It can also be a choice of two good things which gives them a little control. 

Example: Would you like peanut butter or turkey? Would you like to put your socks on, on the stairs or by the door? Would you like to make a good choice and walk out of the store yourself or have mommy carry you out?


  • Eliminate "yes" or "no" questions when you are trying to encourage them to do something and give them the choice between which they want to do first or how they want to do it.


Example: Instead of "Do you want to eat your dinner?" say "Which food do you want to eat first?

Example: Instead of "Are you ready to leave the playground?" say "Would you like to walk to the car or gallop to the car?"


  • Put the problem in their hands (but consider your presentation).


Example: "What are you going to do about that?"

Example: "How are you going to fix that problem?"



5.  Let them know what is going to happen ahead of time.  


  • Children feel like they have a little more control when they know what is coming and also lessen the chance of negative emotions when they are abruptly interrupted. 


Example: If you will be leaving the park in 5 minutes have them pick two more things they want to do before leaving.  


  • You can even teach 2 yr olds about what "time" feels like by giving them a two minute warning paired with telling them to pick 2 more things. "Two more minutes before it's time to leave.  Pick two more things to do."



6. Have empathy and express that empathy to them. 


  • Put yourself in their shoes.  Did you do a similar behavior when you were a child?  Why would they have done this behavior? What is the payoff?
  • Use empathetic phrases that let them know you are not here for a power struggle, but to help them succeed.  
Example: "That must feel terrible."

Example: "I would be sad to see you miss your show after not making a good choice. I know how much you enjoy it."



7. Be the example you want them to be.  Children learn best through modeling. 


  • If they see/hear you apologize, they will be more likely to do the same.



  • If they see you taking the time to go calm down when you feel angry they are more likely to do the same.




How to produce change and modify behavior

  • Define the problem- decide what the problem is and who's problem it is
  • Elliminate the payoff if you want to decrease the behavior or add a payoff if you want to increase the behavior.  You must be consistent. 



How do I choose whether to eliminate or add a payoff?

  • Add a payoff if you want to STRENGTHEN behavior 
  • Eliminate a payoff if you want to REMOVE a behavior



How do I eliminate or add payoffs?

  • Through reinforcement and punishment.
  1. Positive Reinforcement- adds a reward or appetitive stimulus to strengthen a particular behavior
  2. Negative reinforcement- Taking away an aversive stimulus to strengthen a particular behavior. Example: a adding crème on a bite to soothe an itch.  Taking away the itch is negative reinforcement.
  3. Positive punishment- adding an aversive stimulus to decrease a particular behavior
  4. Negative punishment- appetitive stimulus is taken away to remove an undesired behavior
*Appetitive stimulus- a pleasant outcome
*Aversive stimulus- an unpleasant outcome


Remember: Behavior that goes unrewarded will extinguish.
Remember: If you want to change a behavior, the new payoff must be better than the current one.

It is also important to remember that while you are choosing rewards and punishments that children become more self-confidence and therefore independent when they make successful "good" choices.  Make sure that you implement a lot of choices for them during behavior modification.  



Example: Going Potty.  My daughter often refuses to go to the bathroom when she wakes up in the morning. The consequence of not going to the bathroom in the morning is that she has to go back to bed, but I have learned to leave that choice up to her in a non-threatening, non-yelling manor.  "Your choice is to go potty or go back to bed".  

The consequence of not going potty is to go back to bed (and also not getting a sticker on her reward chart) 
We have added a consequence/payoff of going potty which is that she gets to play, eat, and socialize with us (and getting a sticker).
We have eliminated the payoff of not going potty when she wakes up in the morning b/c she really doesn't want to go back to bed.  


If we would asked her to go potty and then NOT set up consequences for NOT going potty, we would have allowed her to have a payoff of NOT going potty which would have been playing anyway.  So she would have thought to herself, "If I do not go potty I still get to play". 



Example: Getting Dressed.  My daughter went through a phase where she did not want to get dressed in the morning and there were some days when I was crunched for time.

First suggestion: If we know our children take a long time to make decisions and get dressed, start the process earlier.  

Next suggestion: 

  • Set up a choice he/she can make that adds a payoff/consequence of getting dressed such as: "If you get up and get dressed, you get to pick your outfit".  
  • Eliminate the payoff of not getting dressed such as: "If you do not choose to go pick your outfit then I am picking for you". In the case of my daughter, she does NOT like missing the opportunity to make an independent choice.  
  • If they refuse to move in the time frame you need them to then add something like, "If you do not pick by the time I count to 5 then I am going to go ahead and pick for you because that tells me that you do not want to pick". 



For more information about B.F. Skinner and the Behavior Theory click this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_reinforcement#Positive_and_negative



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