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Effectively Changing a Child’s Behavior: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My three-year-old’s teacher is trying to help me manage unwanted behavior with rewards. She suggests telling him the specific things he is not to do, such as pushing another child (usually over a toy he wants), or running away from me in the parking lot, then taking away points when he does them. She says I should give him a prize for the day if he doesn’t lose any points. If he’s behaved all week he gets a special prize from me on Friday.

I’d appreciate your opinion before we get started.

Trying Something New


Dear TSN,

The teacher is attempting to modify behavior by rewarding the absence of specific behaviors? It’s very unlikely that this will work. Instead, identify and “reward” the positive behaviors your child needs to learn at the moment he needs to learn them.

A Behavior Modification plan can serve to get a child’s attention focused on a behavior that you want to encourage – 1) getting a toy that no one else is playing with (instead of going for one in another’s child’s hands) and 2) holding your hand to cross the parking lot. “Behavior Mod” works best with reinforcing the good feeling the child will get from doing the right thing. You might throw in a sticker chart, so the child can see his successes, but the real magic is how he sees that he benefits from the new behavior.

There’s Always a Reason

It’s safe to say that your child’s current behavior makes sense to him or he wouldn’t be doing these things. He wants the toy so he pushes the child who is holding it (in the hope that it will fall, or just as a physical expression of frustration). He’s excited to get into school so he runs from the car as soon as he’s unbuckled.

In a quiet moment, talk with him about each of your concerns. Because you love him you want what’s best for him. Pick only one concern at a time for your conversation. You want him to have fun playing with children and for the other children to be his friends. So you and the teacher (see if you can volunteer in the classroom for a few days) are going to help him find a similar toy whenever he needs one. You want his body to be safe crossing the parking lot. So you are going to remind him about waiting until he has a good grip on your hand before walking across the parking lot together.

Positive and Negative Consequences

The science behind Behavior Modification is not new at all. It was developed by Edward Thorndike around the turn of the last century. He postulated the “Law of Effect” declaring that any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated. The opposite is also true: any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be dropped. This work was continued by B.F. Skinner, John Watson, and many others up to the present time.

It is important to note that the early studies in behaviorism were conducted on animals. A pigeon, for example, was conditioned to turn in a circle. The bird was rewarded with a food pellet for a small turn at first, gradually working up to a full rotation in order to get the food reward. If the food stopped coming, after a period of failed attempts, the pigeon eventually stopped turning. Negative consequences were administered in experiments, too, such as a small electric shock, to inhibit a behavior. (Fortunately this practice has gone out of favor for treating human behaviors.)

The original behaviorists commonly picked food as a reward and physical discomfort (or pain) as the deterrent for conditioning behavior. These choices reflect the scientists’ manipulation of the animals in their studies based on simple survival instincts to eat and to avoid pain.

Of course a three-year-old child is a lot more complex in his thinking than a pigeon is. Plus, as has been found with both animal and human subjects, being paid to behave (with food or with a toy) can backfire since the behavior may stop when the prizes stop coming.  

It has also been found, in animals and in humans, that a negative consequence is less powerful than a positive consequence in changing behavior. This explains why shouting at a child or taking his toys away upsets him for the moment, but may not change future behavior.

Intrinsic Rewards

For a young child the new behavior should elicit an immediate built-in reward – it feels good to do it.

Never use food rewards, especially “treats”, since this can lead to eating disorders, nor should you use physical punishment since this is known to cause a child to imitate aggressive behavior and to damage the trust between the child and his parent.

Rather, we respect the complexity of a child’s motivations by helping him to get better at doing what will serve him well. It is very important to help your child understand how the new behavior is beneficial to him. Built-in motivations for a preschooler include having a friend and being able to take good care of himself

Before he pushes a classmate to get the toy car out of his hand, say, “Let’s find a second toy car so you can enjoy this activity together.” The enjoyment of pushing cars side-by-side, as friends, is the reward that will serve to make this new behavior last. It will take several repetitions of adult guidance for a child to see how this tactic works in his favor.

Coaching in the Moment

Obviously a Behavior Mod strategy works best with close supervision and coaching. When success is guaranteed – because you help to find the second toy car – the child quickly learns that the right behavior gets him a pleasant consequence.

The second behavior you mentioned can also be managed by guiding your child in the moment to do the right thing. “Remember when you come out of the car, you’re going to hold my hand.” Reinforce the intrinsic reward of his feeling safe by commenting on and stopping for moving cars – since you are tall enough to see them. Draw attention to his success by giving him a hug, a kiss, or a high five, when he arrives safely with you on the sidewalk.

A positive approach to guiding behavior works better than waiting to catch, and punish, a child’s mistakes.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 9: Good-for-You Food Fun; January 30: Temperament Differences.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

CCM will celebrate MLK Day with a special program on Monday, January 16 at 10:30 am. “The Skin You Live In” addresses the simple but challenging topic of skin color differences for ages 6 to 12.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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