Behavioral Plans

“I’ve tried everything. Nothing works. Sticker charts don’t work. Besides, I don’t think I should have to bribe my child. I don’t want to reward him for something that he should be doing already.”

Repeated, failed attempts to change problem behaviors can shake a parent’s confidence in the effectiveness of behavior plans. So why not try a different approach? Reconsider the potential power of a well-constructed, consistently-delivered behavior plan in your home. Once the desired behaviors become more automatic and innately gratifying for your child, you won’t have to reward “every little thing.”

Here are some tips for a successful plan:

Stay developmentally up-to-date: A sticker chart might stop working because it is no longer developmentally appropriate. Children grow and change. So make sure your plan grows along with your child.

“Buy-in” is crucial: Have a conversation about what your child wants to earn. Think about a couple acceptable rewards to offer first, rather than leaving choices open-ended.

Keep expectations realistic and simple: A common mistake is to set expectations so high that the child can never meet them. Start by setting the bar low. Instead of rewarding your child after a long and difficult week of completing all homework, for example, pare it down and reward for just one evening of completed homework.

Behavior has a function: In general, children engage in behaviors in order to obtain something tangible (such as an iPad); intangible (attention, for instance); or avoid or escape something (such as chores). If we understand why a child is behaving a certain way, we are better able to shape the behavior.

Stay consistent: A frequent problem is that plans are applied inconsistently. Families can be overwhelmed, so they follow the path of least resistance. But we learn through repetition. The same goes for shaping behaviors.

Don’t give up on incentives: It can be a constant challenge to find what works. Trinkets and small toys or an occasional new video game can be helpful, but after a while the cost adds up. Consider having your child earn tokens to add up over time to cash in for larger rewards.

Know when to seek help: If your family is struggling with behaviors that threaten anyone’s safety, seek professional help right away. Discuss the options with your pediatrician, locate a qualified mental health provider, obtain in-home applied behavioral analysis or recruit local family preservation services. For emergency situations requiring rapid response, call 911 or the local mobile crisis team, or proceed to the ER for emergency psychiatric evaluation. JN

Dr. Ayanna Cooke-Chen is a board-certified adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist.

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