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In the psycho-educational field we firmly believe that adult behavior strongly influences child behavior, often creating an emotional atmosphere that is more conducive to noncompliance than to compliance. More specifically, what we say to children and how we say it can either accentuate or de-escalate a behavior problem. Caregivers need to be vigilant of those communicative (i.e. messages) and interactional (e.g. strained adult-child interactions) factors that may inadvertently fuel inappropriate behaviors in children. Next, I share some insights of things we say to children that may be contributing to disruptive behavior at school and at home. Among them, we can find:
· Creating on-the-spot penalties for misbehavior rather than developing and discussing consequences for negative behavior with children before problem behaviors happen. Children need to know the consequences for misbehavior in advance.
· Describing inappropriate behavior rather than appropriate behavior; for example, saying, “Stop playing with that pencil!” instead of “Please, hand me the pencil.”
· Using too many “stop” messages (e.g. “Stop talking!”) and not enough “start” messages (e.g. “Put the toy away so that you can start doing your work”). Compliance is easier when we tell the child what to start doing rather than just telling the child to stop a behavior.
· Using vague commands; for example, “Knock it off!” An effective command is descriptive, and in 15 words or less tells the child exactly what we want her to do to comply. An example would be, “Pick up all the toys from the floor and put them on the bottom shelf.”
· Giving negative directions that tell the child what not to do (e.g. “Do not hit,” “Do not make noises,” or “Do not color on the desk”) rather than using positive wording that identifies an acceptable alternative and tells what to do to fix the inappropriate behavior. For example, “Try hitting this toy if you feel angry” or “You can color on this paper, not on your desk.” The child may be willing to change his behavior if he receives a good suggestion (alternative behavior) of what to do instead.
· Using name-calling (e.g. “What a baby you are!”), put-downs (e.g. “You are just lazy” or “You just never use your head”), and/or threats (e.g. “You are going to get it if you keep that up!”).
· Labeling the child with “you-messages;” attributing negative qualities to the child’s character or identity. For example:
a. “You are just lazy.”
b. “You’re rude and obnoxious!”
c. “You are so disorganized.”
d. “Cindy is stubborn!”
e. “Daniel is such a troublemaker!”
f. “You enjoy stirring up things.”
· Criticizing the child in ways that indicate stability and permanence (e.g. “You are always messing up” or “You never listen”), suggesting that the problem behavior is here to stay.
· Failing to reinforce the child’s compliance with our appreciation (e.g. a smile and a “thank you”).
What We Can Say Instead...
Constructive criticism is specific and behavioral, describing the child’s actions or behavior; negative criticism, on the other hand, is judgmental and concentrates on blaming the child for her behavior and in finding faults in the child’s character (e.g. “You are so rude and obnoxious!”). When correcting behavior, teachers, tutors, and parents need to communicate a basic acceptance of the child even when we disapprove of a particular behavior. Simply put, we describe and disapprove the behavior, even expressing disappointment if we want, but never condemning the child’s identity or character; for example, we can say to the child, “I feel disappointed with this behavior; you behaved in a rude and obnoxious way.”
All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior- To preview this book on Amazon, click here.