Friday, 23 October 2015

How to tackle unwanted behaviour in preschoolers - techniques and tools

Here's the second part in my plan to tackle the unwanted behaviour in our daughter. It starts with the things that I've learnt from various sources over the last few years about how to deal with kids' behaviour. I hope that by making this list it will reinforce my own behaviour and act as a reminder of how to be a good mum! The second half of today's post is what we're actually going to do about it, a kind of action plan.

1. Always use positive language, not negative. For example "shall we try and be as quiet as possible, like a fairy" rather than "stop that incessantly loud noise". Sure, the theory (positive reinforcement) is that we want to be highlighting the good behaviour and then we can reward it with praise or whatever, but the reason this really works is that when you have a stubborn child, and you tell them not to do it, they sure as hell will carry on until you manage to distract them with something else.

2. Don't shout. Oh my god this is impossible. Unless you're Mary Poppins, and then you wouldn't need to read this. A case of social learning theory perhaps? Child sees you shouting: eventually you get what you want. Child learns this behaviour and then mimics it, expecting the same outcome.

3. Every child is different. As a parent, there are some things that we find hard to accept. The fact that our child might not respond in exactly the same way as another is one of those things. A few years ago, in our NCT group, we were the only couple of eight that hadn't bought our child a Jumperoo. Everyone said how amazing it was to entertain their children for enough time to actually do something, like putting some laundry on, or having a shower (in sight of the baby of course). So we bought one. It didn't work. Similarly, the naughty step has never really seemed like the perfect solution. Some days it works great, other times it's jut a game and she can happily sit there for her three minutes and immediately repeat the behaviour, happily landing herself on the step again.

4. Everything's more difficult when you're tired. This goes for both of you. Personally, I cannot function properly when I'm tired, and I'm far more likely to snap when I've not had a decent night's sleep. As I suspected of yesterday morning's palava, the behaviour of dear daughter may well have been down to not falling asleep until 11pm the previous evening, possibly caused by lack of activity during the day, so plenty of exercise and fresh air all around next time.

5. Everything's more difficult when you're hungry. Luckily I never allow myself to get 'hangry', but both husband and daughter get the hunger-anger when their bellies are empty, so for everyone's sake, make sure you're all getting well fed and that there are plenty of snacks around when needed.

6. Do what feels right. This kinda goes back to number three, in the sense that all children are going to respond to things in a different way, despite what some behavioural professionals might say. If it doesn't feel right, then don't do it. Sometimes I am happy to close the door on screaming, but other times I cannot leave a clearly traumatised child who sounds like they're on the edge of a panic attack. Only you will know what feels right or wrong at the time. Your instincts have got you this far in life, don't doubt them now.

7. Distraction - it comes so easily to some, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget a simple trick of distraction can often be enough to break a battle of wills. When we are struggling to get dressed, I will sometimes try a different part of the morning routine, like "shall we go and do our teeth instead?". It's not guaranteed to work, nothing is. She may well go and do her teeth but be back to square one with getting dressed. And I swear sometimes my daughter is actually better at it than us, when she's mid-argument about something or other and will, all of a sudden, see the other parent and shout "aaargh, it's the Gruffalo".

8. Make a game of it. Similar to the above, but one of the only things that actually got us to nursery yesterday was when there happened to be three schnauzers being walked just behind us. So I said "quick, the dogs are chasing us!" (okay, so perhaps if she hadn't already gotten over her fear of dogs, this would have been a little harsh, but luckily she kinda likes dogs now. I think). The way back home was looking like it was going to be just as bad as the way there. But I quickly decided on a game, so it went really smoothly once I said let's do a treasure hunt and then asked her to find leaves, stones, conkers, sycamore seeds, twigs, etc.

9. Don't hold a grudge - It's easier for some parents to turn the other cheek, let things wash over them and move on, but for others, a morning of terrible behaviour is enough to put them into a grey mood for the rest of the day. Whilst it's important for our kids to learn how their behaviour can affect other people, it's also important to teach forgiveness, and crucially, for us to remember that their behaviour is caused by their developmental processes, which we too need to learn from.

10. Chill out man. This is a pretty new one to me. I can't remember when I first read about it, but it makes so much sense. As your child's cortisone levels increase, they are not going to be able to control their behaviour. Wow, that is pretty straightforward. So, instead of punishing bad behaviour, give a hug and have some time out together. This is not rewarding bad behaviour as long as a hug is not seen as a reward. So keep up the daily hugs and find a nice place to be chilled.

Great. I have all the tools I need, but I still need a plan to put into action. So here's my plan for tackling the unwanted behaviour once and for all and helping our kind, happy and pleasant little girl get rid of the tweenager tantrums that have been driving us to insanity over the last god-knows-how-long. The basis for this has been taken from a behaviour management handbook for schools.

Create a display to show the desired behaviour

In our case, the struggles we are having at the moment are: not getting dressed (especially socks and shoes); not brushing hair; not eating vegetables; and not going to sleep. So I've created a poster showing all these things and a few more.

Talk through the display

Go through what's being shown and make sure that there are pictures, not just words, which are not going to be understood by your three year old. When we showed the poster to Button, she immediately could say what almost all of the tasks meant by the clip art pictures next to them. I vow to talk through it often to reinforce the outcomes that we're looking for. We are going to put stars against the things that she will receive stickers for on her reward chart, which will then go towards social, tangible and activity-based rewards (e.g. phoning grandma, a balloon model, TV time). The University of Southern California has a good list of rewards in their Parents Toolkit for Children, which also gives an insight into extortion, bribery and trained non-compliance.

Check the understanding

It's all very well having the display and chatting about it, but do they understand what it is that is expected of them, and what the rewards are for the behaviour? As I said, we have a separate reward chart, as there's things on the routing that we don't need to reward, such as play time and eating breakfast, as she's finally getting really good at that now (but there was a time when even this would have been on there, as she's never been a big eater).

Explain the rationale

Why do I need to brush my hair? Because it will get very knotty if you don't and then we will have to cut it all off! Just like many of us need to understand the rationale behind why we are expected to perform a particular task in our jobs for example (chance would be a fine thing right now!), children too need to understand what the outcome of failing to achieve a task. In the case of getting dressed, we thought that the threat of not being able to go to the park and see her cousin would be enough of an incentive to put some clothes on. Apparently not, but at least she understood this and was able to eventually get ready, albeit late enough to cause me to have to run to get there on time. Yup, that's right ON TIME. I have to admit that I really do hate being late. Perhaps childrearing is so much easier if you just accept the fact that you will ALWAYS be late?

Model the behaviour

Is it really fair to ask your child to get themselves dressed if you change into your pyjamas at any allowable time of day? I think that one of our major problems at the moment is our lack of routine. I am one of those people though that cannot get anything done until I am dressed, so it's always one of the first things I do in the morning, even if I don't intend to leave the house. Similarly if you expect your child to tidy up after themselves, it will be a lot easier to enforce if your home is kept in a decent state. Note to self: stop sitting at the computer and tidy the darn house.

Be consistent

It's back to child behaviour 101. We're going to be rewarding the good behaviour with star stickers, so we need to be consistent with these and ensure that they're given as an instant reward at the time of the behaviour.

So, now that we have our toolkit and action plan, we'll be putting it into practice. I'll revisit in a week or two and let you know how I'm getting on! Wish me luck.

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