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Parents often begin their consults with us by stating what they don’t want their children to be doing. A focus on behaviors we don’t want leads to ineffective and reactive discipline practices. Behavioral science is clear: Parents foster a more peaceful home and satisfying relationship with their children through a positive and instructional approach to discipline. (Consult a dictionary to see the definition of “discipline” emphasizes teaching.) The 5-Step Competing Schedule model (Smith, 2004) was developed to help parents maintain an evidence-based approach to behavior. Effective parents approach understanding and addressing behavior in the following order.    

1. TEACH: Good parenting begins with considering how specifically we expect our children to behave. We clarify and define for ourselves first, before we teach our children. Start by thinking of three behaviors that concern you the most, and then write out what it would look like if your child was doing what you expected. Now teach that! Too often we think we know what we want, but taking the time to write it down may expose that our partners have differing definitions, or our expectations are unclear.

2. PROMPT: It takes less time to tell someone what you want before you want them to do it than it takes to reprimand them after they did it incorrectly. Prompting, which occurs before we expect a behavior to occur, is an effective strategy to build children’s ability to engage in expected behavior independently. We set our children up for success when we use verbal and visual prompts of our expected behavior. To minimize potential escalations and power struggles we prompt often, and reprimand rarely.

3. REINFORCE: Reinforcement, like gravity, is a naturally occurring phenomenon that occurs whether we are aware of it or not. When we ensure the behaviors we want are reinforced, we teach our children our values and expectations. Reinforcement is not bribery, indeed most reinforcement occurs without us thinking about it. Potato chips deliver salt as a reinforcer, that’s why it is hard to only eat one. Chocolate delivers that wonderful taste and that is why candy is a multibillion-dollar business. We work hard at our jobs because we like the satisfaction it brings us, and we learned that a paycheck allows us to take care of ourselves and those we care about.

We learn through reinforcement how behaviors lead to certain outcomes. Some valued behaviors have naturally occurring reinforcers. Other complex behaviors take time to develop. We add “contrived” reinforcers to give time for the naturally occurring reinforcers to work. Often contrived reinforcement is no more than giving feedback. In fact, your praise statements that are immediate, contingent, specific, and authentic are the most powerful contrived reinforcer parents can use and likely ever need. We build intrinsic motivation and independence through the proper use of reinforcement.

4. PREVENT:  Some readers are saying, “Hold it ! Don’t we start with prevention?” In real time, yes, we will build in prevention steps, but to maintain the proper mindset we plan for prevention after Steps 1, 2, and 3. Effective prevention involves altering or removing what triggers undesired behaviors.

5. RESPOND: Relying on only responding to “misbehavior” is ineffective and tiring! But inevitably children make errors. Often our instinct is to interpret our children’s behavior as simply a motivation issue or a reflection of us. Instead we should: (a) be prepared to respond in ways that do not escalate the situation, (b) avoid inadvertently delivering reinforcement for doing the incorrect behavior, and (c) ensure our children know and practice the correct behavior. For minor errors, we calmly tell them the correct way and have them show us the expectation. For more serious undesired behavior, we must be prepared with plans that maintain safety for the child as well as those around him/her. These are NOT “teachable moments.” Once things are calm, then we teach.

Sign up for FREE consults or to attend one of our highly sought-after trainings at! Explore our FREE resources on understanding behavior including specific examples of the strategies discussed here. We provide parents, childcare professionals, educators and individuals access to high-quality evidence-based behavior support and educational practices. Contact us to discuss how we can use our 30+ years of experience in building positive, impactful and sustainable change to support you, your family, and/or school.

PDX Parent Staff
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