Behavior Analysis, Reinforcement, respectful parenting

Behavior Charts…if you’re going to use them, here’s how:

Are you thinking about using a behavior chart for your child? Have you tried one already but it wasn’t successful? Let’s talk about this for a minute… When we say ‘behavior chart’ what we usually mean is a token reinforcement system. A token reinforcement system is used to increase behavior we like, behavior we want to see more of; a reinforcer, or token (like a sticker) is given following the appropriate behavior. As a parenting consultant for parents with typically developing children, I don’t necessarily recommend behavior charts for use in the home for a few reasons:

  1. Because I feel that the focus tends to remain on the behavior we don’t want to see… the ‘bad’ behavior. And that’s never a good thing. Keeping focus on the negative does not build self-esteem (in fact, it can reduce it), it does nothing for a child’s confidence, can increase stress, and all of these put together can really inhibit a child from actually learning the skills we want them to learn. Is that chart hanging on the fridge for everyone to see? Are you using frown faces to indicate a bad day, or poor behavior? How do you think that feels for the child to have that so prominently displayed? After all, if we had a chart put up on the fridge with someone marking off when we were not at our best, it would not feel all that great for us.
  2. I also like to see parents take more of a role…more responsibility… in how the child is behaving, especially if the concerning behavior is happening at home. As parents, we are very much a part of our child’s environment, and their actions and behavior are often in direct response to ours.  (And vice versa: Our children are in our environment, and our actions and behavior are often in response to theirs. However, we are further along in development and have the skills to understand this and address it proactively). By using charts, we tend to be saying that the behavior of the child is the child’s sole responsibility, without taking into account how we are all responding and reacting to each other, and how the environment as a whole (which includes us) is actually helping to maintain and even reinforce the unwanted behavior. While we definitely want our children to take responsibility for their behavior, taking responsibility and understanding that responsibility is developmental, and comes with time.
  3. While I think collecting data is fantastic, necessary, and should always be done when focusing on behavior change, parents with typically developing children looking to reduce a behavior tend to use charts more as a visual for the child, and less as an actual tracking method for meaningful change. Visuals for the child can be amazing tools, and can really increase self-monitoring skills, but the focus should be on reinforcing behavior we want to see. Other strategies should also be utilized (such as manipulating the overall environment). Often, parents of typically developing children just need to make a few changes in their own behavior, responses, and the environment in order to notice a difference.

But I totally get that there are situations where parents want to (and may need to) use a token reinforcement system for their young kids at home. And they definitely are beneficial when done the right way!

When parents want to begin using a behavior chart (or token reinforcement system), it’s usually because they want to try to reduce a behavior they are seeing.  Like hitting, or yelling, or biting. Because of this, we often feel the chart should address those unwanted behaviors.  We tend to chart things like ‘not hitting’ or ‘did not yell.’ But this is inaccurate! First, ‘not hitting’ is not a behavior, it’s the absence of a behavior. I’ve spoken before in our Gentle Parenting Facebook group about instructing a child to do something when you’re trying to get them to actually stop doing another thing.  If a child is hitting, it can be confusing to hear “Stop hitting.” There’s a reason your little one is hitting in the first place, and while you may not know the reason right away, telling him to stop without giving some other concrete action to engage in leaves things a bit up in the air.  So instead of “Stop hitting” you might say “Put your hands at your sides.”  This gives a concrete action… something to do.  And this ‘something to do’ cannot be done at the same time as the hitting, right? So, by default, the hitting stops.

Using a behavior chart should work in the same way. Instead of earning something when a behavior is not seen, choose a skill/behavior you want to see instead (something that is like the opposite of the unwanted behavior) and give a reward each time you see it happen!

For example, let’s say your little guy tends to yell when he wants something, and sometimes this can escalate into hitting if he doesn’t get the thing he wants right away. You can set up a token reinforcement system where he earns a sticker (or some other token that is reinforcing to him) each time he is heard asking for the thing he wants in a normal tone of voice. Even if you’re not able to give him the actual thing he wants at that moment, acknowledging that he asked in such a kind way, giving praise, and putting a sticker on his chart (or a penny in his jar) will be very reinforcing and he is more likely to ask nicely in the future (and less likely to yell!). After all, asking for something in a normal tone of voice means your little one is not yelling.

A few things to keep in mind if you feel a token reinforcement system would be beneficial:

  • Your child should be involved as much as possible in making the chart with you and helping to come up with the token that’s given immediately following the behavior, as well as the larger item/prize being earned after a certain amount of tokens have been earned. It’s also very helpful if your child plays a role in the tracking of the targeted behavior/skill, because this helps to develop self-monitoring skills and teaches your child to be more aware of his actions. You can certainly notice the behavior, “Hey! I just noticed you asked for that toy in a normal tone of voice, thank you for doing that! I’m going to put a sticker on the chart.” But then let him help with the tallying, “It’s the end of the day/week, would you like to help me count up how many stickers you earned?”
  • The reinforcer, or token, should be given immediately following the behavior you want to increase. The longer you wait, the less effective the reinforcer will be on the behavior.
  • The token and the item your child is earning/working towards should be reinforcing. Very often parents say they’ve tried positive reinforcement and it didn’t work. If that’s the case, then whatever they were using was NOT actually reinforcing. Positive reinforcement, by definition, is something given that increases the future occurrence of the behavior. If the behavior is not increasing, then it is not being reinforced. Finding something that is motivating and reinforcing for your child can often be challenging. Stickers, food items, smiley faces…those may not cut it and you may have to get a little creative!
  • The immediately earned items (stickers, marbles in a jar, smiley faces) are tokens that can add up to earning a larger item at the end of the day or week, or even month.  It’s good to start out with shorter time frames for earning (for example, if 3 tokens were earned during the day, your little one gets to pick out a special dessert in the evening). Then you can slowly extend the amount of time (after successfully earning enough tokens for the last three days to pick out dessert, now the child needs to earn a certain amount by the end of the week, or every 7 days, to earn something special). This helps to ‘fade out’ using the chart and reinforcers over time so that you’re not doing it for a super long time.
  • Occasionally, a ‘response cost’ may also be factored into a token reinforcement system.  This is where a token is taken away when inappropriate behavior is engaged in… but this is not really necessary, and like I said before, I think focus should remain on the behavior you want to increase. If a response cost is added into the system, there’s the risk of your child having difficulty being successful, especially if he needs to earn a certain number of tokens in order to earn a bigger prize. If your child struggles to be successful, he will lose interest in the token reinforcement system and the ‘tokens’ being earned will no longer be motivating or reinforcing.

Thinking of using a token reinforcement system with your child but want a little guidance? Feel free to contact me! I offer private consulting, and the initial session is free.

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