5 Tips to Modify Maladaptive Behavior
Parenting children, especially children with behavioral challenges, is difficult. I had a parent once tell me that a school instructor informed her that parenting is easy. Parenting is hard work and never easy. Helping modify children’s behaviors takes a great deal of effort and consistency. The more simple the approach the better chance it has to be implemented and to be effective. I have seen many treatment plans and behavioral goals with complicated language and benchmarks, which was basically written to make the writer appear supremely intelligent. The writer of the treatment plan probably was intelligent, yet it doesn’t often correlate into effective change. Overwhelmed parents/personnel need a manageable and simple approach to behavioral change. Even an effective and simple plan is difficult to implement. Here are a few of my tips to successful behavioral modification.
In order to decrease or eliminate maladaptive behaviors, we need a plan. Often parents come into a therapy session frustrated, confused and without a plan. A plan starts with an assessment in order to understand what contributes to a child’s behavior, to define target behaviors, to decide the function of the behavior, and determine what replacement behaviors are expected of the child. Typically, this is done using a functional analysis of behavior.
- Develop a consistent and structured routine
Children thrive on safety and security. Consistent routines are predictable. When a child knows what is coming in advance, that knowledge contributes to the child’s perception that he is safe. Structured routines allow a child input and choices, and are used to hold the child accountable. Today’s families are busy, so it is even more imperative to inform the child of what they should expect in their daily routine. There are many creative ways to implement a schedule. Based on the age and functioning of the child, we may use a picture schedule or go modern with an electronic google calendar. The most important point to remember is to put one into action.
- Teach and Master Coping Skills
If a child engages in multiple temper tantrums per day, there is a reason, a payoff for that child to throw the temper tantrum. If the child has poor frustration tolerance and expresses it through temper tantrums, we need to teach the child how to manage his/her frustration using socially appropriate methods. This does not have to be rocket science. For example, when an adult at work gets frustrated with their boss, their individualized strategies may be: take a break, go for a quick walk, or text a friend. We would use the same approach with a child. During the assessment, the child’s strengths, interests, and hobbies are listed and these make up his/her coping skills. For example, when the child escalates, I will try to encourage him/her to take space and do cartwheels for 5 minutes instead of throwing a temper tantrum for 30 minutes. These coping skills are essential and need to be practiced over and over again.
- Develop a personalized plan to reinforce the use of positive replacement behaviors.
Children need a reason to change or modify their maladaptive behaviors. Along with structure and routine, a child needs positive reinforcement to motivate their use of positive replacement behaviors. There are often two scenarios. The first is that the child has been grounded for months and is totally defeated, believing he/she is the worst child in the world. The second is that the child already gets what he/she wants no matter how they behave. Based on the specific scenario, a plan needs to be created that gives the child motivation to use positive behaviors. This plan is unique to each child. Some children are motivated by a hug or smile from mom, one-to-one time with dad, ability to have a sleep over, allowance, taking the family car out on a Friday night (teens). There are many methods to give positive reinforcement, but the overall goal is to say thank you, in the child’s language, for choosing to use positive behaviors.
- Evaluate and Adapt
The simple plan is anything but simple when attempting to implement. Usually behaviors get worse before they ever get better and frustration can set in. Parents and children need to give the plan a chance. Every child and family is unique and evaluating and adapting is a must. Being creative, effective, and consistent with the simple plan often determines how quickly a child improves. This requires adults and children to make the plan a priority, to schedule time each day to evaluate what is working and what needs to be changed. Adults and children need to evaluate their progress if they ever want to experience lasting change.
The fact is that behaviors are complex, with many contributing factors. Children cannot be treated as the same, meaning one treatment plan does not fit all. Focusing excellence on these 5 tips can help simplify a strategic plan and set of strategies to help develop pro-social behaviors in our children.