Imagine all the problems in the world that could improve if the focus shifted to prevention rather than reaction.
We know that preventative health measures (eating healthy, exercise, sleep, and decreasing stress) are beneficial, yet, the majority of health problems are only addressed after they cause a problem. The same pattern can be seen across a number of issues in society, including behavior.
Preventative measures can be used to help change behavior. Behavioral Science (the study of human behavior) helps highlight the variables that lead to problem behaviors and how to change environmental conditions to prevent those problems. In other words, what is causing the stress in the first place, and how can we address that—and therefore the root of the issue.
One of my biggest critiques with some of the leading parenting methods is an over-emphasis on consequences and punishment when dealing with challenging behaviors, and not enough emphasis on how to prevent those challenging behaviors in the first place.
Prevention strategies for parents can be a powerful tool to shift the family dynamic and give parents a way to avoid having to rely on consequences and reactivity. As parents, it is easy to fall into old practices of reactive parenting; especially when we are tired and stressed. But if you choose to use these proactive, preventative techniques, your whole family will reap the benefits.
Here are four ways to prevent problems by making proactive parenting choices today:
1. Find the good and praise it.
The science of behavior focuses a lot on reinforcement—when something happens after a behavior, which increases that behavior in the future.
Children want their parents' praise and attention, so when you see your child doing something right—praise them for it! Catch them being good. The more you recognize and point out those good things, the more they will occur. Specific praise is even better, for example, "Hey, I noticed how you shared your new toy with your sister and waited patiently for your turn."
Reinforcement can also occur with tangible rewards or activities. For example, "Nice job cleaning your room; here is your allowance or screen time." The key to effective reinforcement is to deliver something desirable immediately after the behavior you want to see more of.
2. Increase the ratio of positive comments versus negative.
All humans perform better in relationships and at work when they get more positive interactions than negative.
Research shows the ideal ratio is 5:1. Pay attention to what your ratio is and make a goal to increase the positives. If you find yourself dishing out demands and criticism to your child, flip that ratio by increasing the positives.
Positive interactions can be verbal (find the good and praise it), or nonverbal (generous with your smiles, hugs and affection). A simple challenge I love giving parents is to see how many times per day you can make your child laugh.
3. Offer choices.
There is extensive behavioral research demonstrating the benefits of offering choice. Studies have shown that offering choice increases on-task behavior and decreases problem behavior, as well as the increasing rate of learning and retention.
Offering your child choices is such a powerful tool. Every human wants to have control over their environment and will resist excessive control. Kids want to feel in control. You can give them that opportunity in a variety of ways during the day. For example:
- "Do you want to get dressed or brush your teeth first?"
- "Should we eat toast or cereal for breakfast?"
- "Do you want to wear the blue or pink shirt today?"
- "Do you want to do your homework before or after dinner?"
Of course, kids can't make every decision for themselves; parents have to step in and make responsible choices. But simply allowing them to make a choice will have positive results and decrease the chance of a power struggle.
4. Give regular undivided attention.
Take at least 15 minutes a day to spend giving your child your undivided attention. You can call it 'special time' or 'mommy time' or whatever you'd like. During this time, you are completely attentive to them—no multitasking, phones—just be with them, follow their interests, notice them, comment on what they are doing, and don't give demands or criticism.
You can also apply this idea in shorter time periods spread throughout the day; for example, take three minutes of every hour to stop and play or talk with your child. Consider it their daily (or hourly) medicine. Children desire their parent's attention, and they will consistently engage in behaviors to get that attention (good or bad behaviors). If they are getting their fill of attention for free (noncontingent reinforcement) then they will be less likely to engage in behaviors to get your attention through inappropriate ways.
Preventative measures are sometimes harder to find the motivation for, but in the long-run, they are worth the investment.
If you find yourself in a position of not knowing how to deal with your child's behavior, don't hesitate to reach out for help. Sometimes prevention techniques aren't enough, and you need an expert to help. Behavior Specialists are trained to understand why behaviors are occurring and how to work within the environment to improve behavior and quality of life.
This article originally appeared on Creative Behavior Solutions.