If you’ve ever looked into setting a goal for a child, you probably have a sense of how much information is out there and how overwhelming it can feel. There are charts, systems, stickers, tokens, and many more options, not to mention the difficulty in determining how to create a goal! This article will help you sift through the information to help you create your own way of changing behavior.
Defining the Behavior:
When you’re setting a goal, one of the first things you want to do is define the behavior in specific terms. This will help you get a sense of what it will look like when the goal is reached. For example, rather than saying, “Johnny will be peaceful,” try to be specific about what that looks like, such as, “Johnny will share toys with his brother or tell him calmly that he doesn’t want to share.” The second example identifies the behavior you want to see so you’ll know what you’re looking for.
The next step is to consider a principle called shaping. Shaping is the process of using small steps toward a larger goal to reach the desired outcome. It involves rewarding behavior that is not necessarily the target, but is moving in the right direction. The idea is to create some positive momentum. To continue this example, if Johnny currently hits his brother every time he doesn’t want to share, asking him to suddenly stop and use appropriate language might be a far goal that could feel too tough to reach. This type of goal might cause Johnny to feel so frustrated that he would give up. However, we might begin by noticing any time that Johnny doesn’t hit, even if he also yells, and specifically praise his behavior. Once he is able to stop hitting consistently, we can modify what we’re praising to be a bit more close to the end goal, such as rewarding instances in which he doesn’t hit and walks away without yelling. Another step could be to not hit, walk away, and offer his brother a different toy or tell his brother how he feels. Finally, he may arrive at sharing his toys or telling his brother calmly how he feels, our end goal.
The third point to consider is how you’ll track his behavior. Once you’ve identified what you want to change and how you’ll notice steps in the right direction, you’ll want to create a system that is reinforcing to the child. This is where the charts, tokens, or stickers come in. Choose a system that works for you to show Johnny’s successes. You can create a sticker chart, fill a jar with cotton balls, or give tokens that can be redeemed for a reward. You can then create a system to manage rewards, which can be tangible or non-tangible, such as choosing a story for you to read to him at night. I’ll write more about rewards in my next post to expand on this topic.
Behaviors typically don’t develop overnight and are not likely to be changed overnight. However, if you have a plan, you’re more likely to make a positive impact on your child.
Emily Herber McLean, LPC is a child and family therapist at The Center for Psychological Services. To learn more about her practice, visit www.centerpsych.com.