19th Feb 2017

My Child Never Listens!

Achieving behaviour change in children 3.5 years and over


Being in the early childhood sector, I run into a lot of mums, dads, grandparents and carers who are struggling to get their little ‘monsters’ to listen.  

The questions they ask me indicate that a great majority are struggling with the same problems:

1. How do I get my child to sleep on time? 

2. My child is refusing to brush their teeth and get ready in the mornings, what do I do?

3. When we are at the shops my child just won’t listen, he/she grabs things and has tantrums in front of all these other people. I am so embarrassed, how do I make it stop?


I thought the best way to go about helping all the lovely parents and carers is to summarise what the bulk of research is suggesting and to integrate in some of my personal experience. I am not suggesting that my experience is anything special but is useful to support the well-established empirical findings around children and behaviour. 


So let’s break down our children’s behaviour into 4 components: 

1. Antecedents (before)

What triggers particular behaviours in your child? Have you noticed a pattern? Maybe your child has a tantrum when you take something away from them or maybe it’s when they haven’t had their midday nap. Have there been any events in their life that may have caused them to behave in a particular way? 


2. Context (during) 

Every context has a different and new set of challenges. At home it is about getting ready to get to school on time, at the shops it’s about ensuring my child doesn’t have a melt-down because I won’t buy them something, when we are on a walk I want my child to hold my hand and not run away from me… you get the picture. 


So each context has a different set of challenges and when we consider behavioural change parents and caregivers need to have a good understanding of the behaviours that present in different situations. 


3. The behaviour (during) 

What exactly is/are the behaviour(s) that are problematic? Let’s take that a step further, can you list the behaviour’s from the most problematic to the least problematic? Now parent’s; I want you all to remember that our kiddies are just that, they are kids. I myself am guilty of sometimes having expectations that are unreasonable but in those moments I always remember to tell myself “remember they are just kids”. 


Things that are okay:

1. some sibling rivalry 

2. occasional mischief (which a lot of the time is their way of expressing their curiosity)

3. asking “why”  


Things that probably are not okay:

1. hitting parents/adults 

2. excessive violence towards other children  

3. melt-downs in the middle of a shopping centre 


4. Your intervention (before/during/after) 

How do you manage your child’s behaviour? Do you intervene when you see something is about to happen or do you wait till afterwards? Are you able to manage your emotions during these episodes or do you also become frustrated, angry or sad? 

A lot of parents and caregivers feel a sense of guilt around the way they have parented their child. Let me assure you that if you feel guilty and have taken out the time in your busy schedule to read this article then you obviously have your child’s best interests at heart.

So taking in everything I have said above, behaviour is multi-faceted and therefore, if we want to see a change in behaviour we are setting ourselves up for failure if we target them all at once.


So how do we make that change? 

  1. Focus on you - it is important that you are happy and healthy. Make sure you are taking all necessary steps to ensure that you are not too stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. 
  2. Change your mindset - take all the guilt out of your mind and your heart, lock it in a bag and throw it away. Usually guilt prevents parents from following through and this makes your job a lot harder. Kids are very good at identifying your emotions and playing on your guilt. 
  3. Take that list and focus on one context and the most problematic behaviour…
    Personally, I think the home is the best place for you to practice, get things wrong and try again tomorrow. 
  4. Communicate your expectations - so here’s the personal story. Early in 2016 I took in 2 foster children who had some very terrible experiences. I thought it would be a great idea to take them to a park on their first weekend with me, boy was I wrong. Let’s just say there was a lot of fighting, pushing other children, screaming and not listening. I then thought to myself, how can I make this better?

    The next time we went to the park I asked the children:

    “what do you think some rules should be when we go to the park?”…they had some great answers
    “we should take turns, no hitting, no pushing” etc. 

“great, those are some fantastic rules, why do you think we should/shouldn’t do those things” 

“because the other kids will be sad” the 5 year old answered

“great, and if one of you does forget and does one of those things, what should I do?” I asked.
“maybe you should take us home and we can’t stay at the park” 

This time we went to the park and they were fantastic. I sat there giving them thumbs up’s and afterwards told them how wonderful it was to see how generous, caring and considerate they were and rewarded them generously as well.


So, the important things to note from our dialogue…

a) I communicated my expectations

b) I encouraged them to be empathetic and consider the feelings of others

c) I let the children have the autonomy and ownership over their own behaviour and their own consequences

d) I acknowledged them both verbally and by rewarding them

This should follow through to all settings. Try and be positive around the way you communicate to them. Instead of “I don’t want you to cry when we go to the shops” say “I would like you to use your happy voice”.  


5. Create a consistent form of reinforcement. Token Economy is a well-established and highly regarded form of reinforcement

Token Economy is “when an object or symbol is exchanged for goods or services” [Hackenberg, 2009]. For example, you have a sticker chart. But it’s not just about the stickers. Once your child get’s 10 stickers they should receive some sort of a bigger reward. 


There are 3 extremely important factors that need to be considered when using reward systems such as this:

a) Frequency/difficulty - initially when you are trying to achieve behaviour change, you need to be extremely generous with the amount you reward your child. If the hurdle is too steep too early on, your child will lose interest.

As time goes on and the change in behaviour has come to light, it is important to slowly make the rewards less frequent and eventually phase out rewarding the behaviour. The behaviour has then become natural (internalised) to your child and they will not be expecting “reward” every time they do something good. 

 Should you continue to reward behaviour with something of material value (stickers etc.) your child will come to expect something from you every time they behave. You will hear something like “well I put all my clothes away so you need to give me prize”. Remember, our focus is to internalise this behaviour in our kiddies. 


b) Choice of language - Make sure you are very verbal about recognising your child’s achievement. Please never say “good boy” or “good girl”, reward the behaviour and avoid labelling your child. “Johnny, you should be so proud of yourself! You managed to finish all of your vegetables. Good eating!” or “Johnny, you are going to be so strong and healthy, you should be proud of your effort to eat healthy”.

If you look closely at the language I have used in both these examples, both encourage the child to take pride in his/her own behaviour. Not “I am proud of you” but “you should be proud of yourself”. This will encourage your child to take responsibility for their own behaviour and be intrinsically rewarded when they do so even if you are not in the picture.


c) The reward itself - make sure your child is being rewarded with something they like. Increase the reward as they achieve more. For example, after earning 10 stickers you may give your child 50c, after 20 stickers it goes to $1 and when they fill their chart they get a special day out with you. This will help the maintain your child’s interest in the reward system. 

 This point is extremely important. I often encourage parents to use a reward system but many come back telling me “my child isn’t interested in it anymore”. It is really important that your reward system has power and relevance to your child. Don’t have them exchange 10 stickers for a pencil, that will get boring. I used to have my foster kids exchange 10 stickers for money, as I mentioned earlier. The catch being, I would not buy them anything. We would go to the shops and they would say “can I have this toy” and I would say “well check to see if you have earned enough money”. It was a wonderful exercise because not only did it help with behaviour change but also fostered mathematical skills and an awareness of the value of money and the concept of saving. 


So to conclude...

Rewarding is a great way to increase positive behaviour. It’s simple really. 

Good behaviour —> reward —> increase in the good behaviour

Humans naturally respond to reward. Why do we eat? Because it feels good. Why do we work? Because we want money for our gratification. Why do we exercise? Because it feels good and makes us look good. Therefore,  most actions we carry out in life are attached  to some kind of reward. Naturally, it would make sense that, if we are reward driven creatures, that our motivation to do something would be increased with reward. Subsequently, children feel a greater intrinsic motivation to carry out a behaviour knowing a reward will follow. 


Remember, achieving behaviour change is not easy. Press on, persist, be consistent, persevere and you will see results.  


Thank you so much for reading!


If you have any questions or would like me to elaborate on anything discussed in this article, please do not hesitate to contact me on melanie@futurestars.com.au