Jun 17, 2008
Some Thoughts about Behavior Plans
'Behavior plans' are one of the most popular approaches for trying to systematically change a child’s behaviors. Decades of research has shown that even an earthworm can respond to a simple behavior plan. So why do so many frustrated parents come to us at Mindworks (our private clinic) with the classic lament “We tried that, it didn’t work.”? As with most things in life, it’s because there is almost never a simple answer to a complex problem. Lets face it, if we could all fix out children's behavior by watching Dr. Phil or just buying the right book, lots of psychologists would be out of a job. In fact, many of us have wait lists for therapy appointments.
Helping our children develop self-control is one of the most challenging tasks we parents face. One reason behavior plans can fail to make lasting changes is that people understand them as ways of making a child comply. Getting people to comply for a little while is pretty easy. I can get you to do anything I want if I threaten you with a nasty enough consequence. However, once I’m not around or I can’t make good on my threat, you’re going to go right back to doing what you want. Believe it or not, longer or harsher punishments do not have a greater impact on eliminating unwanted behavior. There are decades of research showing that punishments have very limited effectiveness. While we absolutely need our children to comply with our rules, the true goal of a behavior plan is to teach the child to do something new.
When we take a teaching approach to modifying behavior, we come at the problem differently. Now our goal is to help the child choose a better set of behaviors than whatever behaviors are causing problems. As the psychologist Reginald Lourie noted, we must not eliminate a behavior without giving the child an attractive option for how to handle a stressful situation. If we just focus on stamping out a particular behavior, the child will find another way of dealing with his anger, frustration, boredom or shame (e.g. the child goes from hitting to biting). Remember, the goal is not just short-term compliance, its long-term development of self-control. Helping our children learn self-control can make all the difference for their happiness in life, not to mention making them better human beings.
Behavior plans have many common pitfalls. A major problem is lack of consistency, or using the plan sporadically or for too short a time period. This inconsistency creates a situation like a person gambling at a slot machine. Your child is the gambler, hoping for a pay-off (i.e. you giving in!). Guess who is the slot machine? When the ‘gambler’ never knows when the machine will ‘pay-off’ he is very, very, motivated to keep pushing buttons until it does. Kids are always looking for how to ‘beat the system’ and many parents give up as soon as the child finds a weakness in the plan that he can exploit. Every plan has weaknesses your child will find. That’s a delicate phase in implementation.
A psychologist can help you get through it without having the whole plan go down in flames. It is vital to get help from an expert to make sure your plan is developmentally appropriate! Lots of great plans fail because they are better suited to older children or for those without disabilities. The child must have the maximum chance for success, because there’s nothing harder than trying to implement a second, third, or fourth plan after failed attempts. A psychologist can also help you avoid pitfalls like inappropriate consequences. Too many well meaning people enact consequences that make the situation worse for everybody. For example, some people take recess from a child who desperately needs to let off steam, cancel birthday parties, or put a withdrawn, avoidant child into time-out.
Keep in mind that changing troublesome behavior does not happen overnight, and can be incredibly discouraging to find yourself constantly battling with your own child. The good news is that when behavior plans are proactive, fair and a good match for the child, they can and do help children change! Whether its called Parent coaching, Parent Guidance or Parent Management Training, learning new skills for setting limits is an important part of psychotherapy for children. But don't stop there--a really good psychotherapist will complement behavior modification skills in with improving your communication skills, learning to be proactive instead of reactive, and learning to understand your child's emotional life as he develops. It is well worth the time and expense to improve your relationship with your child. Learning these skills is a gift you will give them that they will pass on to the next generation.
-Dr. Rebecca Resnik