Learning Appropriate Behavior Through Proper Practice
By Mario Lamorte, MFT
We parents or teachers all too often respond to a child’s misbehavior with lectures, withdrawal of privileges, loss of prized possessions, and time outs. While these punitive responses may get the child’s attention, they usually do not result in behavior that is consistently improved. More likely the child feels resentful, guilty, ashamed, belligerent, and hopeless that he can ever change enough to meet the adult’s expectations.
Typically, the child tries to survive these unpleasant encounters with defensive responses like: “I didn’t do anything,” “He started it,” “You always pick on me and never the other kids,” “You’re not being fair,” “I’m bad and that’s that.” The litany goes on and on. The resulting cycle of misbehavior and punitive response is often a sign of how helpless both the child and the adult feel. When this dynamic does not produce significant improvement, we need to stop reacting and think more intelligently and creatively about more effective responses.
Consider the example of young children learning to play soccer. A novice player invariably kicks the ball with the toe. A good coach will teach the child the proper way to control and pass the ball using the instep. To teach the skill, the coach explains the correct technique, models the correct form through demonstration, and, perhaps most important, structures practice time in pairs without the distractions of a scrimmage or game. In this calmer setting of two players simply passing and receiving the ball, the child gains some mastery of the skill in a non-threatening, low-risk situation. However, put back into a scrimmage or game situation, the child commonly reverts to kicking the ball with the toe.
Is this a result of non-cooperation or oppositional behavior on the part of the child? Something that should be dealt with by removing privileges, prized possessions, or giving a time out? Hardly. To a competent coach it merely means that the child requires more practice in the calmer, less distracting setting until the skill is more completely learned and integrated.
Practice and Rehearsal
We know a great deal about the importance of practice and rehearsal versus simply verbal explanations in learning new skills. Why not then utilize these powerful strategies when assisting a child to learn more appropriate social and behavioral skills? Coaching strategies that combine verbal explanation, modeling, and direct practice and experience in non-threatening situations, properly presented, can effectively help the child to gain self-mastery and build feelings of confidence. As the adult and child work together in this manner, their relationship is enhanced by a growing trust and appreciation for the work being accomplished.
In short, the strategy that I am advocating is to take the specific situation where the child appears to be having difficulty and teach the child new skills in the same way that a coach teaches proper kicking techniques, leading the child through practice of appropriate alternative responses when the child’s emotions are relatively calm and the child can focus.
For example, eight-year-old Alan habitually reacted without thinking when he was annoyed or frustrated by another child, with name calling, shoving, and even hitting. Not surprisingly, this behavior usually led to escalation of the conflict, with Alan ending up in trouble at school. He told me how unhappy he was about being in trouble all the time, but claimed he really didn’t know what to do about it. He always blamed the other kid for starting it, and saw the teacher as unfair. Perceiving himself as inadequate at handling social encounters, he withdrew.
When I asked him what other strategies might lead to a more satisfying outcome, he shuffled around in his chair and protested that there really wasn’t anything else he could do. He told me that the teacher said to simply use words, like “Please stop,” or “Tell me if I’m bothering you, and I’ll stop.” She suggested that if that didn’t work, he should ask for help from an adult. When I asked Alan why he didn’t take the teacher’s advice, he just shrugged his shoulders. Unfortunately, Alan had received instruction and consequences, but no opportunity to practice using these new skills and no encouragement for any small improvements he may have been making. When small behavior changes went unacknowledged, it felt to Alan like he only got noticed when his efforts failed. It’s no wonder that he felt defensive and hopeless that things would ever get better.
What to do to help Alan? First, I wanted him to understand that I could help him to think before acting. I told him there were some things we could practice together that would help him when he felt provoked or challenged. Much like exercising at the gym can make your body muscles stronger, I explained, the exercises we’d be practicing would lead to his self-control muscle getting stronger.
Alan liked the idea of a stronger self-control muscle and agreed to give it a try. He wanted to be able to think before he acted in difficult situations and avoid some of the trouble that inevitably followed.
“Practice” can take various forms. Methods to help a child gain mastery over almost any challenge include:
- Develop a scripted response and have the child memorize it and repeat it once or twice a day for a week or two. For example, with 8-year-old Alan, we came up with responses he could use in challenging situations, and wrote them down. When told he was not wanted in a game, we wrote, “I’d really like to play,” and “Tell me why you won’t let me play.” As we worked on likely situations, he understood more clearly what he could do to improve his chances that his friends would want him to play with them, and how to respond in actual encounters.
- The child can draw a picture illustrating a situation that has been causing problems. Balloons can show the character speaking the appropriate words.
- Role play is an effective way to practice. The teacher and child can work with a challenging situation and rehearse behavior that is likely to achieve the desired results, i.e. what the child perceives to be in his best interest. He can even pretend to be upset and still manage to maintain his composure. In Alan’s case, we took turns: Alan played his bullying rejecting playmates, while I modeled the response, calmly stopping and counting to five quietly to myself, before using the sentences we had rehearsed. Then we reversed roles I played the provocative bully, and Alan practiced staying calm, counting to five and saying the sentences we had been practicing.
- Affirmations that affirm the behavior or response the child is striving to achieve can be written and repeated. For example Alan might use, “I think before I act even when I’m upset,” or “I use words or ask an adult for help when I’m upset.” If the child prefers, the adult can do the writing. What’s important is that the idea be made available for the child to memorize and practice repeating aloud. Much the same way children are encouraged to memorize times tables in math class, so that they can perform at a higher level when attempting to solve problems, having the child memorize words and practice actions helps the child to perform in a more appropriate manner when faced with an emotional challenge.
The possibilities for effective practice are only limited by our imaginations. Remember that when a child does make a mistake, it essentially signals a need for more practice, not more punishment. Any program for change should be custom-tailored to fit the individual child, his age and temperament, and the particular situation. Always, the program needs to be framed in such a way that the child perceives that it is in his best interest to do the practice.
A Word About Motivation
What if the child doesn’t care about improving his behavior? Without motivation, change is less likely to occur. If the adult is meeting resistance, it is likely that the child is expressing feelings of hopelessness learned from past failures. And most likely those failures are the result of using a suggested program of words and actions without a carefully structured program of practice and monitored progress as well. Experience has also taught us that the child is a very good candidate for self-mastery if the consequences that teach are presented in a way that is respectful to the child and not colored by blame and shame.
Once a child understands that the work it takes to improve is in his best interest, the necessary motivation to participate will follow. So it is important that the child not lose sight of the value these exercises will have in improving his life. In fact, the exercises can be fun and self-reinforcing if done in the proper spirit, with criticism replaced by encouragement and recognition of progress. Think of the young soccer players enjoying the passing drill with their partner. It is rarely perceived as an odious task.
Behavior changes typically occur in stages as opposed to consistent improvement or instant transformation. Therefore, recognition of the child’s progress is a key factor in bringing about change, even when he falls short of his ultimate goals.
To help both child and adult appreciate progress, it is important to identify the various steps that represent improvement in the child’s behavior. The steps to mastering the specific problem should be analyzed carefully with the child. For example, we decided (Alan and I) the steps in Alan’s situation would include:
- Simply pausing before losing control, while silently counting to five.
- Utilizing a practiced phrase.
- Leaving the situation.
- Asking for help from an adult.
- Using inappropriate words without getting physical. (It is important to include actions that are less than optimal as a measure of progress.)
- Achieving a satisfactory result.
We agreed it was not necessary for the steps to occur in sequence.
For teachers, the task of monitoring even one student’s behavior can be very challenging, given the demands on the teacher’s time and attention. However, the power of monitored progress cannot be over-emphasized. A successful monitoring program requires innovation and resourcefulness. As mentioned above, the first step is to sit-down with the child and, where possible, collaboratively identify behaviors that demonstrate movement in the proper direction. Children benefit from detailed examples when identifying steps to measure progress.
Once the steps have been identified, the teacher can observe the child’s progress. Be sure to include the child in noting when he is making progress. Encourage the child to report to the adult whenever he succeeds in situations that would otherwise go unnoticed. This might include the child reporting a situation where he got angry with another child on the playground, but turned away without incident. Track and record successes in a way that visually demonstrates the child’s progress. Simple grid graphs can be an effective tool for recording successes. The collected data will let the adult and child know when a particular strategy is successful, or when it is not working and alternatives need to be explored.
Let’s look at a typical classroom dilemma: a child who repeatedly disrupts the class by speaking out of turn. Even assuming that the child is interested in controlling his impulse to speak-out, it is still unlikely that he will simply be able to stop. The more realistic expectation is that the child can improve over time and, if not eliminate the speak-outs completely, reduce them to a tolerable level.
Rather than reprimand and punish the child for the speak-outs, the teacher could start collecting some baseline data.(The student might participate in this process as well, though traditionally, baseline date is collected without the child’s knowledge.) How many speak-outs occur on average during a specific time frame, such as a class period, or a full morning session? Data might be collected over a few days or even a week.
We are now at a stage where child and teacher can set a reasonable goal for the child. Typically, the child is too ambitious, and the adult does well to encourage a modest goal. There is little problem if the child exceeds the goal, and modest goals keep the child from becoming discouraged.
Often the collected data will demonstrate significant progress that might otherwise go unnoticed. Say the student has reduced the number of “speak-outs” from 8 times during a lesson to 4. Certainly not the ideal, but it represents a significant improvement. If this data is not recorded, depending on the time of day or mood of the teacher at the time, the 4 “speak outs” may seem to the teacher like no improvement at all, and the child will likely feel hopeless and confused.
I would like to include another case example to further illustrate the range of situations that call for utilizing consequences that teach.
Recently, a father and his young teenage son came to see me over an incident that had raised serious concern for the father. The son had gotten some caffeine pills from a friend at school, and the father had discovered them on the boy’s dresser. In our first session, the father and son both agreed that it was not a good idea for the son to have accepted the pills from his friend. As we talked, it became apparent to me that the father felt he had communicated the specific reasons for his concerns to the son. But when I asked the son about his father’s reasons for concern, the son was only able to answer in vague terms like, “It was a dumb thing to do,” “I could get in trouble at school,” and “I should’ve just said no.”
The father had in fact expressed some important concerns relating to the dangers of taking pills without parental or medical guidance. He’d listed such dangers as risk of overdose; possible side-effects like allergic reactions and panic attack; concern that his son might like the effect and slip into abusing the pills; and the risk that the pills might contain something more than simply caffeine .
Clearly these issues had not fully registered with his son. The fact that he couldn’t recall any of these details while sitting calmly in my office led us to suspect he would even be less likely to remember if a similar situation presented itself. The boy even agreed that the information shared by his father was wise and helpful.
The father had been struggling with the appropriate consequence to give to his son. During our discussion, it seemed that the father’s main concern was that his son learn from the incident and be more prepared to make a better decision in the future. Thus it seemed to me that a good consequence would result in the son’s fully acknowledging and understanding his father’s position. Given that this was their true goal, they agreed to make a detailed list of the dad’s concerns and spend time each day for a week reviewing it until his son had them memorized.
The dad was relieved to know that in future situations there would be a greater likelihood that the son would be able to recall the risks involved. The son seemed relieved by the non-punitive nature of the consequence, and more open to receiving guidance from his dad. Trust and respect were cultivated between the two, rather than distrust and resentment.
In case after case, I have seen that consequences are most effective when they are constructed to support individual change from a behavior that is not serving one’s best interest to one that does. The key to getting started with helping the child is motivation. It is very helpful to address any feelings of hopelessness, and make sure that the individual sees the change as in his best interest. After all, change requires commitment and effort. Few are motivated to make the effort to change unless they believe that the outcome will be beneficial.
Once there is agreement to pursue the change, it is possible to create consequences that help the child to gain self-mastery, e.g. Think before acting, manage the impulse to speak out of turn, listen to and remember useful information.
In sum, the four key characteristics of effective consequences that teach are:
- The consequence helps the child to gain mastery as opposed to being punitive.
- The consequences allow for change to occur in incremental steps.
- The consequence provides the child with the opportunity to practice and rehearse the new behavior in a calm, non-threatening setting.
- The consequence includes a strategy for measuring progress.
When these four principles of consequences that teach are properly utilized, both child and adult are in a position to share in the satisfaction that accompanies improved behavior.
This does not mean there is never a situation that warrants a consequence that involves punishment, i.e. loss of privileges or objects, doing a distasteful task, etc. But pay close attention to the outcome. If you are not careful, you may only add more stress and tension for the child, and perpetuate the unwanted behavior. Non-punitive consequences that teach are almost always more effective in supporting the desired change in behavior and strengthening the relationship between adult and child.
MARIO LAMORTE, M.S. is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist with a private practice in Marin County. He has been both a teacher and principal. He compliments his private practice with consulting in private and public schools. If you would like more information about Consequences That Teach or would like to discuss with Mr. Lamorte a workshop presentation to teachers or parents, you can call (415) 457-8547, or e-mail to [email protected]