The Science Behind Discipline: 7 Tips to Keep in Mind to Modify Your Child’s Behavior

by Sanya Pelini March 01, 2017

angry and furious young boy

Your 7-year-old daughter won’t brush her teeth when told and says “I’ll do it in five minutes Your 3-year-old daughter throws tantrums every time she doesn’t get her way Your 10-year-old son switches on his tablet when you tell him “no more video games for the night Your 4-year-old daughter refuses to eat her breakfast because you put bananas in her cereal and she “doesn’t feel like bananas today”. Your 8-year-old son has watched too much TV. You ask him to turn it off to which he replies “no”. Do these scenarios sound familiar? Discipline is one of the greatest and most common challenges parents face. This explains why the quest to predict, and thus control, human behavior has continued to receive much attention over the years. In 1905, Thorndike came to the following conclusion: “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation”. Other studies have come to similar conclusions:
  • Positive reinforcement helps produce desired behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement reduces undesirable behavior.
  • Overall, children exposed to aggressive models are more likely to use physical and verbal aggression.
  • Children are more likely to imitate behavior from those they perceive to be similar to themselves (same gender). For instance, boys are more likely to become more aggressive when they start school if other boys in their class exhibit aggressive behavior.
  • A child learns by observing the consequences of other’s behavior: If a girl sees that her older sister’s negative behavior goes unnoticed, she is likely to reproduce the same behavior if this behavior appeals to her (jumping on the sofa, refusing to listen to instructions, throwing tantrums, being a picky eater, etc.).
In other words, a child learns about acceptable and unacceptable behavior by observing the people around him/her (parents, relatives, teachers, friends, TV personalities, etc.) What lessons can you learn from behavior modification?

Success breeds success

Make it a habit to, “catch your child being good” and offering positive reinforcement (for instance by praising his/her behavior or effort) is likely to lead him/her to repeat the behavior. There is scientific evidence that the “carrot and stick” approach in which good behavior is rewarded (positive reinforcement) and negative conditions are removed is effective in teaching your child about appropriate behavior. Rewarding good behavior, therefore makes your child more likely to repeat that behavior.

What can you do?

Focus on good behavior. Teach your child to view him/herself as a “good child.” Let your child overhear you praise his behavior.

Have clear expectations

Some studies have found that parents’ expectations and behavior largely determine how children behave in childhood years and beyond.

What you say matters

Telling your child, “I want you to be good,” is way too vague for a child. What does being good mean? Get specific: “I want you to share your LEGO bricks with your sister.” Another example: telling your son, “You can play video games once your homework is done,” can lead to conflict when you ask him to stop. It can feel like you’re taking away his “hard-earned benefits.” To avoid this, be specific: “You can play video games for 30 minutes once your homework is done.” Being clear on your behavioral priorities also makes it easier to modify behavior. What are your absolute priorities when it comes to behavior? What are you willing to let slide?

Use relevant consequences

Consequences can only work if they are age-appropriate and relevant. “Grounding for a month,” does nothing more than increase your child’s resentment towards you. Be clear about your expectations and clearer about the consequences. Warn your child, then apply the consequences: “If I have to ask you one more time to turn down the volume, I’ll put off the TV.” Be one hundred percent consistent. When possible, consequences should be as closely related to the misbehavior as possible: “If you ride your bike without your helmet, you won’t be able to play with your bike for a week.”

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Modifying behavior is no easy task. It helps to take small steps. It’s much easier to focus on one specific behavior you would like to change, then move on to another when your objectives are met.

Punish or reward immediately after specific behavior

Evidence suggests that you are more likely to succeed if you punish or reward immediately after the behavior you want to suppress or reinforce is exhibited. Let your child know the reasons for the positive or negative reinforcement.

Praise sparingly

When your child does a good deed, praise the effort “you did a great job”, not the child “you’re so clever”. Give praise where praise is due. Evidence suggests that verbal praise can be effective in reinforcing positive behavior. However, there is proof that praising children without thought can go very, very wrong. According to inappropriate praise can affect children’s mindsets and lead them to avoid challenges. Inappropriate praise can also lead children to associate praise with failure or to become immune to praise.

Keep an eye on your child’s models

We learned many things about our son the first time his best friend came home for a play date: they acted exactly the same, spoke with the same Southern French accent and used the same expressions. According to the behaviorist theory, children identify a number of models with whom they identify (TV personalities, parents, siblings, friends, classmates, relatives) then imitate those models. This is why it’s important to know who your child is hanging out with. It’s just as important to keep an eye on what he/she is actually watching. Studies on television and video violence have consistently found that violent shows affect how children think and act: children exposed to violent shows are more likely to behave aggressively, be fearful and show less empathy.

What can you do?

  • Monitor what your child is actually watching.
  • Determine where and for how long TV can be watched.
  • Allow your child to watch current news only if you are available to explain any disturbing information.
  • Ban violent programs even if your child hates you for it – he/she will thank you later!
Behavior modification can only work if you are realistic about your expectations and make a consistent effort to modify misbehavior.

Actionable Steps

  • Is your child often “acting out”? Observe his/her models. How well do you know your child’s friends or the influences in his/her life? Spend some time together this week and find out.
  • How well do you know the programs your child watches? Watch at least one of his/her favorite shows together this week. Watch him/her play his/her favorite video games.
  • Honestly assess how you convey instructions. Do you communicate clearly? Are you aware of your expectations? Is your child always aware of what is expected of him/her?
I’d love to know what’s working for you! Let me know in the comments below.

Sanya Pelini


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