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Children need discipline; indeed, they respond much better to an environment where there are clear expectations and consequences rather than one in which they are allowed free reign.

Having basic discipline techniques under your belt as a parent will allow you to respond to situations in a controlled manner rather than out of anger and frustration. The basic tenets of disciplining children involve setting limits, letting your children know what is acceptable and unacceptable, and developing clear and appropriate consequences for their actions (both positive and negative.)

There are three main ways in which to change children’s behavior: positive reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement means we add something (praise, incentives) so that a desired behavior continues or increases. Positive punishment means we add something (time out, chore, apology note) so that an undesired behavior decreases or stops. Negative punishment means we take something away (toy, privilege) to decrease or stop an undesired behavior.

Positive reinforcement is the best place to start, and all discipline plans should include an element of reward. The following list of suggestions should be considered just that, suggestions. Every parent will find that their individual child/family plan requires some customization based on personality and specific needs. Feel free to consult your pediatrician for help in creating your individual plan.

    This lays the groundwork for all other disciplinary measures. Do not assume that children, at any age, can intuit your expectations. Confusion as well as inconsistency between caregivers will only lead to frustration for your child and yourself. Establish fair and consistent limits on behavior, relay them in a clear and age appropriate fashion, explain why those limits have been chosen and provide praise for following them. Consequences should also be laid out, both positive and negative. Establishing limits in of itself may effectively control behavior, as children usually want to please. Clear rules also allow a child to choose his/her behavior, knowing what the consequences will be.

    Praise is powerful form of positive reinforcement. It is cheap, it is effective, and it is easy to do. Praise should include what was positive about a behavior so that it can be repeated in the future, i.e. “I like how you finished you homework by organizing your materials in advance.” Praise is most effective at the time of the good behavior, but can always be given at a later time. Don’t be stingy, but at the same time avoid praising every little action, so that a child is not anxious if praise is not constantly forthcoming.

    This is a method of teaching appropriate responses- what we want our children to do. When your child does something socially inappropriate, have them practice the appropriate behavior with your coaching. For example, if your child grabs a toy away from another child, give the toy back and have them ask for it politely. This is an effective method of discipline for the toddler and early childhood years.

    This is the strategy of ignoring, or not paying attention to, a behavior you want to stop. It is based on the principle of extinction, which says that a behavior will decrease, if not reinforced. Ignoring assumes that children continue unwanted behaviors to get attention. Ignoring should be used for behaviors that are relatively benign (crying, whining, interrupting, persistent asking of the same, answered question) and not for behaviors that are potentially dangerous. Do not respond to the unwanted behavior in any way, including commenting on it to others. You may, if warranted, remove yourself from the situation by leaving the room, or just simply continue with your activities. Not always easy, but very effective over time.

    Time out is a punishment technique, and serves to both remove the child from a situation and punish the behavior. Time outs should be given in a quiet place, away from the “scene of the crime,” where the child is in full view of the caregiver. They should last approximately one minute for each year of the child’s age, and can be started at about two years of age once your child understands the concept and can sit still for an appropriate period of time. If your child is being oppositional and struggling, time out may not be the best strategy. It is best used for a small number of simple behaviors (i.e. pushing, hitting, cursing), and used every time the behavior occurs.

    Chill outs are used before a punishment is meted out. They should be used in elementary age children and older, who are capable of pulling themselves together and using coping mechanisms to calm down and cease an inappropriate behavior. When a child begins to argue, or is about to lose control of a situation, they are encouraged to stop, and take a chill out. Remind your child of the consequences of continuing the unwanted behavior. They should be asked to go to a quiet place where they can calm down and regain control of their behavior. This is a nice strategy as it places control of the situation in the child’s hands, and minimizes the punishment aspect of the interaction.

    Once clear rules and expectations have been set, more specific goals or behaviors to target can be identified. When choosing a single behavior to change, make sure that the desired behavior is one that your child can do and is easily identified. Goals should be specific, i.e. complete homework before dinner, make the bed before breakfast, return home before curfew. It is almost always preferable to begin with rewards, as positive reinforcement is very effective and pleasurable for all involved. For example, your child does not want to start homework on time. One option is to establish a contingency- a relationship between the behavior and a desired end result- that says you can earn 1 hour of free time if your homework is started by 3:30. Consequences are the alternative punishment, and should “fit the crime,” i.e. not be overly harsh or unduly benign. If your homework is not started by 3:30, you may not go outside to play. Not all behaviors can have a positive reinforcement associated with them. Aggressive behaviors should have clear consequences. For example, if you hit your brother you will not be able to watch TV tonight. It is the consistent pairing of the behavior and outcome that produces change- rarely is a single reward or punishment enough to change a behavioral pattern. Be patient and be consistent and you will see change.

    This is among the most effective and long-lasting forms of punishment, but many parents are uncomfortable allowing natural consequences. Obviously consequences that are not clearly understood (i.e. a toddler hitting her head against a hard surface in frustration) should be avoided. On the other hand, if your child prefers to spend her study time daydreaming, thus earning a poor grade on a test, she should be allowed to learn the consequences of her actions. One poor grade, as opposed to days of nagging, may have much more staying power in the future. Better they learn that they are responsible for their own actions early, before learning these hard lessons in adulthood.

    Sometimes behaviors are more complex and need to be broken down into behavior plans. Behavior charts, sticker plans, and token economies are different ways to do this.

    First, a small number of goals should be chosen, five or fewer depending on the age of the child. All behaviors must be doable by the child or adolescent. The behaviors should be simple and concrete. If necessary, a goal may be broken down into smaller, more achievable parts. They should be written in a positive direction, i.e. speaks respectfully without cursing, follows directions before a third warning, cleans room and makes the bed without reminder. Each goal should have a reward associated with it. Rewards can be stickers on a chart, marbles in a jar, points, activities or choices.

    In token plans and sticker charts the points or stickers usually add up to a reward at the end of a defined goal (i.e. 7 stickers or 10 points.) Younger children benefit from more immediate rewards. Older children and adolescents can delay their gratification, and may prefer working towards a longer-term reward that is bigger in scale. Rewards should be reasonable, and do not need to cost money. Ideas include TV or computer time, selecting a favorite meal, alone time with a parent. For adolescents, rewards may include increased responsibilities, such as attending a movie alone with a friend, or a later curfew. Behavior plans should be written out, posted clearly, and reviewed frequently with your child. Older children and teens can sign behavior contracts, the part of the plan where they agree to abide by the goals.

    These plans require time and consistency. Months may be required to change behaviors permanently. You may find that these plans also have greater interest and staying power if you tweak them a bit- changing the rewards or method of counting points over time.

    These are plans that involve both earning points for positive behaviors and losing points for undesired behaviors. This works best for older children and teens, who are better able to understand the concept of losing something that was previously earned. For example, if you are targeting fighting between siblings, points may be earned for using words or walking away from a situation, but lost if aggression occurs.

    My favorite “token economy” is called the “MARBLE JAR.” This is a method that combines both a response-cost system with early awareness of finance (i.e. “things” cost money, and when you want “things” you need to prioritize and earn them.) Start out with a clear jar filled with marbles (Walmart or the dollar store) and another container for each child involved (this can be simple enough for a 2-3 year old to understand, and complex enough to keep a pre-teen engaged.) If you have very small children in the house, consider using cotton balls instead. You may want to have fun and let your child decorate their container as they like. Sit down and discuss 1-5 ways of earning a marble (i.e. making the bed in the morning, basic chores, behavioral goals.) Write these down and display clearly. Then decide on several rewards and their value (i.e. trip to the ice-cream store = 5 marbles.) In addition, as children request items (i.e. a DVD in the grocery store) you can give their “marble value” and list them on the marble chart as items to be earned. Many times you will find your child suddenly doesn’t “need” an item when they realize how many marbles it will “cost”!

    In addition, you may want to randomly reward great behaviors or actions when they occur with a marble- as children never know when this will happen, it actually encourages good behavior on a regular basis rather then just when the child is specifically working to earn a marble (i.e. doing a chore.)

    You can also REMOVE a marble for poor behavior, or for older children not adhering to a goal (i.e. not walking the dog, resulting in a mess.)

    The beauty of this system is that it puts children in the position of choosing to control their behavior, and of prioritizing and earning privileges and rewards, setting the stage for financial savvy in the future. You will also find that varying the goals and the rewards results in a long-lived behavioral system adaptable to almost any age.
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Any discipline used should be fair and consistent. Fair means that the magnitude of the reward or consequence matches the degree of the behavior. Consistent means that the reward or consequence be present every time the behavior occurs. Make sure that all involved in the behavioral plan are in agreement with the goals and consequences, and are able to carry them out. Try not to choose consequences that punish the family, or parent (such as canceling a trip or family event.) These will be harder to carry out, and thus pose less of a threat to the child if he knows the punishment is unlikely to occur. Like most aspects of parenting, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Talk with your children about what has worked and what hasn’t, and be open to their comments. Involving them in the plan will make it much more successful and meaningful in the long run.

Additional resources:
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (A MUST read)- Wendy Mogul
The Difficult Child – Stanley Turecki, M.D.
Touchpoints: Birth to 3: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development – T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! – Sal Severe
1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 – Thomas W. Phelan
The Magic Years- Selma Fraibert