How to Improve a Child's Behavior (For Parents)

Do you sometimes feel as though your child is more in control of how your time together goes than you are? Some children are difficult to manage, and others seem so easy. This can be frustrating. I've taught children in preschool, third, and fourth grade, and I have some tips on how to manage childrens' behavior.

Make your expectations known.
Children behave better when they know what your expectations are. If a child runs around the grocery store and you say "that's it, no candy," usually a tantrum starts. This is because the child is frustrated. He is probably thinking something like "I didn't know I could get candy! What was I supposed to do?"
Instead, tell a child BEFORE you arrive somewhere what EXACTLY what behavior you expect of them. Remember, kids don't know it all. It's up to us to teach them what "Now, behave!" means. "When we go in the store, I want you to stay close to my cart. Walk, don't run. And you need to keep a quiet voice. Leave things on the shelves."

Rewarding your child is OK!
Rewarding is somewhat different from bribing. A reward is something that you'd like to give your child anyway. It is small, and reasonable. In the above example, after you set your expectations for behavior in the grocery store, let your child know that you have a cookie for them in the car if they behave and do those things. Bribing your child that he can stay up an hour late (when you know that will just make him overtired and is therefore not good for him) is not a reasonable reward because it creates a new problem. If they are overtired they are less likely to be able to behave the next day because they will be cranky.

Keep your child busy!
Depending on the child's age, he might not be able to sit quietly for 30 minutes in a shopping cart, or at dinner. Have realistic expectations for their behavior and keep them occupied. Give him a toy to play with, or a game, or something to color. Or play a game with him like "I spy" which requires no materials. Just make sure it is a toy or game your child enjoys, and he will WANT to behave. If your child has something to do that he likes, he'll be less tempted to "make his own fun" at the expense of behaving badly and breaking your rules.

Give your child a warning if he breaks a rule.
If you child crosses the line with his behavior one time, tell him. "This is your reminder (or warning). If you do that again, you won't get your reward."

I find this works well, because it shows the child that you remember exactly what you asked of him in terms of behavior, so you are serious. It also lets the child know that you are understanding that we all make mistakes and that you care and WANT him to succeed, so you're willing to give him a chance to learn and improve his behavior.


Follow through.
After the one warning, if the child continues to behave badly, you need to let him know that since he decided to break the rules, he will not get his reward. Say this calmly. You don't need to say it angrily or loudly because he's already going to be disappointed, which is the point. If you yell or get angry, it escalates the situation because the child feels like things are getting out of control.

This might lead to a tantrum.
This is when the deep breaths and patience need to be employed.

Stay calm.
When a child is upset and acting out, your job is to keep him safe. You may feel uncomfortable with the noise and behavior, and want to leave early, and you certainly can make reasonable attempts to leave early. However, it's not reasonable to expect that a child is going to stop screaming and crying if you yell or threaten him. Again, he will only get more upset to see you looking as though you are losing control.

The fact is, you probably can't make him calm down. Know that that is okay. Again, you need to keep him safe, and step in if he puts himself in harm's way. Otherwise, understand that he needs to vent his anger and will only act calm when he IS calm. Young children can't bottle things up.

Remember your deep breaths.
Tell yourself that you are in control here, even though your child is not. Tell yourself that what you are doing is teaching him a lesson about behavior that he will remember, and that this is a learning process. Tell yourself that this behavioral change is going to take longer than just one day, but that if you stay strong just this one day, you'll be that much closer to seeing your child's behavior improve.

Model calming behaviors.
Since you are staying calm in a difficult situation, model that skill for your child. Say "Let's take some deep breaths to stay calm." And do it. (Not through gritted teeth, ha ha). Say, "Let's count backwards from 10 to help us think about something else so we calm down." Have a pair of "stress balls" for each of you and say, "Let's squeeze the stress ball to help us get our anger out and calm down."

Repeat, starting from step 1 every day.
If you do, you may find you get to stop at or before step 4. In which case, make sure you follow through with that reward for good behavior!

Don't be afraid to ask for help.
If you follow these steps to a tee, but your child still misbehaves, ask a professional. Take your child to his pediatrician and describe the behaviors as well as what you have been doing to prevent bad behaviors and redirect your child, and for how long you've practiced this. He may be able to find underlying medical causes for why your child is behaving inappropriately.

Ask your child's teacher for ideas on how to improve behavior, or if it's a new school year, ask his teacher from last year, since she knows him better. She may have tips that are more specific to your child that will teach you how to cope with emotions that cause bad behavior, as well as help you create a system for helping your child improve his behavior. If you'd like more information on dealing with children, I've included resource links on this page. Good luck!

Final Thoughts:
•    Have reasonable behavioral expectations for children depending on their age. A 3 year old should not be expected to be as quiet and calm for as long as a 6 year old or a 10 year old.
•    In step 4, If you are at home, and not in public, then you can express more emotion. However, the emotion should be disappointment. If you tell your child that you are disappointed with the choice about how to behave that he made, that is a good way to model how we share feelings and that's part of developing relationships. However, this could lead to crying, and expressing disappointment and tears might not be something you want the public to bear witness to.
•    When you correct bad behavior, name the behavior, not the child. Say, "I'm disappointed that you ran in the store." DON'T say, "I'm disappointed in YOU." The latter is damaging to children's self esteem.
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