Basic Steps in Changing Behavior

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            Parents look for specific instruction and guidance from books or experts, only to find that when they take the instructions home, the instructions do not work for them.  It would be better if parents took a little more time to absorb the core concepts of behavior modification and become experts themselves.  Then they can craft their own plans and modify them as needed over time.  Rather than look for books that spell out the steps with greater and greater elaboration, learn how to create your own steps, beginning with these basic ones:

 Quick link Table

Identify the target behaviors List rewards and punishments Draft the contract
Carry out the contract o  Evaluate the contract o  Things get worse before getting better
Modify the contract REFERENCES  


Identify the Target Behaviors

            Identify the top few most disturbing behaviors the child does.  Be sure to list them as observable behaviors that everyone would agree upon when seen. If you don’t do this stop here.  You cannot do this successfully unless you clearly define the specific measurable behavior you want to work on.  “Poking her sister with sharp objects” is better than “being mean,” and “not completing the second half of homework assignments” is preferable to “never following through with things.”

            Target behaviors must be seen.  They must be “countable” by any­one, not just the parent. This is the only way you can be sure that you are making progress with your plan.  You can wish that the child was “feeling better about herself,” or “takes more interest in school work,” but if other observers cannot count up what you are talking about, you cannot get a clear measure of progress or regression.

            Write a list of behaviors at the top of a piece of paper. You may create a longer list at first, but you will want to reduce the list to one or two behaviors to get started.

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List Rewards and Punishments

            Have those who know the individual best make a list of the 10 things he likes the most and the 10 things he dislikes the most.  After everyone has made his or her list separately, compare the lists.  Certainly there will be much overlap, but this is how you can generate a menu of re­wards and punishments fairly quickly. You will have a list of items to try. Some will work, some will not.

            As you work with this plan, you may add items to each list.  Over time, the list will naturally change as well.  If the people making this list know the individual, this list will be valuable.  It will contain potent rewards and punishments. Have confidence in that.

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 Draft the Contract

            Two rules help these contracts. First, keep them simple. Second, in­volve the individual in the drafting of the contract.  The contract can be a fairly simple “If ... then” statement.  For ex­ample: “If you go one whole day turning in every assignment given to you at school, then you will be allowed to stay up one-half hour later that evening.” “If you go one full day without hitting your sister, then you will be able to eat your favorite breakfast cereal the following morn­ing.” “If you go one full day responding to verbal commands with one or fewer reminders, then you will be allowed to run the TV’s remote control from 7:00 to 8:00 P.M. that evening.”

            Notice that these statements all involve a reward to follow quickly on the heels of doing the desired (positive) behavior for a short period of time. The time duration is short. The reward is immediate, and it is something the individual highly desires.

            These contracts can also involve the punishment of undesired be­haviors. For example: “If you hit your sister, then you will have to go to bed one-half hour earlier that evening.” “For every missing assign­ment, you will lose 30 minutes of TV time that evening.” “For every time you fail to do a verbal request, after the first reminder you will have to sit in a time-out chair for 15 minutes and then go back and still do the initial request.

            It is widely agreed that positive rewards tend to have more potency in changing behavior.  This is not just because it is popular to be posi­tive.  Many parents have found that their children can become almost immune to punishments.  Many people find that punishments do not work all that well.  It is just human nature to think of them first.

            I like to think of the rewards as the carrot that you dangle out in front of the mule, and punishments as the “stick” that you threaten the mule with.  I see no reason why there should not be both a carrot and stick in every plan. The contract can contain both a reward for the desired behavior and a punishment for the presence of the undesired behavior.  This idea of having a range of positive and negative strate­gies is clearly summarized by Edwards [1995], who suggests that for “minor” misbehavior, you could use ignoring or praise. What he calls “mid-level” might include penalties like, “If you make your bed, you can watch TV before school; if you don’t make your bed, no TV.”  He suggests that time-out be reserved for major behavioral problems that did not respond to earlier levels.

            There can also be levels of both rewards and punishments. For ex­ample, in addition to having a reward for doing the desired behavior at the end of every day, you could also offer a reward if the child goes five consecutive days receiving the first reward. Five consecutive days re­ceiving this first level of reward could also trigger an additional, bigger reward. Similarly, for each specific time the student does the desired behavior within the day, he could receive a more concrete reward like a piece of candy, a pat on the back, a hug, or an encouraging word.

            The age of the individual in question plays an important part in this planning.  Older people can wait longer for a bigger reward over a longer period of time. Young people generally need to see immediate rewards to sustain their effort and interest.

            One unexpected benefit from walking through these steps this deliberately is that it forces parents and children to communicate more specifically about what they want.  The step of writing down what the target behavior is, for example, may be the first time the child has actu­ally heard that specific request. Often the parent expresses a list of vague complaints that greatly upset them, but they are not especially clear about what they want.  If this is the case, these plans often work quickly. Children reason that if this is what their parents want, no prob­lem, and the behavior changes rapidly. 

            I have repeatedly found that just the process of having parents spell out their goals in specific, measurable terms has actually helped the child figure out what exactly is making a parent so upset.

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Carry Out the Contract

            Once the contract is written, put it into place. It will be helpful to keep a simple log so that you can know—or measure—how often things have happened.  This will be valuable for the step where you modify the contract. It is important to put the contract into place and leave it in place for a while to ensure that you have given the plan a chance to work.  It is this decision of sticking with the contract for long enough that is so important. Millions of excellent plans have been abandoned by parents too quickly and, therefore, have never been given the chance to prove themselves. It is this point that enables many parents to say those most dreaded words to a therapist: “Oh, I’ve tried that.  It doesn’t work.”

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Evaluate the Contract

            Decide upon a specific date when you will meet and discuss how this plan worked.  If it worked fine, you may wish to extend it.  You may wish to modify it, or you may decide that it is no longer necessary. The fact that you have an established date when you will examine the plan tends to increase the plan’s power.  It provides a level of supervision that will tend to make people take the plan more seriously.

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            Allow me to relate a favorite story of my intern supervisor, Stewart Keller. (I am not aware that this has been published anywhere, but if it has, I’d be delighted to give credit in a following printing.)  This in­sight is absolutely critical to increasing the chances of the success of these plans.

            If you put the correct change in a soft drink vending machine and push a button for a selection and nothing comes out, what do you do?  Most people say that they hit the machine.  Some jiggle the coin re­turn.  Some kick the machine.  Most get upset.  When asked whether they would put more money in the machine if they were thirsty, and there were no other machine or drinking fountain around, most say that they would.  They might assume that the machine failed to count correctly and they would try again.  If the machine continued to give nothing in return, essentially everyone asked agreed that they would not continue putting more money in the machine.

            What has happened in this familiar experience is that the person approaching the soft drink machine does so expecting an old, familiar rule.  The rule is that so much money gets one can of a soft drink.  In this situation, however, the machine has changed the rule.  The new rule is that any amount of money gets nothing from the machine.  When people first encounter the change in the rule, they get violent.  They get worse and demand that the old rule apply.  They even try to force the old rule by putting in more money.  If the machine sticks to the new rule, people quickly learn the new rule and modify their behavior in accordance with the new rule.  They stop demanding the old rule by putting more money in the machine.

            Then why are people surprised when they go home from a behavior specialist’s office armed with a new approach to handling their child’s misbehavior and find that their child gets worse when first encounter­ing the new rule? It is because the behavior specialist has failed to warn them of this common feature of human nature. Because of this, more plans have been thrown out the window that were perfectly fine and would have worked. Not only do parents give up on that plan, but they lose faith in behavior modification generally.  Any future office they consult will hear those dreaded words, “Oh, I’ve tried that; it doesn’t work,” when they bring up behavior management strategies.

            The parents are being absolutely truthful.  They have tried it.  It did not work in the time they allowed for it to work.  It is extremely likely that the only flaw in the design was how long they gave the plan to work. It is not surprising that parents did not give it long to work if they saw their child’s behavior getting worse as a result of the introduction of the plan.  Without being warned of this almost certain course in most children, it is exactly what a good parent should do.

            Let’s look at an example.  Parents are concerned that their child is throwing temper tantrums three times a day. They live with this concern for four weeks before they talk to a behavior specialist about it.  The behavior specialist gives them a plan to take home that will reward the child for not throwing temper tantrums and punish the child for throwing them.  On that fourth week the parents faithfully put the plan into effect.

            Just as the soft drink machine story would predict, this child gets worse immediately upon encountering this change in the rule. We can see that for a little more than one week this child actually has more temper tantrums on average every day.  The parents have been armed with this expectation and stick to the new rule through thick or thin. Then, mysteriously, somewhere between the fifth and sixth week, the behavior starts to decline in frequency. From the sixth week on, the behavior slowly but steadily continues to drop until it reaches ranges that are typical of all other children the same age as this child.

            These parents, so armed with the proper information, will have a positive experience with this contract, even though they had to endure some increase in misbehavior for nearly two weeks.  They will value behavior modification and will understand how and why it works.  The big question is:  How long does a parent have to put up with this increase in misbehav­ior before the plan begins working and reduces misbehavior?  That depends upon a lot:  how potent the rewards or punishments are, how well designed the plan is, and how consistent the parent has been in the past. If the parent has never tried a behavior modification contract and has, therefore, never changed the rules and then reversed himself it is likely that this time span will not be too long.  If, on the other hand, the parent has made many changes in the home rules only to have the child rebel and misbehave to get those rules thrown out over and over, the time span may be rather long.  That parent has unin­tentionally trained the child that, if the child does not like a rule, all he has to do is misbehave enough and the rule will be abandoned. This is a common development in many homes.

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Modify the Contract

            Even the best plans will fade in potency over time.  It is necessary to tinker with the contract from time to time to ensure that rewards and punishments are still potent, and that time lines and outcomes are age-appropriate. This is different than giving up on the plan if it does not work.  This is taking a plan that did work somewhat, or has worked, and fine tuning it to ensure that it continues to work.

       State and Federal legislatures are huge behavior modification experts.  An example of this fine tuning can come from them. The legislature is con­stantly tinkering with tax laws to modify people’s behavior. They call this “social engineering,” and it makes a big impact on economies and business trends.  So over the course of a behavior modification plan fine tuning needs to be done for the plans to remain potent in their goal of modifying an individual’s  behavior.

       If you are having trouble knowing when it is appropriate to modify this behavioral contract, and when you are giving in to a child’s ploy to get the contract abandoned, an objective behavior specialist can help you.  Often parents are too close emotionally to be able to see these issues objectively.

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Edwards, G.  (1995)  Use of negative consequences in parent training.  ADHD Report, 3, 13-14.

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