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Careful planning can be a powerful behaviour management tool to help you and your child get through challenging situations with less stress. Good planning can also help with the smooth running of your family.
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Why planning ahead helps with behaviour management

Shopping trips, travelling in the car, taking telephone calls, attending appointments for yourself, visiting friends – these are all times when it’s challenging to meet your child’s needs and achieve what you need to do as well.

You can think of these as ‘high-risk parenting situations’ – times when there is a risk of difficult behaviour from your child and frustration, stress or anger on your part.

High-risk parenting situations usually happen in one or more of these circumstances:

  • You’re trying to care for your child as well as get something done.
  • You’ve got to do something or be somewhere at a particular time.
  • Your children are bored.
In situations where it’s likely to be difficult for children to amuse themselves, or when difficult behaviour is likely to be particularly challenging and stressful, it can pay to take a more active role in preventing boredom.

Planned activities

To help parents deal with high-risk parenting situations two Australian psychologists, Professor Matthew Sanders and Professor Mark Dadds, developed and evaluated what they called Planned Activity Routines. These are based on three simple principles:

  1. Plan ahead to reduce the risk of problems.
  2. Teach children how to cope effectively with the demands of the situation.
  3. Find ways to help children stay engaged, busy and active when they might otherwise become bored or disruptive.

Here is how to put these principles into action and develop a Planned Activities Routine for your child in a high-risk parenting situation.

  1. Identify the high-risk parenting situation.
  2. Make expectations clear to your child.
  3. Think of your child as a ‘learner’.
  4. Plan ways of helping your child keep busy and engaged.
  5. Encourage good behaviour.
  6. Use consequences for behaviour you don’t like.
  7. Have a follow-up talk.

Each of these steps is explained in more detail below.

1. Identify the high-risk parenting situation

Before you can plan, you need to identify situations that are high risk for you. These might be times when you’ve felt stressed, frustrated or embarrassed by your child’s behaviour.

Work out what is making the situation difficult. Is it too many competing demands, time pressures or a boring environment? Or is it an environment that seems custom made to provoke difficult behaviour from your child – for example, checkouts with lollies and toys at a child’s eye level?

You might find it helpful to read more about how you can encourage good behaviour by changing your child’s environment.

It’s also worth working out what is practical for you and your child in a given situation. Can the activity be avoided altogether? Would it be possible to have someone help? Would that make a difference?

If the situation can’t be avoided, or if you think it might help if your child learns how to cope better in the situation, a Planned Activities Routine might be a good strategy for you.

2. Make expectations clear

Talk with your child before you go into a high-risk parenting situation. It helps both of you to be clear about what you expect from the situation and what behaviour is acceptable.

With younger children, it might be less confusing and frustrating for both of you if you simply say what you expect. Older children will have their own ideas, so work together to develop a few specific rules. With older children, this step is more of a negotiation. As the parent you have the final say.

Effective rules remind your child of what you expect. They remind you of what to look for and respond to. Rules should be clear, simple, and about the behaviour you want to see. For example, rules for a doctor’s waiting room might include, ‘Talk quietly’, ‘Ask before you touch’, ‘Be gentle with the toys and magazines’, and ‘Play on the floor next to me’.

It’s also a good idea to agree in advance on what happens when the rules are followed and when they are broken. For example, for the doctor’s waiting room you might say, ‘If you stay close to me and ask before you touch, you can play with the toys or read the books. If you forget to stay close or touch without asking, you will sit on the chair next to me for one minute’.

Check that your child understands by asking him to explain the rules and the consequences to you. Do this again just before you enter the high-risk situation – for example, just before you go through the door of the doctor’s surgery.

Family rules can help your family members get along better and make family life more peaceful.

3. Think of your child as a ‘learner’

‘Difficult behaviour’ can arise because a child doesn’t yet have the skills to cope with a situation. Ask yourself what you can do to help your child learn what to do in high-risk situations. Here are some suggestions.

Reduce stress on your child while she’s learning
Think about what you can do to decrease stress on your child in a new situation, and give her lots of practice coping in easier situations. Give her lots of opportunities to experience success while learning a new skill. Once she’s coping better, she can graduate to a more challenging situation. Here are some examples:

  • Shopping: plan a few short shopping trips for just a few items.
  • Visiting/visitors: arrange a series of short visits from/to a friend or relative.
  • Phone calls: arrange a series of short telephone calls.

Think about when your child is likely to be at his best
Ensuring that your child isn’t hungry or tired is one way of helping him cope with a demanding situation. Sometimes children won’t even realise they’re hungry or tired, but will just feel irritable. If it’s possible, plan the high-risk situation around your child’s routine.

Work out what skills your child needs to learn
For example, if problems occur during phone calls, your child might need to learn how to say ‘excuse me’, how to wait for you to respond, how to accept your answer, and how to keep busy and quiet. These are things you could talk about. You could also show your child how to do these things, and praise her when she does them.

4. Plan ways of helping your child keep busy and engaged

For very young children, plan some activities that will keep them busy and active in high-risk parenting situations. Have a ‘going-out bag’ ready, with a drink, a snack and a few small but interesting items – for example, paper and coloured pencils, balloons to blow up, or stickers.

Help older children plan interesting activities themselves. Or get them involved in the situation. For example, while grocery shopping you might ask your child to find particular items on the shelves and put them in the trolley, or to identify colours or words on labels. When queuing at the post office, you could play a quiet game of ‘I spy’ or 'Who am I?’ You can have special activities just for car trips or telephone calls. These could be stories or music on CDs, or a special puzzle.

Have a few ideas or activities ready to help your child avoid getting bored and becoming disruptive.

5. Encourage good behaviour

During a high-risk situation, identify and encourage behaviour you like. Avoid the trap of responding only to behaviour you don’t like. Instead, take the time to stop what you’re doing every now and then to let your child know when you like what he is doing.

For example, during a shopping trip, you might praise your child for staying close, speaking in a quiet voice, and helping you find things. If the high-risk situation is a telephone call, you might briefly interrupt the conversation to praise your child for playing quietly.

6. Use consequences for behaviour you don’t like

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to managing difficult behaviour. If you put the steps above into action, your child will be less likely to play up. But it’s best to plan ahead for what you’ll do if the problem behaviour does happen.

Knowing what you will do is important for several reasons. First, it can be difficult to use a consequence when difficult behaviour happens in some place other than your own home. Second, a difficult situation can become even more stressful when you’re trying to decide what to do in the heat of the moment. Stress, embarrassment or shame can all contribute to you feeling out of control or losing your temper.

The good news is that most consequences that you would use at home for problem behaviour can be used somewhere else with some modifications.

For example, if you’re using time-out at home, you could adapt it to shopping trips by getting your child to sit still beside you for a specified period of time on a seat outside the supermarket, or sitting with her in the car. Never leave a child alone in a car.

7. Have a follow-up talk

It can help to have a talk with your child following the high-risk situation. During the talk, highlight things he did well, and celebrate the progress you’re making together. You might also point out one or two things your child might do differently in future. These can become your goals for next time.

More information about high-risk parenting situations

These situations usually have one or more of the following characteristics.

Competing demands
This is when you’re trying to care for your child as well as get something done – like talking to a bank teller, talking on the phone, driving a car, going shopping, having a meal with friends.

Time pressures
It can be very difficult when you’ve got to do something or be somewhere at a particular time. Young children don’t understand time the way grown-ups do. Examples of time pressures include getting ready in the morning for school and work, making it to an appointment on time, getting ready for bed and so on.

Environments that are boring for children
Many places and situations are not well designed for children, so they get bored quickly. Examples are travelling in the car, sitting around in waiting rooms, standing in queues, going grocery shopping. Boredom is not always a bad thing. In fact, boredom can get children thinking creatively. A few suggestions from you can help them think of ways to relieve the boredom themselves. Examples are ‘writing’ a story out loud or naming animals that begin with different letters.

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  • Last Updated 25-08-2014
  • Last Reviewed 21-05-2014
  • Sanders, M.R., & Christenson, A. P. (1985). A comparison of the effects of child management and planned activities training across five parenting environments. Journal  of Abnormal Child Psychology, 13, 101-117.

    Sanders, M.R., Markie-Dadds, C., Tully, L., & Bor, W. (2000). The Triple P Positive Parenting Program: A comparison of enhanced, standard and self-directed behavioural family intervention for parents of children with early onset conduct problems. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 624-640.