Why planning ahead helps with behaviour management
Shopping trips, travelling in the car, taking phone calls, attending appointments, visiting friends – these are all situations when it can be challenging to meet children’s needs as well as get things done. In situations like these, it’s natural for children to behave in challenging ways that are also frustrating or overwhelming for their parents.
Our 6 steps to planning ahead can help you to manage these challenging situations. These steps help you to think about what causes behaviour problems and what to do if they happen.
Guiding children’s behaviour helps them learn the appropriate way to behave. It also helps children develop confidence, learn, make friends and become more independent.
1. Identify and assess challenging situations
Before you can plan ahead, you need to identify situations that are challenging for you and your child. These might be times when you feel stressed, frustrated or embarrassed by your child’s behaviour.
To begin, try to work out what’s making the situation difficult. Is it too many demands, time pressures or boredom? Or does the environment lead to difficult behaviour from your child – for example, check-outs with lollies at eye level?
It’s worth thinking about whether you can avoid the situation or ask someone to help. For example, you could do your grocery shopping online instead of going to the shops, or you could ask someone to look after your child while you shop.
If you can’t avoid the situation, or you think it might help if your child learns how to cope better in the situation, planning ahead might help.
You might like to read more about how you can encourage good behaviour by changing your child’s environment.
2. Make expectations clear
Talk with your child before you go into a challenging situation. Let them know what you expect and what behaviour is OK.
You can make expectations clear by setting some simple rules. For example, rules for a doctor’s waiting room might be ‘Talk quietly’, ‘Ask before you touch’, ‘Be gentle with the toys and magazines’, and ‘Play on the floor next to me’. Older children can be more involved in deciding on the rules. Your child is more likely to remember the rules if there aren’t too many of them.
It’s also good to agree in advance on what happens when your child follows the rules and when your child breaks them. 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’ll sit on the chair next to me for one minute’.
Check that your child understands what you expect. You can ask older children to explain the rules and the consequences to you. Do this again just before you enter the challenging situation – for example, just before you go through the door of the doctor’s surgery.
3. Think of your child as a learner
Difficult behaviour can happen because a child doesn’t have the skills to cope with a challenging situation. So it’s worth thinking about how you can help your child learn the skills they need.
This starts with working out what skills your child needs to learn. For example, if problems happen during phone calls, your child might need to learn how to say ‘Excuse me’, wait for you to respond, accept your answer, and keep busy and quiet. You could explain and show your child what to do.
When your child is learning a new way to behave, it will help if they can practise and succeed in easier situations. Remember to praise your child when they get it right. Once your child is coping better, they can try harder situations. For example:
- 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 with friends or family.
If you plan things around your child’s routine, you can also make situations less challenging and better for your child’s learning. For example, try to make appointments for directly after your toddler’s nap or snack.
Some skills take time and practice, so it’s good to have realistic expectations while your child is still learning.
4. Plan ways of helping your child keep busy and engaged
For toddlers, plan some activities that will keep them engaged in challenging 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, blocks, pegs and books.
With your help, preschoolers and school-age children can plan interesting activities themselves, or you can get them involved in what you’re doing. For example, while grocery shopping or queuing at the post office, you could do a word search, count things, or play ‘I spy’.
You can have special activities just for car trips or telephone calls. These could be audiobooks, music, sticker books and games like car karaoke or alphabet search.
5. Encourage good behaviour
During a challenging situation, look for and encourage behaviour you like. Take the time to stop what you’re doing every now and then to let your child know when you like what they’re doing.
Praise makes it more likely that your child will repeat the behaviour. Praise works best when you tell your child exactly what you like about the behaviour. You can also praise your child when you see them making an effort, even if they don’t get it exactly right.
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 challenging situation is a telephone call, you might briefly stop talking to praise your child for playing quietly.
6. Have a follow-up talk
It can help to have a talk with your child after you’ve been in a challenging situation. During the talk, highlight things your child did well, and celebrate the progress you’re making together.
After you praise your child for what they did well, you can also point out 1-2 things your child might do differently in future. These can become your goals for next time.