How to encourage good behaviour in your child
Children quickly learn how to behave when they get positive, consistent guidance from you. This means giving your child attention when they behave well, rather than just applying consequences when your child does something you don’t like.
Here are some practical tips for putting this positive approach into action.
Tips for good behaviour
1. Be a role model
Use your own behaviour to guide your child. Your child watches you to get clues on how to behave – and what you do is often much more important than what you say. For example, if you want your child to say ‘please’, say it yourself. If you don’t want your child to raise their voice, speak quietly and gently yourself.
2. Show your child how you feel
Telling your child honestly how their behaviour affects you helps your child see their own feelings in yours. And if you start sentences with ‘I’, it gives your child the chance to see things from your perspective. For example, ‘I’m feeling upset because there’s so much noise and I can’t talk on the phone’.
3. Catch your child being ‘good’
When your child is behaving in a way you like, give your child some positive feedback. For example, ‘Wow, you’re playing so nicely. I really like the way you’re keeping all the blocks on the table’. This works better than waiting for the blocks to come crashing to the floor before you take notice and say, ‘Hey, stop that’.
This positive feedback is sometimes called descriptive praise because it tells children specifically what they’re doing well. Try to make five positive comments for every negative comment. And remember that if children have a choice between no attention or negative attention, they’ll often seek out negative attention.
4. Get down to your child’s level
When you get close to your child, you can tune in to what they might be feeling or thinking. Being close also helps your child focus on what you’re saying about their behaviour. If you’re close to your child and have your child’s attention, you don’t need to make them look at you.
5. Listen actively
To listen actively, you can nod as your child talks, and repeat back what you think your child is feeling. For example, ‘It sounds like you feel really sad that your blocks fell down’. When you do this, it can help young children cope with tension and big emotions like frustration, which sometimes lead to unwanted behaviour. It also makes them feel respected and comforted. It can even diffuse potential temper tantrums.
6. Keep promises
When you follow through on your promises, good or bad, your child learns to trust and respect you. Your child learns that you won’t let them down when you’ve promised something nice, and your child also learns not to try to change your mind when you’ve explained a consequence. So when you promise to go for a walk after your child picks up their toys, make sure you have your walking shoes handy. When you say you’ll leave the library if your child doesn’t stop running around, be prepared to leave straight away.
7. Create an environment for good behaviour
The environment around your child can influence their behaviour, so you can shape the environment to help your child behave well. This can be as simple as making sure your child’s space has plenty of safe, stimulating things for your child to play with. Also make sure that your child can’t reach things they could break or that might hurt them.
8. Choose your battles
Before you get involved in anything your child is doing – especially to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ – ask yourself if it really matters. By keeping instructions, requests and negative feedback to a minimum, you create fewer opportunities for conflict and bad feelings. You can use family rules to let everyone know what’s really important in your family.
9. Be firm about whining
If you give in when your child is whining for something, you can accidentally train your child to whine more. ‘No’ means ‘no’, not ‘maybe’, so don’t say it unless you mean it.
10. Keep things simple and positive
Instructions should be clear, short and appropriate for your child’s age, so your child can understand and remember them. And positive rules are usually better than negative ones, because they guide your child’s behaviour in a positive way. For example, ‘Please shut the gate’ is better than ‘Don’t leave the gate open’.
11. Give children responsibility – and consequences
As your child gets older, you can give your child more responsibility for their own behaviour. You can also give your child the chance to experience the natural consequences of that behaviour. For example, if it’s your child’s responsibility to pack for a sleepover and your child forgets their favourite pillow, the natural consequence is that your child will have to manage without the pillow for the night.
At other times you might need to provide consequences for inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour. For these times, make sure that you’ve explained the consequences and your child has agreed to them in advance.
12. Say it once and move on
If you tell your child what to do – or what not to do – too often, your child might end up just tuning out. If you want to give your child one last chance to cooperate, remind your child of the consequences for not cooperating. Then start counting to three.
13. Give your child the chance to succeed
Set your child up to behave well, and then praise them for it. For example, give your child some simple chores or things that your child can do to help the family. Praising your child’s behaviour and effort will encourage your child to continue. And giving your child a lot of practice doing a chore helps them get better at it, feel good about doing it, and want to keep doing it.
14. Prepare for challenging situations
There are times when meeting your child’s needs and doing things you need to do will be tricky – for example, when you’re shopping, in the car or at an appointment. If you think about these challenging situations in advance, you can plan around your child’s needs. Give your child a five-minute warning before you need them to change activities. Talk to your child about why you need their cooperation. Then your child is prepared for what you expect.
15. Maintain a sense of humour
It often helps to keep daily life with children light. You can do this by using songs, humour and fun. For example, you can pretend to be the menacing tickle monster who needs the toys picked up off the floor. Humour that has you both laughing is great, but humour at your child’s expense won’t help. Young children are easily hurt by parental ‘teasing’.