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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Navigating behaviour change

Most children have tasks and activities that they avoid, shirk and try to escape. As a child, the most daunting task for me involved dragging myself out of bed every morning. Ironically my mind worked best at studying and memorising during the wee hours of the morning. My mother used certain techniques with my brother and me to find a solution to this issue and to get us to wake up early and study. She made us list down various things on our wish list both tangible and intangible ranging from wanting fancy stationery, clothes, good food to extra time in the park every day. After that she figured which out of these wish list items, she could present to us as reinforcement every time we managed to wake up early in the morning. We finally decided on pieces of stationery. She had purchased a whole variety of pencils and we would close our eyes and draw out one each morning that we had woken up early. It just made the mundane activity of waking up every morning so much more exciting and we started associating mornings with enthusiasm, novelty, achievement and excitement to carry a new pencil to school every single day. In retrospect when I look at it, my mother executed the principles of operant conditioning perfectly well. Principles of learning have been used since times immemorial for behaviour modification. These have shown promising results with children. B.F Skinner propounded the theory of operant conditioning which states that individuals learn to repeat behaviour that results in desirable consequences or helps avoid /escape undesirable outcomes. Two broad categories are reinforcement and punishment out of which positive reinforcements in form of rewards are more effective in bringing about behaviour changes. These positive reinforcements can be tangible like presenting a piece of stationery that the child desires or something intangible like praising the child or spending an extra hour playing with him that day. Positive Reinforcements in form of rewards have been proven to work more effectively than punishments. An interesting way of presenting positive reinforcement is via reward charts. A typical reward chart would look something like this picture. These might be available in certain stores but drawing out a reward chart and colouring it along with your children could provide a nice opportunity to do some joint activities with your children and also make them get more involved in this procedure. Make a list of tasks that you would like your children to do and put them up on the chart and in front of that write down the name of the days of the week in a table as shown in the picture.
You can buy star shaped stickers or simply draw stars every time the child performs an assigned task. Keep different colour coding for every task say for tidying up the room, the child gets a red star, for going to bed in time he gets a purple star and so on. Have your children list down rewards on their wish list. Pick up suitable rewards from the list and place them at the bottom of the chart List. Inform them and write down the number of stars of a particular colour (corresponding to the respective task) they need to have weekly in order to receive that particular reward.

This technique not only helps the child build a positive association with the tasks performed but also promotes consistency as the child needs to keep performing for a certain period of time before he can receive an award.

Focus on the positives

If you want your child to avoid doing certain activity and if you instruct him not to do the same, chances are he'll make sure he does it. Apart from the satisfaction that he gets from tasting the sweet forbidden fruit, your statement has already prepared and set the stage for that act taking place. What If I told you right now not to imagine a monkey jumping around? I bet a lot of you did actually visualise the scene already. Most of us have read ' The Secret' and ' 'The Alchemist' and quite agree with the whole idea of attracting towards ourselves whatever signals we let out in the form of thoughts, feelings and conversations. Make sure your statements are worded well like instead of saying ' Don’t throw your books around the entire room' say 'Please make sure you keep your books in order and keep your room tidy'.

Converting instructions into options

Children vary in how they structure their lives. Some prefer their parents to lay down a plan and work through it as per their parent's directions while others don't like receiving instructions. In either case, do make your child believe in the fact that he does exert some amount of control over options and decisions his life. Instead of ordering them to perform a particular task, give them options say instead of saying ' Go do your homework now ', you could say ' What would you like to do now? Do you fancy packing your bag for school tomorrow or do your homework?’ This would make the child think he is in charge of events in his life and that the locus of control is inside him rather than being external. This would ensure that he believes that he is free to choose and take decisions and isn’t being pushed or forced to do tasks he doesn't want to.

Give your child adequate attention

This might sound strange but it’s true that children prefer negative attention to no attention at all. A child might deliberately indulge in an activity that she has been forbidden to do merely to grab their parent's attention even if it results in their parent's yelling at them. This might just suggest that the child doesn’t get adequate attention ordinarily and seeks out for attention, no matter how negative through his antics. Make sure you praise your child and shower him with love and rewards when he does something desirable that you would like to promote.

Let's hope that this helps make a furrow in your child's intricately designed mind and assists you to recognise and discern behaviour patterns which could be handled more effectively through these tools.