The Best Time to Change Your Child’s Behavior is Now

For adults, the traditional time to make a big change in one’s life is the advent of the New Year—and most adults realize they require a plan to successfully change one’s habits. Children are the same, in that they also benefit from a plan. But the best time to alter their habits doesn’t have anything to do with the first of January. Rather, the best time to address your child’s behavioural issue is the start of a more important calendar—the educational one that rules the lives of every school-age child.


After all, the shift from the summertime fun of August to the more disciplined routine of September marks the biggest disruption to a child’s routine. At its best, the process begins long before Labour Day, however. Behavioural change, after all, is a tricky proposition. One approach that I’ve found works is a three-step process designed to engage the child as much as the parents in the desired transition. Here’s how it works.


Step One: Identifying The Problem

Schedule a meeting with your child some weeks before the beginning of school, and treat the occasion with all the import of a business meeting. Come prepared with pens and notepads, for example. Make a show of turning off your own cellphone, and check to make sure everyone else has their devices deactivated. Then devote all your attention to the proceedings. Begin with a general discussion of how last school year went. Can the child name any problem areas? Brainstorm sources of conflict and then prioritize the list. Select one priority you’d like your child to change. Was it always difficult to prompt your teenager to wake up on time in the morning? Was homework completion an issue? What about cleaning the kitchen after dinner? The first step toward change involves a discussion of the factors that contributed to the problem.


Step Two: Coming Up With An Action Plan

This stage is all about getting ideas on paper. The object is a point-by-point list of steps designed to fix the problem. Let’s say that last year your daughter couldn’t manage to get up early enough for school. Once she’s acknowledged the problem, discuss in a non-judgemental manner all the factors that contributed to the situation.

Try to solicit your daughters ideas here. Were Facebook and friends’ text messages keeping her up late at night? Perhaps you get your daughter to commit to a 10 p.m. bedtime—and no Facebook or phone activity past 9 p.m. Next, solicit your daughter’s opinion on the scenarios that might affect the plan. What if Suzy remains on the tablet computer after the cut-off time? Should the parents nag her? Or confiscate the device for 24 hours? Or, what if Suzy stays in bed past her 7 a.m. wake up—can the parents pull the covers off her? Going over these scenarios in advance ensures the child is more receptive to them when they happen.

The closing phase of this step involves providing incentives designed to ensure compliance. Define what constitutes success, and then bring up a reward if she’s able to sustain it. What does your daughter think is a worthwhile incentive? So if she’s able to make it to school on time every day in September, perhaps she gets tickets to a concert to the band of her choice.


Step Three: The Follow Up

Once the plan is laid out on a piece of paper, post it in a public and visible place, such as the front of the fridge. Next, set a date to review the action plan’s effectiveness. Schedule a meeting for the end of September to evaluate how things are going. This, too, is an important meeting that requires device deactivation. Begin by getting a sense of how the child thinks the transition has gone. Try to measure success or failure in concrete terms. Track, for example, the number of mornings your dauther has risen punctually on her own. How much nagging has been required? And did she achieve the goal she set in the action plan, to make it to school punctually every day in September? If so, celebrate her success—and be certain to keep your word on the incentive. And if not, adjust the plan, and perhaps set a new incentive for October.


Challenging behaviour for kids can be hard to break, but luckily the school year comes with a perfect occasion to replace bad habits with good ones. Be sure to keep the goals achievable. And good luck!

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