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Behavior Management Strategies

Behavior Management Strategies – Attending to Desirable Behaviors 

Developing an alliance 

One of the most POWERFUL tools that parents have is our ATTENTION – it is the most meaningful and least expensive tool that we have! A child will work VERY hard to get attention for an adult (that includes both POSITIVE and NEGATIVE attention). 

*** If ANY type of attention follows a behavior, THAT behavior is more likely to occur again, so Parents – use your attention WISELY! **

Special Time heals the upsets and disconnections of daily modern life. We live in a stressful culture that disconnects us from each other, from our feelings, and from our own inner wisdom. Special Time is the antidote for parents and children, because it:

  • Reconnects us with our child after the separations and struggles of everyday life, so she’s happier and more cooperative.
  • Gives the child the essential–but unfortunately so often elusive–experience of the parent’s full, attentive, loving presence.
  • Gives the child a safe place to play out the everyday issues that all kids need to work through, such as feeling powerless, by reversing the roles and letting the child lead.
  • GIves the child a regular opportunity to express scary feelings and ideas to a compassionate, trusted adult who will listen and help her work them through using her own natural language: Play.
  • Deepens our empathy for our child so we can stay more compassionate and see things from his point of view, which strengthens the connection and our parenting.
  • Builds a foundation of trust and partnership between parent and child which is a precondition for him to trust us with his big feelings when he’s upset (as opposed to him lashing out.)
  • Convinces the child on a primal level that she is central to the parent, that she really matters, that she is important. (You know she is, but often she doesn’t.)

Every child benefits from Special Time to reconnect with each parent on a regular basis. How often? At the risk of sounding like your dentist telling you to floss, every day would be fantastic — but once a week is substantially better than never!

Think of Special Time as preventive maintenance to keep things on track in your family. And if you’re having issues with your child, it’s the first thing to change.  Often, it’s the only thing you need to change.

How do you do it? Ten tips.

1. Announce that you want to have special time with each child for ten minutes a day, as often as you can.  Call it by the most special name there is — your child’s name. So in your house it might be Talia time and Michael time.

2. Choose a time when any other children are being looked after by someone else (unless they are old enough to stay occupied with something.) If you have more than one child, you’ll want to set up a schedule so all siblings know their special time is coming soon. One good strategy for siblings as you do time with one child is books-on-audio, which absorbs their attention enough to keep them from noticing you laughing with their sibling. (Headphones are essential, and if they need something to do with their hands, give them drawing materials to illustrate as they listen. Great for brain development!)

3. Set a timer for ten minutes. Turn off all phones so you can’t hear incoming calls. Is ten minutes long enough? I suggest starting with ten minutes because it will seem like an eternity if you aren’t used to being fully present in the moment with another person. Don’t worry, it gets easier, and you do start to enjoy it!

4. Decide if you will also have other time most days to roughhouse with your child to get her laughing. If so, then Special Time is all your child’s to use as she sees fit. If not — let’s say you work outside the home and have limited time with your child — then you do need to reserve some time for roughhousing. In that case, I recommend that you alternate days. The first day, your child decides how to use the time. The next day, you decide, and you always choose roughhousing/laughter.

5. Say “I am all yours for the next ten minutes. The only things we can’t do are read or use screens. This time is just to play. What would you like to do?” or, if you are including roughhousing in special time, add “Today you get to decide what we will do with our ‘Jonah time.’  Tomorrow, I get to decide.  We’ll alternate.”

6. Give your child 110% of your attention with no agenda and no distractions.  Just connect to your child with all your heart.  Really notice your child, and follow his lead. If he wants to play with his blocks, don’t rush in to tell him how to build the tower.  Instead, watch with every bit of your attention. Occasionally, say what you see without interfering:  “You are making that tower even taller….you are standing on your tiptoes to get that block up there…”

If she wants you to pull her in a circle on her skates until she falls down, over and over, resist “teaching” her to skate, consider it your workout for the day, and make it fun: “For special time, my daughter took us out into the cul-de-sac to roller skate. I pulled her in a circle round and round so hard and she laughed and laughed until she fell on the ground. She kept coming back for more. After all this laughing, we had a great night!” – Christine

Resist the urge to judge or evaluate your child. Don’t take control or suggest your own ideas unless he asks.  Refrain from checking your phone.  Just show up and give your child the tremendous gift of being seen and acknowledged. (If you’ve ever really been seen and appreciated, you know just how great a gift this is.) Your child may not be able to articulate it, but he will know when you’re really being present with him. Kids sense our presence and they “follow” it like a magnet.

7. If she wants to do something that she isn’t usually allowed to do, consider whether there’s a way to do it safely since you are there to help her.  Maybe you always tell her that it’s too dangerous to jump off the dresser onto the bed, but for special time you can push the bed next to the dresser and stay with her as she jumps to be sure she’s safe.  Maybe he has always wanted to play with his dad’s shaving cream but you weren’t about to let him waste a can of it, or to clean it up.  For special time, you might decide to gift him with his own can of cheap shaving cream and let him play with it in the tub, and then the two of you can clean it up together.  If you can’t grant her desire (go to Hawaii), find a way to approximate it (make grass skirts and play hula dancing together.)

Why bother?  Your child learns that you really do care about his desires, even if you can’t always give him what he wants (so he’s less likely to feel like he never gets his way, and more likely to cooperate in general.)  And since these desires will no longer be forbidden fruit after your child has a chance to indulge her curiosity and experience them, she’s less likely to try them behind your back.

8. When it’s your day to decide what to do, initiate games for laughter, emotional intelligence and bonding.That usually means roughhousing in a way that gets your child giggling.  I know, it sounds like too much energy. But it’s only for ten minutes, and it will energize you, too.  I promise.  Favorite themes include:

  • Power (“You can’t get away from me!  Hey, where’d you go?  You’re too fast for me!”)
  • Rebellion, control and breaking the rules (“Whatever you do, don’t get off the couch! Oh, no, now I have to give you 20 kisses! Where do you want them?”)
  • Mock aggression (Pillow fights)
  • Separation and reunion (Peekaboo, Hide ‘n Seek, The Bye Bye Game, “No, don’t leave me!”)
  • Fear (“I’m the scary monster coming to get you…Oh, I tripped… Now, where did you go?  EEK! You scared ME!”)  Be just scary enough to get your child giggling, not scary enough to scare him.

You might also tackle a specific issue that your child is struggling to master, by, for instance, playing school. Let him be the teacher and assign you tons of homework and embarrass you when you don’t know the answer.  Or play basketball and let her dominate the court.

In all these games, the parent bumbles ineffectually, blusters and hams it up, but just can’t catch the strong, fast, smart child who always beats us. The goal is giggling, which releases the same anxieties that are offloaded with tears, so whatever gets your child giggling, do more of that! A great source of ideas for games is Dr. Lawrence Cohen’s book Playful Parenting, which has inspired many of the games I suggest. Here are some links with more ideas:

Games for Bonding and Emotional Intelligence

Let’s Get Physical — Games to Connect with Your Child

More Games to Transform Tears to Laughter

9. Don’t structure Special Time. I used to call this “quality time,” but that often confused parents. After all, reading to kids, or baking cookies with them — aren’t those activities quality time? Yes, indeed, and they’re wonderful things to do with your child. But they aren’t Special Time. So no screens, no books, no structured activities. Instead, show up and connect!

10. End Special Time when the timer buzzes.  If your child has a meltdown, handle it with the same compassionate empathy with which you would greet any other meltdown (“It’s so hard to stop…you can cry as much as you want, Sweetie…I am right here“) and give him your full attention in his meltdown.  But don’t think of that as extending special time, just as you would not give your child anything else he has a tantrum about, like an extra cookie. Special time needs boundaries around it to signal that the rules aren’t the same as in regular life.

11. Be aware that often your child’s emotions will bubble up during special time, especially at the end.  That doesn’t mean she’s a bottomless pit.  It means she feels safer with you after this time together, so all those feelings she’s been lugging around are now coming up to be processed.  Or it means that letting go of you brings up all those feelings of how hard it is to share you. Often kids use this time to express their upsets, so it’s good to schedule a little cushion at the end in case your child has a meltdown, especially when you’re just starting out, or when your child has been having a hard time.  When the meltdown begins, just empathize, and give yourself a pat on the back for being the kind of parent your child trusts enough to express all these big feelings.  Once she cries, those feelings will dissipate, and she’ll feel so much better–and so much more connected to you.

What’s so special about special time?  It transforms our relationship with our child.  And since that relationship is 90% of our parenting, you can’t get more special than that!

Click here to watch Dr. Laura’s video “Making ‘Special-Time’ Effective.”

Special Time:

To increase your child’s GOOD and OKAY behavior, it is important to pay attention to that behavior when it is happening. This takes PRACTICE, which we call Special Time. Special time involves setting aside approximately 15 minutes (though any amount of time is good) a day with the child and letting the child DECIDE what they want to do with this time (play a game with you, play alone with toys, etc – it is DISCOURAGED to spend this time watching TV and playing video games). Your job is to FOCUS on the child and their activity. Show the child you are ATTENDING by being on their eye level (sit on the floor), watching INTENTLY, and COMMENTING aloud about their actions. Try to be an ENTHUSIASTIC commentator! Pretend you are describing the child’s actions to someone who can’t see what is happening (“WOW, you’re building with Blocks. Now you are making the cars move. I like watching you play!”) During Special Time, DO NOT: 1) Ask Questions, 2) Give Instructions, or 3) Guide the Child’s behavior. 

Throughout the day, watch the child and comment about what the child is doing well. Catch the child being good. Find things that are good or okay about what they are doing and comment on those things. 


ATTENDING not only increases good behavior, it also shows the child that you are interested in what they do and it builds a better relationship between you. You want to be on the same “TEAM” working together. 

Rules of Thumb: 

  • PAY ATTENTION to your child when they are behaving APPROPRIATELY. This increases the chances of GOOD behavior in the future.
  • Catch the child being GOOD – don’t save attention for PERFECT behavior.
  • Follow the child’s LEAD during Special Time. Be an ATTENTIVE and APPRECIATIVE audience. 
  • Use descriptive comments during special time rather than asking questions or giving instructions. 
  • If you pay attention to “bad” behaviors such as whining or screaming, they will occur more often in the future. 


Descriptive commenting is talking about what the child is doing as they’re doing it.(This technique is a way to communicate with children to show you care, to share in your enjoyment of the child’s activity, to increase/extend play, and to reinforce the child’s positive actions.) 

 It conveys in descriptive language what the child is seeing, touching, feeling, hearing, smelling, or tasting.

When you narrate during a child’s play, you are putting the child’s actions into words and describing the actions in a running commentary. It’s like a play by play coverage of an event. It gives the child the appropriate language for her actions and teaches concepts without being intrusive about it. 

Descriptive commenting, which play and speech therapists use, may feel artificial and uncomfortable at first. It’s not the kind of communication you would use with another adult. You are facilitating the child’s language development. The child will imitate you, and with the pressure off to answer questions, children often come forward and talk more. It’s teaching in a non-threatening way. Children often give you lots more information with this technique. They surprise you with how much they know. Then you can reinforce them. It’s a different way of helping children learn. It goes something like this: “You’re putting a blue block on top of a yellow block. Now a green block is going on top of the blue one. You’ve got three blocks on top of each other. There goes a red one on top of the green one. This is getting tall!”

You are giving the child your undivided attention and the descriptive vocabulary for what he/she is doing at the exact moment he’s/she’s doing it. It tells the child that what she/he is doing is of value and is important to you. This makes a tremendous difference in a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. It also increases their attention span and creativity.


Some Guidelines on Descriptive Commenting:

  • Watch your pace. If you talk too much or too fast, a child may react by saying, “Why are you  talking like that?” (If that happens, you can answer, “Because I’m interested in what you’re doing.”) Be sure to comment only on the positive. When you attend and comment on the appropriate behavior, it will increase. When you attend and comment on the negative, it will increase. (So avoid describing negative behaviors like, “Now you’re throwing the cars.”)
  • When you first begin descriptive commenting, it’s easy to mix it with praise, such as, “I like   the way your cars are all lined up.” Or, “What a nice tower!” Instead, just describe what you see. “Your cars are all lined up in a row.” “You have built a tall tower!”
  •  Don’t interpret your child’s play with comments like, “I like the butterfly you made.” This can  get you into hot water with the child. It may not be a butterfly! First, the child may say, “That’s not a butterfly!” Or, the child, feeling that you must know everything, withdraws thinking, “It must be a butterfly!”
  • When you are making descriptive comments stay focused on the child’s play and try to stay  away from irrelevant comments. For example, “You’re putting the cow in the barn. Here comes the farmer. Here comes the duck. Hmmm, I wonder where I put my scissors.”
  • Avoid needless corrections and rules such as, “Remember that trains need to ride on the   tracks,” or “Doll beds belong in the bedroom.” Save your rules for things that really matter. In the creative world of a child, doll beds can become boats in the water or trains can become airplanes and fly. Needless rules and excessive corrections will eventually make the child wary of exploring and experimenting.


Giving Effective Directions

When you as your child to do something, your direction needs to be CLEAR. 

Advice for giving GOOD directions:

  1. Ensure you have your child’s attention and eye contact BEFORE giving the direction.
  2. Use a FIRM (not LOUD) voice.
  3. Use a direction that is specific and simple to understand.
  4. Use physical gestures such as pointing along with your verbal directions. 
  5. Use positive directions (“do this”) rather than negative directions (“don’t do this”). For example say “Stay by my side” father than “Don’t run down the aisle. “Positive directions give a child a good understanding of what he/she is supposed to do and give you an opportunity to reward the child for following your directions. 
  6. Pay attention to and reward your child if they follow your direction.
  7. Only give directions that you are prepared to enforce. 

Directions you should AVOID:

  1. Chain directions – giving several directions at one time (“get dressed, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and go to the car”) A child’s brain cannot process that much information. It is better to break directions down into small, individual steps and then to praise for completion of each one. 
  2. Vague Directions – directions tat are not clear or specific. (“be good” may mean different things to you and the child.) It is much better to be clear about what you want (“keep your hands in your lap.”)
  3. Question Directions – directions given in the form of a question (“are you ready to clean your room?”) Asking question directions opens the door for the child to say “no.” If you are not offering a true choice, don’t ask a question.
  4. Directions followed by a reason – giving a direction and following it with an explanation (“wash your hands because it is time for dinner and you have been playing in the dirt.”) This type o direction offers too much information for a child to process and the child may not remember the actual instruction. If you choose to give an explanation give it before the direction (“It’s time for dinner and your hands are dirty, so go wash your hands.”) The direction should be the last thing you say. 

Rules of Thumb:

  • Use simple and clear positive directions.
  • Praise the child when he/she follows a direction.
  • Only give directions you are prepared to enforce. 


Rewards, like ATTENTION, will increase behavior. Any behavior (good or bad) that is followed by a reward is more likely to occur again.

Types of Rewards:

Social Rewards:

  • Physical Rewards – hugs, kisses, pat on the back, high five, etc.
  • Verbal Rewards – praise (“I like it when you…” or “Thank you for…”)
  • Activity Rewards: things you do with your child that the CHILD likes (playing a game, reading a story, making something together etc.)

Nonsocial Rewards: include things such as money, toys, food, stickers, etc. These must be things that the CHILD likes. ALWAYS combine nonsocial rewards with social rewards such as praise. 



Rules of Thumb:

  • Rewards that occur immediately after a behavior are most effective.
  • Always tell the child what he/she did that you liked (“I like it when you pick up your toys the first time I ask you to.”)
  • Use eye contact, smiles, and enthusiasm when you give praise.
  • Social rewards can be used anytime. Nonsocial rewards are helpful when you want to CHANGE a behavior and then can be faded out. 



Ignoring is the opposite of paying attention. It is actually the removal of all of your attention from the child. Ignoring is best used for MILD behavior problems such as winning, crying, begging, demanding attention, and tantrums.

When you are ignoring, DO NOT

  1. Make physical contact with the child (subtly put some distance between you).
  2. Talk or comment to the child.
  3. Make eye contact with the child.

Remember, paying attention to “bad” behavior will only make it worse. Once you begin ignoring a certain behavior, you MUST keep ignoring until the behavior stops. When it stops, lavish attention on the child for appropriate behavior. It is VERY important not to give in after you have begun ignoring because that teaches the child that he/she just needs to outlast you.

It is important to know that when you begin ignoring negative behavior, you may initially see an increase in this behavior as the child tries to figure out how much it will take from him/her to get a reaction from you. If you hold on and continue to consistently ignore, the behavior will eventually disappear. 

Rules of Thumb:

  • Ignoring the behavior will help it go away, but you must be consistent and must “outlast” the child.
  • When you first begin ignoring a behavior, it may initially increase in frequency and intensity. If you continue to ignore it, the behavior should go away.
  • It can be helpful to give the child a “heads up” before you start an ignoring program (“I will not listen to you when you are having a tantrum.”)


Time-out means time-out from ANYTHING reinforcing (attention, rewards, favored activities, etc). It is used for behaviors that cannot be ignored such as aggression, destruction of property, dangerous behavior, and non-compliance (not following a direction after one warning). 

There are many approaches to time-out. The one described here is one that has been researched for many years. Before you implement any time-out program, it is important that you and your child both understand: 1) what specific behavior time-outs are used for, 2) where time-out will occur, 3) what the rules and steps are for time-out, and 4) that time-out will occur every time the behavior occurs.


Choosing a time-out place

  1. Choose a place away from toys, people, windows, TV, radio, and all that the child likes.
  2. Your child’s bedroom is typically not optimal. If it is the only option, all toys should be removed.
  3. Do NOT use a dark or scary room (closet). Time-outs should be boring, not scary.
  4. The end of a hallway is often a good option.
  5. It may be helpful to put a small chair in the time-out place.

Steps for an effective time-out:

  1. Tell the child, “Because you did ______, you have a time out.” Say this only once in a calm, firm voice. (do not lecture, scold or argue, accept any excuses, or talk to the child while walking him/her to the chair.” 
  2. If the child refuses to go, lad him/her by the hand.
  3. Tell the child to stay in the chair until you say he/she can get up. It can be very helpful to set a timer that can be kept within the chid’s view. You do not have to start the timer until the child is sitting relatively calmly in the chair.
  4. Do not let anyone talk to him/her while in the chair and do not let the child play with anything while in the chair. Ignore whining, etc. while in the chair. Do not let the child leave the chair (to use the bathroom, get a tissue etc.) during time-out.
  5. After time has elapsed (one minute for every year of age up to five minutes) tell the child he/she can get up. People have different standards for completion of time-out. One food rule of thumb is that the child cannot be screaming or aggressive for at least the last 30 seconds of time-out before being let out. Alternately, you can start the timer over when the child becomes disruptive in time-out. 
  6. If the child was sent to time-out for not following direction, re-give the initial direction following the time-out. The child MUST follow the direction with no more than one warning or should go back to time-out. If the child follows the direction, praise for following direction (in a relatively neutral voice) and praise the next positive thing the child does. 

Rules of Thumb:

  • Use time-out for dangerous behaviors and not following directions after one warning.
  • Let the child know what types of behaviors result in time-out.
  • Use time-out immediately after the behavior.
  • Do to give any attention to the child while he/she is in time out.
  • Only “threaten” time-out if you are willing to follow through with it and use it. 

Other Effective Punishments 

Natural Consequences: occur when you allow the child to experience the consequences that normally/naturally follows their actions. Examples of this include: Handling the car roughly and the car scratching the child; Not bringing toys inside, having them ruined by the rain and not replaced; Teasing other children and being avoided by them; Refusing to wear a coat and being cold. Obviously, there are times when it is not safe to allow the natural consequence to occur; for example, you cannot allow you child to suffer the natural consequences of riding a bike into a busy street. 


Logical Consequences: occur when you make a child’s punishment logically/sensibly follow from the nature of the bad behavior. Examples of this include: Riding bike into street and not being allowed to ride bike for a week because he/she could not ride it responsibly; Refusing repeatedly to care for a pet and having the pet placed in another home; Carelessly spilling a drink on the sofa and having to drink only in the dinning room or kitchen. 


Response Cost: is also known as Behavior Penalty. This is where there is  a penalty for doing a particular bad behavior. The penalty is not logically related to the behavior but is rather adding or taking away something that will effect the child. Chose a penalty that will be a punishment for that particular child. Penalties might include losing privileges (TV time, play-time, special events, any other activity enjoyed), adding extra chores, or fining the child monetarily. Examples of this include: swearing and being fined 25 cents; Fighting with sibling and loosing bike for two days; Lying to parents and having to clean the bathrooms. 

Rules of Thumb:

  • Look for the mildest punishment that stops the behavior.
  • Allow the natural consequences to occur if it is not dangerous and there is one available. 
  • If it is not possible to allow a natural consequence or the consequence does not stop the behavior, try a logical consequence. Make sure that there is a clear logical connection between the behavior and the consequence. Highlight the logic to the child. 
  • If neither natural nor logical consequences are feasible, try a response cost. Make sure that you have assigned a specific penalty ahead of time for a specific behavior. Tell the child about it. 

Positive Self Talk is VERY important 




Source: MedPsych in Lakewood Ranch FL


Mother, Pediatric Nurse and a Trail Blazer for Positive Change.

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