The Art of the Behavior Plan
I can’t count how many times I have heard “it doesn’t work” when I have been figuring out behavior plans with families. As a parent like every other parent, I have also felt that complete sense of defeat when it comes to solving the puzzle of my child’s most challenging behaviors. As I’ve argued before when I wrote about child behavior and discipline generally, and rewards more specifically, I think the old science of behaviorism has been unfairly thrown out in modern parenting trends, and we should welcome it back by doing it well.
It’s true. Behavior plans don’t always work. But when they do, it can feel downright magical. The reasons they don’t always work depend on many factors – some have to do with our children, and some have to do with us. I’m here to break it all down after years of professional and personal experience figuring out child behaviors and what to do about them.
Although complaints and concerns about behavior plans circle around us in the media, the leading experts in child psychology and child behavior have continued to advocate for well-tested behavioral strategies to most effectively address children’s behaviors. It’s not new and shiny, but there’s a reason this approach has stood the test of time.
What Is A Behavior Plan?
A behavior plan is a system of rewards and consequences to change a specific behavior. It should be framed in the most supportive, positive way possible. When my 4-year-old needed our intervention for daily screaming and throwing objects, we talked about how we wanted to help him stay safe and feel calmer.
You should always be thinking of the larger purpose – maybe it’s to help homework time feel easier, to have more fun at play dates, or to get along better at home so there’s less arguing. If we keep in mind it’s for a higher good, it helps us all stay on track.
When to Use A Behavior Plan
When your child is struggling with either a behavior that is causing problems at home, school, or in relationships, OR your child is NOT doing something important for their day to day functioning. The behavior needs to be significant, not a minor annoyance, so choose carefully. The more significant it is, the more responsive it will be to the behavior plan because of how motivated everyone is to work on it.
As anyone knows who has ever met a child, children are fickle. They can change on a dime, and experiment with all kinds of strange, new behaviors. Sometimes, the hoping and waiting game actually works, and the new fun habit of taking off pants in public disappears as suddenly as it started. We don’t want to wear ourselves out with a constant stream of behavior plans.
When a behavior has either lasted a few weeks OR really interferes with the family’s day-to-day living, it’s time to think about a behavior plan. In our most recent situation, our 4-year-old’s heightened intensity of tantrums was getting worse instead of better over time, and making all of us miserable. His behavior plan: he starts each day with three stars; he loses a star when he screams uncontrollably rather than express his frustration verbally and/or throws objects. For each day he has at least one star at the end of the day, he gets a checkmark. Three checkmarks earn him special one-on-one playtime with a parent before bed.
Key Ingredients of the Behavior Plan
Developmental fit. We could not have had the same behavioral expectations for my son when he was having tantrums a year ago. But now he has the language abilities to express his needs, so it’s fine (and good for him) to expect him to do that. The first ingredient for success is knowing your child CAN do what is being expected. If they are not ready, you may need to first spend time coaching new skills, or change the expectations.
Be very specific about the behavior you are either trying to decrease or increase; the child (and you) need to understand what exactly needs to change. Example: Instead of “no more fighting,” say clearly, “you need to talk instead of yell at your sister, and keep your hands off of her body.”
Be specific about the rewards and consequences. Make sure you, your partner, and your child all know what the reward is and how it will be earned, as well as what the consequence is and how it will be enacted. If you have concerns about how using rewards might be bribery or teach your kids the wrong lessons, I address those concerns in Rewards: Bribery or Behaviorism at Its Best?
Pick appropriate rewards and consequences. This can be harder than it sounds.
First, the rewards and consequences need to fit the behavior, meaning no new Lego set for one week of cooperative bedtimes. That’s a lot to sustain, and a big material payoff. When my 3-year-old daughter loved to stall bedtime, we created a “treasure chest” of options from the dollar store for staying in bed after we left the room, but I generally like to focus as much on intangible rewards as possible. Extra time and attention from us can often be the perfect incentive.
Second, consequences work best when they are as natural as possible. The consequence may simply be that they don’t earn the reward . . . yet. It’s important they have another chance if at first they don’t succeed. In the case of our 4-year-old’s tantrums, he started each day with three stars and the consequence of not staying safe or using his skills to calm himself down was losing a star.
Third, you as the parents have to be able to sustain whatever is in place. For our son, it’s pretty easy to put stars on a dry erase board each morning, and put a checkmark for each day. The hard part has been making sure we have the time to play with him as promised for every three days of checkmarks.
Be realistic. You and your child need to feel successful from the start, so set the bar low to make sure your child can earn the reward and avoid the consequence from the beginning. This motivates them to keep working on it because it feels positive from the outset. We did not expect our son to have zero tantrums all of a sudden, so we gave him the more realistic window of two episodes a day before the consequence of not earning his day’s checkmark. For us, that was a decrease in the target behavior. AND most days, he actually has earned all three stars!
Be consistent. This part is all on us, and I think it’s the hardest part. We get really motivated and focused at the beginning of a new behavior plan, but then get easily sidetracked by all of life’s distractions. The bottom line is that when we are not consistent with expecting the behavior and implementing the plan, our kids don’t get the benefits of it.
Use visuals. Visuals help all of us stay on track no matter how young or old. Figure out a way to have the behavior plan on display in a central location. Whether it’s a hand-drawn chart, images or words, if everyone sees it, it helps it stay at the forefront of our attention. There’s no need for a fancy, complicated Amazon-purchased chart. Simple and straightforward is best.
Keep it simple. Take on ONE behavior at a time, no matter how tempting it is to tackle more. That becomes overwhelming for the child, and for us, and then it all falls apart.
The younger the child, the more straightforward the plan needs to be. For a 3-year-old, they need the target behavior rewarded immediately for real learning. For a 9-year-old, they could get a symbolic reward for each day of finishing their homework in a timely manner, with the actual reward each Saturday.
We aim too high. Expecting too much too fast can sink a behavior plan from the start. Behavior plans are not blood oaths – they can be tweaked if they are not working.
We try to do too much. Maybe in trying to speed up the morning routine, we have a long list of tasks required to earn the reward or avoid the consequence. This could simply overwhelm your child, so even though it can feel like it’s at a snail’s pace, take one one part of the routine at a time and add to it as your child masters each one.
We forget. It’s common to unceremoniously stop the behavior plan as soon as there’s some improvement. The behavior inevitably pops up again, and we say “see it didn’t work!” But often we failed our part of the mission – and I speak from personal experience.
Just last week, my son began the behaviors we thought we had extinguished, and my husband and I realized we had sort of mentally been keeping track of his stars and checkmarks, but had no longer been visually tracking OR talking to each other. We are like all busy families who get swept up in our hectic lives. I got that dry erase board back out, we reminded our son of the plan, and I’m not exaggerating when I say he was immediately back on track.
What if it Doesn’t Work?
If you just read all of the above and kept nodding, “yep did that, did that, did that . . . still stuck,” then there may be something larger going on that needs attention.
In my work when a family gets stuck like this, I see we have stripped away the behavioral layer so we can better see the emotional underbelly. Not that we aren’t always working on the close connection of behaviors and emotions, but there are cases where the emotional component is a much stronger driver than it appears on the surface.
This doesn’t mean the behavior plan has been a waste of time. I actually see this as really useful information – it didn’t work for a reason we need to understand to keep figuring out how to help our child.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Is there a recent big life change or event that my child could be struggling to adjust to? This could be moving to a new town, changing schools, a death or serious illness in the family, parents’ fighting and/or separation or divorce, or even friendship problems they may not be telling us about.
Could there be a reason my child CAN’T do the desired behavior, so the behavior plan leaves them feeling worse about themselves? Maybe there’s a learning issue that makes homework feel impossible, or anxiety that prevents them from staying in their room at bedtime, no matter how enticing a reward is, or impulsive behavior related to possible ADHD that needs more support than one behavior plan can offer.
Do I have other concerns beside this one behavior we have been working on? If there seems to be other changes in your child, or behaviors that seem different in general, even if subtle and hard to put your finger on, this one behavior you have been working on (unsuccessfully) could be part of a bigger constellation of symptoms.
I’m not claiming that if your behavior plan doesn’t work, there’s a more serious problem. There are always many considerations, but if you have thoroughly worked on a problem behavior from several angles, including a behavior plan, with little success, a professional may be a great next step.
You are always the expert on your child, but sometimes combining this expertise with that of a professional can move everyone forward.
Is it Worth it?
In my opinion, YES. The careful and artful application of behavior plans can accomplish even more than making our lives easier. It helps teach our children to master important skills for life, building their confidence that they can in fact do something that seemed difficult or overwhelming.
In using a behavior plan, we are giving our children the structure they need to build up their natural abilities, whether for self-regulation of intense emotions, or meaningfully contributing to the household, or whatever else on the continuum of our little humans developing into big humans.
When done with compassion and support, partnering with our children in addressing challenging behaviors can also build our relationships with them. We should all get stars and checkmarks for that.