Creating a Behavior Support Plan for Your Toddler
Author: Meredith Anderson
The nickname the “terrible twos” became common knowledge for a reason: it can be terrible for the parents. Sometimes it goes beyond the twos and into the threes and fours. Having a system, even for a young child, is important for both your and your child’s emotional health. While your child may not be able to understand the complex dynamics of behavior and discipline, you can still communicate the basic message of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior through modeling and reinforcement.
For example, many toddlers use hitting or kicking as a way to express their anger or just to push boundaries. In pre-school, it is far more embarrassing for the parents than the child to receive the phone call that their child hit another student or teacher. However, if parents develop a behavior management system for their child, then they can work with their child to eliminate an undesired behavior. Discussing the specific undesired behavior with your partner or caregivers who are in regular contact with your child is important. For example, undesired behavior should be defined in detail; not “Billy acts out,” but “Billy takes other children’s toys without asking.” The next step is to observe your child closely, especially where the behavior most often occurs. Also, ask those who witness the behavior, like a caregiver or pre-school teacher, what happens before and after the behavior occurs. What happens before the behavior occurs is the “trigger,” or the antecedent. For example, “Billy takes other children’s toys without asking when he sees a toy he likes.” The antecedent, when Billy sees a toy he likes, causes the undesired behavior to occur. What happens next is the consequence. Building on the previous example; “After Billy takes a toy from a child, the supervising adult tells Billy not to take other child’s toys and puts him in time out.” In a nutshell, to better understand your child’s behavior and be able to change it, you need to identify the ABC’s; antecedent, behavior, and consequence. Unfortunately, the ABC’s of behavior are more complex than just singing the alphabet.
Once you understand why the behavior is happening and what happens after to reinforce it, you as parents can decide what behavior would be appropriate to replace the undesired behavior. Using the example earlier, if Billy takes other children’s toys, he could be taught to ask to play with the toy, either alone or with the child, or to simply get a different toy. Billy would need to be taught these behaviors by his parents, and then caregivers should be made aware of the expected new behavior. A child learns how to talk, walk, and eat by watching you and others in their world. Modeling appropriate and desired behavior is no different. Toddlers are “mini-me’s” of you, and they want to mimic the people they love, so it is important to show your child the behavior you want. Simply explaining the importance of manners and the complexities of respecting others isn’t going to make sense to them. If possible, go to the environment and reenact the trigger; then model the desired behavior; then ask your child to copy you. Once they copy the desired behavior, they should be rewarded. If you give your child a reward to encourage him or her, your child will be motivated to perform the behavior on their own. For example, Billy’s mother would model asking a child for a toy that she wanted and then ask Billy to do the same with a reward to promote the behavior. Rewards, or positive consequences, can be a variety of things. A lot of times parents use food as a reward for performing desired behavior; however, that can compromise a child’s diet if the food is something like candy. In preschools and elementary schools, teachers use a behavior chart, which is a chart for the individual child where a sticker or stamp is placed on the chart every time a desired behavior is completed. The stickers should be easier to earn at first and then gradually become more challenging. Extra verbal praise is also given at the time the desired behavior is performed. Once the child reaches a certain amount of stickers, like three in a row, they can have a tangible reward. The reward can be something like going to the playground, picking out a toy at the dollar store, or getting an extra bedtime story. For example, if Billy asks a child to use a toy three times in a row at pre-school or on a play date, he gets to go to the playground that afternoon. Research on behavior applied analysis shows that reinforcing desired behavior with a positive reward is more effective at changing behavior than punishing the negative behavior only.
With that being said, there still needs to be a negative consequence when the undesired behavior is performed. Toddlers learn new behavior quickly, especially when encouraged, but they also lose interest quickly and can resort back to their old habits. The negative consequence should happen only when the undesired behavior is performed. The negative consequence should have a clear beginning and end, as well as happen immediately following the undesired behavior. For example, if Billy takes another child’s toy without asking, he has to sit by himself with no toy for 2 minutes. The consequence, just like the reward, should be explained to your child in terms he or she can understand. Depending on your child’s developmental level, it can be something simple like, “we like it when others give us toys to play with, but we have to ask first.”
Creating a behavior support plan means having a goal, defining the undesired and desired behavior, and establishing positive and negative consequences. The most difficult part of enforcing a behavior support plan is being consistent. If parents or caregivers are not consistent, then the behavior will not permanently change. Toddlers, and really all children and even adults, thrive on structure and are more likely to act appropriately if the expectations are clear. If Billy didn’t know when he was going to get a positive or negative consequence, he would not be motivated to consistently perform a specific behavior. Teaching children to be accountable for their actions means parents have to model being accountable as well. Adults expect adults to be accountable for their behavior, but as adults we forget we had to learn how to be accountable. For some children, learning to be accountable is like learning long-division. It may take some children years to fully understand while others get it after one short lesson. Every child learns at his or her own pace, so be patient.
The goal of a behavior support plan is to eventually get your child to perform the desired behavior instinctually without the reward. Once the desired behavior is learned, parents can pick a new goal for their child to meet using the behavior chart. Behavior is constantly evolving, but at the same time, habits are harder to break as we get older. Toddlers are resilient and eager to learn; if you don’t teach them what you expect, they will find other expectations to meet which may not be what you desire.