One of my Lecturers during my clinical training at UQ, Prof Tian Oei, told us this joke. A company was struggling with productivity. Nothing they tried could fix the problem. It was looking like their factory would have to be closed. They called in an expert consultant to help fix the problem. The consultant toured the factory, observed the workers, drilled the managers with detailed questions and examined every machine in detail. Eventually, the consultant reached her conclusion. “I know how to fix your problem” she said. She took out a spanner and tightened a single screw on one of the machines and instantly productivity soared. The company was saved. But initially, the managers weren’t happy, “But that was too easy!” they cried, “Anyone could have tightened that screw. You don’t deserve to be paid for that.” The expert consultant shook her head, “You aren’t paying me for tightening the screw. You are paying me for knowing that tightening that screw was what had to be done.” The job of a psychologist, remarked Tian, is the same as that expert consultant. The actual strategies within a psychologist’s toolbox are pretty simple (in fact, I think he made a comment about trained monkeys), but what most people find hard, what psychologists specialise in, is knowing what has to be done to change behaviour. The strategies of behaviour change are pretty simple stuff and easy to learn how to implement, it is knowing what has to be done, with a particular behaviour of a particular person in a particular context, where all the magic happens. That is the true key.
So, I find it interesting how much parents, keen to make changes in their own or in their child’s behaviour, focus on strategies. They are almost always convinced that their lack of success so far is because they don’t yet have the right tool. They are almost always keen to skip straight to hearing what tools I can teach them to manage their child’s misbehaviour. In fact, the tools that work are all really simple stuff, and they are all based within a straightforward principle: stop reinforcing the misbehaviour, start reinforcing alternative behaviours and if your child has no alternative behaviours then teach them some. The tricky bit, the bit where the magic happens is knowing how to apply that principle to the specific behaviour of your child, given the context in which that behaviour occurs. The good news is you can get better, not just at strategies and tools, but at knowing what has to be done. And here’s how:
- Pick a particular behaviour to focus on and, for the next week, monitor that behaviour. In an ideal world, you would be recording every instance of the behaviour, either by taking a tally (for a discrete behaviour like hitting), recording the duration of the behaviour (for a behaviour where duration not occurrence is the focus like independent play), or noting whether the behaviour has or has not occurred at regular intervals, such as every 30 minutes (for behaviours with blurry boundaries like whinging). I don’t want to discourage you from doing that, but I know that this isn’t an ideal world and most people aren’t that meticulous. So, you can also set aside time at the end of each day for a week and ask yourself: did that behaviour happen a lot today or a little? Did it happen more at particular times? Was there any pattern to when and where it happened?
- Now think about a specific episode of the behaviour. Pick one that seemed fairly typical. What seemed to trigger the behaviour? That is, what was happening immediately before the behaviour? What, do you think, could be reinforcing (i.e. strengthening) the behaviour? What happened immediately after? What was happening when the behaviour stopped? What happened next? Remember your attention could be a reinforcer even it was negative attention!
- Again, think about the situations in which the behaviour occurs. If you are focussing on a misbehaviour, a behaviour you’d like to see decrease, you need to ask yourself, what could your child do instead? In the particular situations in which your child misbehaves, given their age and skills, what could they do instead? Does your child have alternative behaviours or do you need to teach them? If your child does have alternative behaviours, are those reinforced (e.g. by your attention, by your child getting what they are after)?
- If you are focusing on a behaviour that you’d like to see increase, you need to ask yourself, can your child actually do that? Is it realistic given their age and skills? Do you need to teach them how or make the task easier in some way?
- If you like, talk through your ideas with your partner or a friend or relative. Do they have any insights to offer?
By the end of this process, you should have some ideas about what it is that needs to be done. The next step is to try those ideas out and see what happens, continuing to monitor the behaviour. You’ll know your ideas are right if the frequency or duration of the behaviour changes over time, in the direction you were aiming for. Remember to be realistic and to take your child’s age and individual personality into account. Sometimes it is better to simply be more patient yourself!
It is ideal to cultivate the habit of asking these questions, figuring out what is to be done, in your daily life. I guarantee that becoming more skilled at working out what is to be done will be more helpful than learning yet another tool. Oh, and if you are really stuck you could always call in that expert consultant, a psychologist, to point out which screw needs tightening… It is after all, what we are good at…
Apply it to your life: You can become more skilled at knowing what has to be done. Remember: What triggered that behaviour? What might be reinforcing it? What can my child do instead?