5 Steps Towards Better Behavior


Around this time of year, it is very common for kids’ behavior to take a nosedive. If you stop to think about it, we place a lot of demands on children during the holidays: many changes to the schedule, lots of extra stimulation and excitement, pressure to engage with friends and family members, and time away from teachers, therapists and classmates. It is easy for the whole routine get thrown out the window!  This can be stressful for any child (or any adult…am I right?!) but it is THAT much harder for our little ones who have sensory, language, cognitive or social deficits.

Recently, I’ve been finding myself having conversations with parents about behavior challenges, and I just happen to be living with a feisty little two year old who sometimes gives me a run for my money! I’ve come up with five small changes that yield big results:


It is our instinct to tell our children “No!” a lot—“Don’t touch that,” “No climbing,” “Stop throwing,” etc.  For many children, a natural reaction to hearing “no” is to dig their heels in.  Instead, try giving a positive direction. For example, instead of “Stop throwing,” say “Put the blocks in here.” or instead of “Don’t touch that,” try asking “Can you hold this for me instead?


Similarly, it is really important to be specific with children. As adults, we naturally read between the lines and make inferences about what behavior is expected of us, but this can be really challenging for kids. I constantly overhear parents saying vague things like “Listen!” or “No, Ma’am” or “Behave!” When you think about it, what does any of that even really mean?  When we’re at someone else’s house (usually someone who doesn’t have small children), I tend to follow my daughter around saying “Don’t touch.”…”Nope”….”No Touch.”…”No No.” Why am I not giving her something that she CAN touch?  Be specific about what you want your child to be doing right now. Instead of saying “You need to listen,” try something like “I want you to stand next to me and hold my hand while we wait in line.” This way, you are setting your child up for success, and reducing his chances of making another wrong choice.


For some reason, we tend to ask children a lot of YES-NO style questions when we really just want them to follow instructions.  As a therapist and as a parent, I catch my self asking “Do you want to….?” or “Can you ……?” And what do you think is an easy answer to those questions? “NO!” Then what?! I try my best to offer choices as much as possible. Instead of saying “Can you clean up the blocks for me?” I will say “Which color block should we clean up first?” Offering choices not only reduces the likelihood of getting a refusal, but also makes the child feel like he is in control.


Children often don’t have the ability to think ahead, especially when in the midst of a power struggle with Mom.  It is easy for them to get so focused on the item or frustration at hand, that they forget about all other things. Remind your child about the things that might motivate her to have better behavior. Walk her through what will happen if she follows the direction now: “First, we are going to put on our shoes, and then we will get in the car, and when we get to the school, you get to play with the sand table!


It’s sad but true—tantrums happen, from all kids. This time of year, they seem to happen even more! I like to think of temper tantrums like a hurricane; You can see them coming, and there is not a whole lot you can do to stop them. When a hurricane strikes, we don’t try to rebuild homes while the storm is still happening, right? It is only once the hurricane has passed that we can start to really help. Tantrums are the same way!

Did you know that children under five do not have the emotional maturity or cognitive skills to logically talk themselves out of a tantrum? At a certain point, it is so beyond their control that the child might not be able to even identify what sparked the tantrum in the first place.  The best strategy for tantrums is to be present, letting the child know that you are here to listen, and avoid telling him to stop. Avoid walking away or getting angry yourself. Instead, take a deep breath and wait for the child to start to calm down. Once calmer, validate their feelings by stating what you see. (ex: “I am so sorry that you are disappointed.” or “You are really mad that it is time to go home.”). Once you’ve opened the door of communication, you can start to explain why or give instructions. It’s not about giving into what the child wants, but more about teaching her that communicating will get her further than just throwing a fit.

I always preface my advice with “These strategies work MOST of the time.” 😊  Sometimes, bad behavior is unavoidable, and as therapists, caregivers, and parents, we need to give our selves some grace when we have those less-than-stellar moments. The most important thing is that we challenge ourselves to continue to work with our kids, and never give up on teaching them. Putting in the effort to really manage behavior now will result in decreased frustration, more constructive interactions, and most importantly, more time for fun! Here’s to a calm and joyful holiday season with our kids.


Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP<<<<


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