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New Year, New Behavior
January 15, 2016
Happy New Year parents!
About this time of year we all make resolutions. The hit parade for many of us (me included) are to exercise more, eat less sugar, or improve our diet….and maybe to work on similar goals for our kids. And by February or best case by March daily life and stress have gotten in the way of these changes. So in the spirit of highest hopes for your resolutions I thought I would make this post about what the science of behaviorism can do to support our all of our efforts to change our behavior.
To start…some quotes that really get to the heart of the issue…
“People don't change their behavior unless it makes a difference for them to do so.”
“The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”
B. F. Skinner
Let’s be optimistic!
As humans ALL of our behaviors are done for a reason. Once we figure out that reason all behaviors are changeable! In fact the reasons we engage in behaviors boil down to just a few simple explanations. For today we will talk about two of the most common
Access: To get something that we feel has been restricted or denied (e.g., toys, attention, money, candy)
Escape: To get out of things we don’t like, find difficult, or are just boring (e.g., homework, cleaning up, exercise, eating veggies). Delay or procrastination is often a more subtle form of escape.
To change a behavior we must make changes so that:
There are fewer barriers and more supports to doing the new behavior.
The consequences for doing a desirable behavior are a lot better than the consequences for doing an undesirable behavior
I want to exercise more but I often find myself coming up with a ton of excuses about why I don’t have time. Right now, exercise is hard because I have been a couch potato for a while. This means that escaping the sore muscles and fatigue is much more motivating than sticking with my workout routine. To change that dynamic I need to set up a system to increase the motivational value of doing exercise instead of making excuses.
I can schedule a time on my calendar for daily workouts to eliminate conflicts.
I can reduce the amount of effort it takes to stick with my resolution by starting slowly and setting small goals for the amount of time and energy I will spend on this new routine at first. If I am successful I will be more likely to continue with gradually increasing goals.
I can recruit an exercise buddy, schedule time in a class, or hire a trainer. In all of these cases I am more likely to be motivated to exercise if I have invested friendship and/ or money into the activity. I will feel social pressure (and maybe financial pressure) to live up to my commitments to others. In addition by pairing something I love (socializing) with something I don’t love (exercise) I can raise my enjoyment of exercise.
I can only allow myself a piece of my favorite chocolate caramels if I have exercised that day.
But you say…I am on this website because I want to change my child’s behavior…Great! Same rules apply. We need to create an environment for our children that limits barriers to behavior change and increases their pay off for engaging in the behaviors we want to see. To do this we often need to change how we interact and react with our kids. Consider the following questions.
CHANGING BEHAVIOR OF ANOTHER PERSON
OFTEN REQUIRES THAT WE ARE READY TO
CHANGE OUR OWN BEHAVIOR FIRST
Do I think my child’s unwanted behavior is a result of wanting to get something (attention, toys, candy) or to get away from something (homework, eating veggies, cleaning his room)? Hint: it is okay to guess incorrectly. Just come back here and try again.
If she wants something, can I fill up her tank so she does not feel a need to do the behavior to get what she wants?
Angie was driving her mom, Susan, a bit crazy every time they went to the grocery store. As soon as they got to the checkout line, Angie began to beg for a candy. This often escalated to a tantrum that Susan felt was quite embarrassing and then she gave in so that she could avoid the embarrassment. Realizing this wasn’t working Susan started to allow Angie to eat 1 small candy every day and added an extra piece on grocery store days ONLY when Angie was well behaved. Angie stopped begging for candy at the check-out line in the grocery store, her sweet tooth had been filled enough by 5 M&Ms, a handful of gummy candies, or a Kiss and she knew the way to more candy was good behavior, not tantrums.
If he wants to get away from something, can I break it into smaller pieces or decrease the effort he needs to make to get it complete?
Jake hated doing his reading homework and could find 100 ways to procrastinate--on one occasion cleaning his room instead!His parents made Jake a deal that they would read every other page to him.This had the effect of increasing Jake’s motivation to read in several ways 1) he got special attention from his parents while he read, 2) when his parents read he was able to focus more on the story and less on the struggle to read- so he found reading more interesting, and 3) reading took less overall effort since it was now a shared activity where help was readily available.
Have I made sure that the reward for doing the behavior I want is larger than the reward for doing the behavior I would like to change?
Jessica is a busy mom of 2 balancing part time work, a two year old daughter Madison, and a 6 month old son, Jake.When Madison was playing nicely on her own, Jessica often used the opportunity to check her email or take care of Jake.When Madison threw toys near her baby brother Jake, Jessica never failed to scold her.Thinking her attention might not be reinforcing the behaviors she wanted to see, Jessica started to provide a little attention to Madison when she was playing on her own.She would sit down for 2 minutes and play alongside Madison, praise Madison’s drawing or comment on what a great mommy she was to her babies then go back to taking care of Jake or a work emergency. She made sure to give Madison a little attention every 2-3 minutes. When Madison threw a toy however, she stopped scolding and instead turned away from Madison, often providing Jake a quick cuddle instead.This simple change in the reward for playing alone (mommy’s attention) versus throwing a toy (no attention from mommy) resulted in a much happier little girl and a lot less throwing!
Wishing you all a very happy 2016 and much success on your resolutions.
If you would like support to fulfil your parenting goals please look at both my in-person and remote coaching services.