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Simple Solutions for Bad Behaviors

Little Girl Swinging

Bad behaviors such as hitting, spitting, kicking, and throwing toys or objects are among the most frequent concerns I have from parents.  There is a staggering percentage of children with these behaviors who also have a communication disorder of some sort.

I have found the following guidelines helpful for many of my families.  I should specify that the following information  is anecdotal and is to be viewed as such.

1. Establish the House Rules

An important step to minimizing unwanted “bad” behaviors is to establish simple house rules.  These rules must apply to everyone in the household, be simple, and remember to keep them positive. Adults are inclined to say “don’t hit your brother,” whereas I recommend the rule of “nice hands.”

I recommend the following house rules: (1) Nice Mouth; (2) Nice Hands; (3) Nice Feet.

Almost any unwanted behavior can fit into one of these rules.  Hitting?, nice hands. Spitting?, nice mouth. Running/kicking?, nice feet.

These are simple, easy to remember rules for both your child and you.  Additionally, I recommend posting these rules in multiple places in your home, but always on the refrigerator (low enough so the child can see) and accompanying pictures are always good for the little ones since they may not be old enough to read the words.  A week of children getting used to the rules and nice reminders from you (“Sally, use nice hands please.”) should be enough time to learn the house rules.

2. Understand Why They are Misbehaving 

Another important piece to reducing unwanted behaviors is to identify the reason for the behavior.  I find that most behaviors are communicative in nature. For example, if a child is pushing away from me and hits me, it is a non-verbal communication of “get away from me lady!”  Having said that, these behaviors typically can be categorized in one of two ways:

  • Avoiding a behavior  like throws a toy instead of cleaning up as you have asked for
  • Seeking attention like hitting when they don’t get something they want

It is vital to identify which one of these categories the unwanted behavior falls into prior to deciding on a punishment.  Depending on which category the behavior falls into the reactions will be polar opposites.

3. Correct the Bad Behavior  

Avoidance Behavior- “Time out” is not effective for avoidance behaviors simply because you are giving the child exactly what he/she wants: to avoid whatever you are asking of them. Instead try the following:

Step 1: Give a warning. “Sally, remember we use nice hands.”

Step 2: If the behavior continues I count down from 3.  The reason I count down and not up is when counting up different people count to different numbers.  Grandma might count to 5, mom might count to 3, dad might count to 10 this can be very confusing to a child.  When you count down (3-2-1), there is nowhere left to go after 1. I also like to give an opportunity to correct behaviors.  It should be noted that Step 2 is not always appropriate, such as for injurious behaviors.

Step 3: Make the child perform the desired action by not responding to other behaviors (e.g., hitting or kicking).  I typically use hand-over-hand assistance, meaning I put my hand on top of theirs and make them perform the action (e.g., clean up).  I also will accompany this assistance with the “clean up song” or “thank you, you are doing a great job helping me.” I simply pretend that the child is doing it themselves and I slowly remove my assistance until they are doing it alone.

Attention Seeking Behaviors

Step 1: This is the time to use “Time Out”.  Remember to keep the language simple. Place a chair in the corner of a room where you will be (never have timeout in the child’s room- that room is for playtime in their eyes).

You want to keep one eye on your child, but don’t be obvious. Remember they want your attention.  This is a power struggle.

Step 2: Place the child in the chair (facing the corner) and say simply and nicely, “Sally you are going to time out because you were not using nice hands.  When the timer goes off it will be time to come get up.”

Set a timer for the appropriate time.  I suggest 2 minutes for a 2 year old, 3 minutes for and 3 year old, and so on.

Step 3: Now is the hard part for most parents: ignore additional behaviors.  At this point any additional behaviors are made to…you guessed it get your attention.  Do you see the common theme here?  So, if your child gets up, place them back without talking to them.  When they yell for you as hard as it may be, don’t answer.  Not talking to them is punishment enough.

Step 4: When the timer goes off, walk to the “time out” chair, lean down to be at your child’s level and say, “Sally, now it’s time to use nice hands.  Give mommy/daddy a hug. Mommy/Daddy loves you.”

Step 5: Then move along with your day or until the next outburst occurs.

4. Be Consistent  

Over time, when these behavior modification protocols are used, the frequency that you will have to use them will diminish.  It is important to be consistent and commit to these rules yourself. Children know how to manipulate and we all know they will test you. Stay strong. Follow these guidelines and I think you will be amazed at your success.

These are the basics that we teach our parents, but with more complex disorders and behaviors sometimes these methods do not work, even when implemented 100% accurately.  That is okay.  We are here to help. Tell us what is going on and we are happy to give you more suggestions.

Amy Grant, M.S., CCC-SLP


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