Getting Tough Kids to Behave

Youngsters who have been through a broken home and foster care are likely to need exceptional parenting. Here are eight tips for getting children to mind.

  1. TARGET good behavior. Identify the bad behavior and then focus on its opposite. Reward the completion of chores and homework, going to bed on time, a half-day without bad language, the absence of disciplinary notes from the teacher.
  1. KEEP SCORE on the calendar or with charts. Charting is a good way to get a new discipline plan started. Basketball coaches keep track of points scored, rebounds and assists. Bosses keep statistics on a worker’s production. Parents do well when they take “official” notice of each success and record it.
  1. BE IMMEDIATE. For rewards (or consequences) to be maximally effective, they need to happen at once. Big business uses this concept effectively by providing immediate rewards with its sales, premiums and discounts.
  1. BE PHYSICAL. We do not mean spanking, but rather a whole range of effective non-verbal responses. Lectures provide misdirected attention to the problem behavior by taking too long. It may help to imagine you have duct tape over your mouth. Rather than say something, think what you can use to distract him. Have pre-planned games or activities. Go and get her. Separate combatants. Confiscate the cell phone or the car keys.
  1. FOCUS ON THE OUTCOME. Be concrete and specific and don’t get lost in the processes of discipline. Select behaviors that can be observed and counted. Goals like “attitude” and “respect” are too vague and general. Instead, look to goals like coming home on time, the absence of certain unacceptable words, and teacher reports on completed assignments. Find quick and simple ways to achieve these goals.
  1. DISCIPLINE CAN BE FUN. Wise parents can sometimes make discipline a game. If you want the room picked up, play “Beat the Clock” or “Beat the Song.” If you need quiet, play “Shazaam!” Everyone who is quiet till you say “Pinocchio” gets one M&M. If kids are fighting, play “Magic Chair.” Blow the whistle and everyone who goes to their previously agreed-upon chair until you blow the “all clear” whistle earns a tiny but immediate surprise.
  1. PROVIDE A WORKING STRUCTURE. Post the house rules, including chore lists and curfew times for everyone. Have a written policy on cell phone use. If necessary, lock up money, valuables, and liquor. Do your own detective work and don’t ask children to incriminate themselves. If you have reason to doubt where they say they will be, check for yourself.
  1. LISTEN. Children will have important reasons for wanting what they want. Hear them out. When limits are set, children may well be angry. Listen, even if you think it’s “backtalk.” Stick to your ruling, but accept their resentment. Children, like all of us, need to learn how to express their opinions civilly.

They are underscored by two important principles:

  • There is more to discipline than punishment. There are better methods available for obtaining compliance.
  • You will get more of whatever you pay attention to. Don’t waste your attention on misbehavior. Be brief, and when possible, ignore bad behavior. Save most of your attention for good behavior. Behavior of any kind, including misbehavior, is not likely to continue long without attention.

Of course, children fail to mind adults, and sometimes their behavior may be outrageous. That, however, is why they need parents: to teach and demonstrate the right way to do and behave, and to prepare them for a happy and productive adulthood.

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Jim Kenny
About Jim Kenny 36 Articles
Jim Kenny is a retired psychologist with over 50 years of clinical experience. The author of 13 books on family and child care, Dr. Kenny’s recent books are Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child and What Foster Parents Need to Know.