Behavior Turnarounds – 5 tips I shared with Al Roker on TODAY this am

by | May 6, 2010 | Discipline & Behavior

One thing has never changed: kids will be kids and that means that do sometimes misbehave. Though there are no quick-fix behavior cures or sure-proof ways to raise well-behaved kids, research shows certain strategies do increase our odds.  In fact there are a few basic psychological principles that are proven to change behavior not only quicker but also for the long-term—that is, of course, if you use those them correctly and consistently. And the best news is they work with grown-ups as well as kids.

Here are the strategies I shared with Al Roker this morning on the TODAY show. (That link should be up on If you’re in pacific time the segment has not yet aired and will at 9:13 am). This is the 80th time I’ve been on the Today show – and it never fails to be energizing and fun.

Step 1 Behavior Turnarounds: Target Behavior

Target 1–no more than 2–behaviors at a time

The first part is the most important and overlooked: you must identify the specific behavior that is driving everyone crazy. Granted, your kid may be displaying a number of behaviors that need fixing, but it’s best to work on only one—and never more than two—behaviors at a time. That way, you can develop a much ore specific behavior plan to eliminate the bad behavior, and you’ll also be more likely to succeed.

Use the Goldilocks Question to help you target your behaviors:

1. “What behavior is your child using too much?” Like whining, being impolite, hitting, complaining, interrupting, etc. 

2. “What behavior is he not doing enough that you want instead? (Once you decide, choose the positive opposite or the misbehavior such as using a polite voice if he’s doing too much whining. 

Have a specific plan to stop the misbehavior

An effective plan is always specific so you think through exactly how you will respond to turn that behavior around. Without a plan you’ll never get the results. Clue your kid into the behavior that you will be focusing on.

Step 2: Five Behavior Turnaround Strategies

Here are five simple, proven discipline solutions that if consistently used will help turn even the toughest behaviors around.

#1: Be the Model You Want Your Child to Copy

Behaviors are learned best by seeing them done right, so make sure your own behaviors are ones your want your kid to copy. (I call that the Boomerang Effect: what you throw out to your child is like a boomerang that comes back to hit you in the face). Beware: inappropriate behaviors kids often learn from adults include: lying, aggression, impulse spending, gossip…etc). So ask yourself one question each night: “If my child had only my behavior to watch today what would he have caught?” Also point out the example of other kids using the “right” behavior at park, playground, playdate, or even characters on a TV show. Kids usually learn behaviors best by “seeing” what is right not from you “telling” them.

#2: Use the Right Kind of Reinforcement

Research shows that using the right kind of praise is one of the fastest ways to shape behavior. And it does not have to cost a dime. Genuine physical praise (hugs and high fives), social praise (an outing with you to get an ice cream) or verbal praise work wonders.

The most effective praise is always specific and aims at the positive opposite of what you’re trying to extinguish: If you tell your child exactly what he did right he’ll be far more likely to repeat the action. Adding “because” to your statement makes your praise more specific so your child knows exactly what he did that was correct and he’ll be more likely to repeat the behavior:

“That was respectful because you held the door without rolling your eyes.”

“You used self-control that time because you used your words instead of your fists.”

#3: Use “Selective Ignoring”

Arguing, whining, pouting, sulking, tantrum throwing are annoying but don’t cause a danger to anyone or damage anything. Kids usually use them as attention-getters because they work so don’t give them attention and the behavior will stop. You give absolutely NO attention to the child (pretend to be deaf and that your child is invisible). Then the second your kid uses the right behavior reinforce it! Warning: Once you start ignoring a certain behavior you must keep ignoring. Attention-getting behavior may increase before subsiding—because the kid is testing you. Don’t let him win!

#4: Teach a Replacement Behavior

A big mistake is failing to teach “replacer” behavior – or the behavior you want your child to use to replace the inappropriate one – what you want your kid to do instead. For instance, you kid is having the Exorcism and you yell, “Calm down!” Just don’t assume he knows how to do the appropriate behavior: teach him. The replacement is the behavior or skill to “replace” the incorrect one. Here are a few ways to teach your child the correct behavior:


  • Show, don’t tell: Your toddler is pulling the dog’s fur. Take his hand and show him the right way.
  • Redo the right way: Your preschooler is grabbing his brother’s toys: “You can’t grab but you can use your words to tell your brother you want a turn. Let’s practice a few times.”
  • Teach a new skill: Your school ager is displaying his anger by hitting. “When you start to feel yourself getting mad a deep slow breath then slowly blow the anger away.


Then find ways for your child to practice, practice, practice the appropriate substitute until he can do the new behavior on his own. Remember, the goal of discipline is to change behavior by teaching your child what to do instead.

#5. Use the Rule of 21

Behaviors can be changed but that change takes effort and time. The rule for learning a new habit is that it usually takes a minimum of 21 days. So the final principle: stick consistently to your plan for 21 days.

And track your efforts on a calendar. It will help you see whether your plan is succeeding. You should see a gradual diminishment of the old inappropriate behavior as the new more appropriate behavior kicks in. If not, it’s time to get help.

Remember also to apply these strategies using the 3C’s of Effective Discipline: Be Clear. Be Calm and Be Consistent.

Your real goal in discipline is for your child to act right (when developmentally appropriate) without you.

So hang in there and don’t give up!

For More Help:

For specific strategies to help change the 101 most challenging parenting problems (from chore wars, sibling rivalry, picky eating, sleepless, unorganized, bullying, aggression, etc), refer to my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Each chapter will give you the signs and symptoms of the problem, the best new response, how to handle the tricky moments, what the new research says, the two best solutions and several new “replacement behavior” options to teach your child so that you will reap real and lasting change.

You can also find more solutions on my website, or by following me at twitter @micheleborba.