Stopping undesired behavior in its tracks

There’s a Time and a Place for Everything

I taught in NYC for four years, teaching 5th grade special and general education students.  My school was in Midtown East and I had an incredibly diverse group of kids — some 5th graders were still sucking their thumbs while others were ready to date. My hat goes off to middle school teachers.

I worked with incredible colleagues who helped me build my teaching foundation and became lifelong friends.  One of our guidance counselors, Trisha, is a true blessing to the children she works with. I remember collaborating with her about a particularly challenging student who had a difficult home life and had much more “life experience” than any 10 year old should have.  He had gotten in trouble for using inappropriate language at school and Trisha told him, “There is a time and place for everything.” Those words have stayed with me.

We certainly don’t want to “allow” our children to use inappropriate language or misbehave.  But it is also our job to educate them about appropriate times and places for them to explore certain behaviors and actions.   For example, it is our job as parents to teach them why it is appropriate to use a loud voice at the playground but not during a religious service.  In the case of the 10 year old student using curse words, Trisha calmly explained to him why those words can’t be used at school. But she didn’t stop there. She brainstormed with him times where he could use those words — with his friends out of school, by himself in his room — and gave him options that would allow him to engage in the behavior at times that were more appropriate.

I tried this with Keener the other day when he ran out of church and got way too close to the street.  Keener, stop! Running too close to the street scares mommy and you could get hurt. Seeing that he was only quasi listening as he still wanted to run, I continued. I can see that you want to run.  Am I right? Let’s think about places where it is safe to run.  We then listed out those places — playgrounds, back yards, our basement.  We decided that our basement was the best choice for right now and that he would run in our basement when we got home.  Instead of continuing to run outside of church, we walked to the car together.

Helping children learn the time and place for the specific behavior will teach them to engage in it more when it’s appropriate, and less when it’s inappropriate.  Tell them a simple and direct “no” or “stop” for the behavior that needs to be stopped. Name the specific behavior (running, using a loud voice, climbing, etc.), and then brainstorm the times and places where they can engage in that behavior. If your child is overly emotional (see Playing for the same team), simply list the options yourself. If they are capable, engage them and brainstorm places or times together so they have joint ownership over the idea.  Sometimes they can immediately go to the basement or outside and run around and be crazy. Other times, you have to come up with a plan for them to engage in the behavior at a future point in time — like Keener running in the basement when we got home. Regardless, you are  teaching your child a time and place where they can engage in that behavior.

It can also help to highlight the times that you see them engaging in appropriate behavior for that time and place.  When you are at the playground and see them climbing appropriately, reinforce that the playground is a great place to climb.  Keep it positive and don’t bring up that they climbed on the table earlier. A simple I noticed you climbed all the way up to the top of the playground. Playgrounds are a great place to climb! will work great.

By teaching them where the appropriate “time and place for everything” really is, you are working towards the long term goal of your child determining what behavior is appropriate for each particular time and place.

Here are some examples of what to say:

  • Stop pushing your sister.  We only use soft hands with other people.  I can tell you are frustrated. If you need to push something, the wall, a stuffed animal, or a pillow would be great options.
  • No, we don’t climb on the table.  Tables are for holding things like plates and cups.  Where are some places you can climb? The stairs or the climbing structures at the playground are perfect for climbing.
  • Stop making that loud screeching sound.  It hurts mama’s ears. You can go in another room and make that sound by yourself, or you can stay here and make a quiet sound.  This is what a quiet fire engine would sound like… Are you going to stay here and be a quiet fire engine or go in another room away from me and be a loud fire engine?
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