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Using Behavioral Plans

June 8, 2011

I recently read a blog post criticizing the use of behavioral plans with children because they are not effective in longterm behavior change and because when you use a behavioral plan the rewards need to become increasingly bigger in order to work. Other critiques of using behavioral reinforcement systems with children that I have heard in the past include the belief that children should behave properly because “it’s the right thing to do” or because of intrinsic motivation, not because of an external reward. Further, some parents are opposed to behavioral systems because they feel that children should “just know” what behaviors are appropriate and expected.

I would argue that while all of these concerns are potentially valid, behavioral plans can be used effectively with children. I have used them with my own children and have helped other parents implement them with their children. Some of the above concerns reflect a lack of understanding about how to use a behavioral plan. An effective plan needs to consider: 1) clearly defining a small number of behaviors to target; 2) determining how the behavior will be tracked; 3) to choosing an effective reward; and 4) phasing out the program when behaviors are achieved. Rewards should not become increasingly bigger. Rather the demands for achieving them should increase over time. My Empowered Parenting Workbook discusses this all in more detail.

I have found that a behavioral plan or reward system is most effective for establishing a new behavior in the short term. When you find yourself stuck in the same negative pattern with your child repeatedly (e.g., battles over morning routines, struggles over your child’s forgetfulness with bringing home necessary materials for homework, fights over cleaning up after play, etc.), a behavioral plan can bring focus and attention to making a change. Once the new pattern is established, the plan should be phased out. Long-term use of behavioral plans can be difficult to enact because of the demands of tracking and adjusting the system on typically very busy parents, and is usually only necessary with children with significant behavioral disorders.

Children are not necessarily born with the internal knowledge of expected behavior and reinforcement systems can be a valuable tool to help them on the path to learning. The motivation for good behavior often becomes internalized with repeated practice and experience.

Further, I would argue that using behavioral plans and creating a loving connection with your child are not mutually exclusive.

I’m curious what your experience in using behavioral plans has been. Successful? Challenging? A disaster? Frustrating?

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