June 5, 2014

How to Shape Childrens Behavior
Several years ago, I was asked to give a talk to Sunday School teachers at church on how to discipline children. My first thought was that I didn’t want to talk about disciplining children. Disciplining children implies that they’re misbehaving, but misbehaviors can be caused by a lot of things, not the least of which is the teacher’s inability to teach well. (I’m pretty sure I could talk for hours on that topic alone, but I’ll save it for another time.) Sure, every child has their weak moments, but there is a whole lot that a teacher can do to help students compose themselves respectfully and responsibly.

I find that the smoothest path involves anticipating and preventing misbehavior in the first place. If that ship has sailed, though, this is the next one you want to get on. Sometimes children come in with certain habits and behaviors and you need to proactively help them to work them out. Maybe it’s a girl who throws a tantrum every time something doesn’t go her way, or a child who has a habit of talking back. Perhaps it’s a small but persistent matter, such as getting a boy to tuck in his chair or keep his desk area tidy.

As a teacher, it can mean training your entire class to execute various procedures well, such as walking to and from the carpet area quickly, quietly, and ready to focus as soon as the transition is complete. I’ve worked with children on all of these and more, and have found that our success generally depended on my consistent execution of a few key skills. Yes, my execution. It’s not completely up to the child to improve himself. You can’t just tell a kid to “be better” or “stop doing that” and always expect her to know how to do it. You need to actively work with them to shape their behavior and help them grow as individuals.

In a series of posts, I have shared some of my experiences in shaping children’s behavior. Big or small, whole class or individual, there were a few key patterns that began to emerge in my behavior-shaping process. I constantly fine-tuned it over the years, and grew increasingly confident of my ability to effect positive change in children.

True, I have not actually shaped the behavior of my own children yet, but I really think that all these years as a teacher have given me a leg up to that end. Actually, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to be a teacher was to garner experience and wisdom from my career in order to enhance my effectiveness as a parent. So here’s a glimpse of what I have learned, for all you parents out there who didn’t get to spend eight years working with hundreds of kids before having your own. I hope to share some of the highlights of what I’ve learned over the years with you so that it may benefit you as you parent and teach children.

The four steps to shaping behavior

My ability to shape the behavior of children grew significantly as I diligently worked to improve in each of these steps. The first two steps required premeditated thought and reflection, and the second two steps took constant vigilance and discipline on my own part. The results were undeniable. Every challenging child that entered my class walked out a better person, carrying fewer undesirable habits and behaviors than they had on day one. I grew confident that I could impact even the most challenging individuals’ character and behavior positively. I will give an overview of the four steps to shaping children’s behavior here, and go into more depth with detailed posts illustrating what it looks like to effectively implement each of these.

Step 1: Anticipate and prevent misbehavior before it starts.

Thinking ahead a little can go a long way in preventing misbehaviors and keeping bad habits from forming in the first place! Otherwise, if a child learns to do something the “wrong way,” you will need to unteach that pattern while trying to replace it with a new one. Of course it’s not impossible to undo and overcome the old habits, but it’s harder.

Sometimes we’ve already missed the opportunity for prevention and instead need to undo a learned behavior. Other times, we simply want to instill a new positive habit in our child. Either way, the next steps detail how to work on those goals.

Step 2: Target one area that you want to see improvement in.

Target one behavior
I’m guessing you can think of more than one thing you’d like to change in your child, but take a step back and pick one. It’s hard enough to target just one behavior and consistently follow through with your expectations on it. Throw in a few more and you will all, parents and children alike, end up unfocused and frustrated. It’s amazing how quickly you will see concrete improvement when everyone understands what the focused goal is.

Maybe you want to see your child come home and begin homework immediately, without you having to ask him to. Maybe you want your child to accept your instructions without talking back. Perhaps your child has got it all together, but you’re hoping that she will start doing extra chores around the house. Whatever it is, focus on one major thing at a time if you want to see clear and significant growth.

Step 3: Develop a system of rewards and a system of consequences.

Behavior Chart
Use a rewards system to encourage your child to develop a new desired behavior. Once the desired behavior is mastered, wean your child off of the rewards. The new behavior becomes an expectation, and deviation from the expectation will result in consequences.

You should already have a base set of expectations for your child. These are behaviors you know they are capable of consistently mastering, which differs from child to child. Hold them to these expectations, but continue to add more to that list as you help your child master new positive behaviors with rewards.

The first time you jump into a new system, keep the behavioral goal(s) simple and easy. You want your child (and yourself) to experience success with it. This will help both you and your child learn the new system better and increase the likelihood that the new systems will stick and work in the long run.

Step 4: Be consistent.

The tricky gray area after a behavior is learned, but before it becomes truly ingrained
This is one of the most important and hardest points to follow. We always start off with good intentions, but over time may forget our original goals or veer off track. Train yourself to be consistent! It will take a lot of reflection and self-evaluation (which is pretty much true for improving anything in life). In my opinion, this is the simplest one to understand and hardest one to master.

Finally, I urge you to walk the walk. Model the good behavior you want to see. If you do trip up, be big enough to admit it and apologize. Nothing will teach your children poor behavior more quickly than hypocrisy, and few things will touch your children more effectively than your humility.


You will find that some children respond more to certain things than others. Perhaps you have a child who responds well to preventative talks, and you rarely need to bring up the subject of consequences. Maybe your child needs a combination of all of these tools in order to improve. Study your child and learn what is effective for them! Think of these as tools you can use at your own discretion to build the kind of behavior you think is best for your child.

What’s next?

One other thing I would suggest is to keep a journal somewhere of the target behavior you are hoping to change. It can even be an email thread to/with yourself that you can keep replying to every time you have a new focus behavior. The reason for this is simple: when you feel discouraged about your child’s behavior, you can look back on this journal and see the clear growth your child has made over time. It can be hard to see progress day to day, but a journal like this will give you a place to look back on and see that real, solid improvement has already happened. Celebrate these successes together!

Having shared all of this, I do want to add that “good behavior” is not actually the ultimate end goal. It is merely a means to greater goals of raising children of character and integrity who love and care for others.

s Behavior 2

Who knows– at times, pursuing these “greater goals” might actually mean that they will not conform to a given context or “behave well” according to someone else’s standard. And that’s just fine with me. As a mother, I will do my best to lay strong foundations and train my children up, which will include shaping their behavior. After that, I can only pray that they will make good choices and be the kind of people they were created to be. 

Now that I have thoroughly shared the tools I use for shaping behavior, I will follow these posts with examples of how it looks to put it all together. Like most things, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that you can apply, and there are a million ways each situation could go depending on the child and the parent. However, I think it would be helpful to see what it could look like to use these tools and principles in tandem in everyday situations. Let me know if you have ideas for common situations you’d like to see it applied to! I will do my best to give a realistic application of these skills and principles.

Thanks again for reading along and please do let me know if you’ve tried any these and how it has worked out for you!

P.S. For my next parenting/education series, I plan to share how to make the most of your reading time with your child. Everyone is always telling you to read with your child, and there are so many simple things you can do increase the impact of this everyday activity! Hope you read along with me! :).


Related Posts:

Preventing Misbehavior: What Every Parent Should Know

Using Rewards Strategically to Shape Behavior

How to Use Consequences Effectively

The Heart of the Matter

A Better Way to Say Sorry

One Thing at a Time

Be Consistently Consistent

30 responses to “How to Shape Children’s Behavior: Putting it All Together”

  1. Eva says:

    Dear JoEllen,
    thank you for your posts, I also love all of them. You are doing a great job with sharing your experience. I would like to ask you if you have experience with toddlers (1,5 year and so) and planning to post something about how to shape their behaviour at this stage.

    Thank you very much

    • Dushenka says:

      Dear Eva,

      In my experience what JoEllen is talking about for older kids works *especially* well for toddlers. Ok – maybe not having them say “I’m sorry; it was wrong because…”and also the system of rewards/consequences requires a little more development than toddlers have, but the post about preventing misbehavior in the first place, targeting *one* behavior at a time and consistency are all spot on.

      What comes to mind was at the toddler stage when my daughter got brave enough to toddle away from me, she also got brave enough to make noise during church. and after 2 times of having to leave because she was in a full melt down, the following Sunday I spent the drive to church talking about how we were going to church to pray and that it was very important to speak only when the grown-ups were also speaking and to listen very hard and that if there was anything she wanted to share to save it until all the grownups were done talking and we had left the building. She was not yet two. and it worked.

      Most recently, I was very proud because she went to her first birthday party at someone else’s house for someone who is not a member of our family and the day before the party we talked about going to L’s bday tomorrow and that there would be cake and possibly ice cream there but it wasn’t like Mommy’s and I didn’t want her to have any (she has life-threatening food allergies) but that we would have strawberry pie and pineapple upside down cake when we were at home (we were co-incidentally celebrating two family birthdays that same weekend) and before the party, I heard her telling my in-laws that she couldn’t talk because she was getting ready for the birthday party but we don’t eat the cake because we are going to have strawberry pie and pineapple upside down cake at home. I agreed with her that that was going to happen and when someone who didn’t know about her allergies said, “but she doesn’t have any cake, would you like some cake?” she replied “no thank you.” Which is what I need for her to do to to be safe.

      • joellen says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dushenka! I really appreciate hearing others’ experience using similar techniques with their children. Sounds like you totally have the “preventative conversation” part down! Great job! I’m so glad that you can use that to help keep your daughter safe!!! Thanks for sharing!

    • joellen says:

      Hi Eva,

      I don’t have much experience with 1-7 year olds, but like Dushenka said, some of the basic ideas here should work on younger children as well. I wish you the best!


  2. Rachel says:

    Your post is very timely! I just wrote a short list of “summer goals” for each of my kids. Some things are skill based (learning how to cut w scissors, learning how to tie shoes, etc) but some goals are behavioral (better bathroom habits, less back talk). It was a great reminder to tackle one goal at a time…because multi-taskers like me just want to take it all on NOW. Thanks for the post! Stay tuned for status updates as we make our way through our goal lists.

    • joellen says:

      Haha I totally hear you on multi-tasking and wanting to tackle everything now! It takes discipline to focus on one thing at a time, but hopefully it pays off in the long run! Can’t wait to hear your updates! Have a FUN SUMMER!!

  3. Sarah says:

    Hi JoEllen! I just wanted to let you know how much I love your posts! They are going to be such a great help to me as a future teacher and a future mom. I am still in college, going into Elementary Education, and I’m not even married yet, but there’s nothing like preparing for the future! 🙂 Please keep the posts coming, and I’ll keep soaking them up! God bless! ~Sarah

    • joellen says:

      Hi Sarah! I was totally like you in college too– I loved preparing and thinking about how I would do things when I was a wife, teacher, and mother! I also just loved the whole college experience itself, but I’m glad I spent that time preparing myself for my future roles :). Thanks so much for reading!

  4. Another great post. I especially like the suggestion of focusing on only one improvement or goal at a time. I am guilty of wanting to do it all at once. So hard to pick just one! haha

  5. Dakota says:

    Great reminders for those of us in the trenches… thank you!

    • joellen says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Dakota! Have a great summer with your little ones!!