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. Dushenka says:

    Joellen, again, I appreciate you articulating what I have been doing without having words for. It works on one child or 30 and any number in between.

    One of the things you mentioned in your consistency post is that as a teacher you get a fresh start at the end of every summer but you didn’t know what would constitute a reset button as a parent. You can create a reset button as needed by talking with your kids and then being consistent from that point forward.

    For example, my kids had gotten in the habit of grazing and also of begging for food whenever anyone was eating anything, even if they had just eaten. So we had to institute the No Snacking Policy, and the person who resisted it the most was me because I had gotten in the habit of snacking which meant that any moment was an opportunity to request food which meant that… So we had a talk as a family (the oldest child was 3 and the youngest was a newborn) about how snacking wasn’t working and how even though we had done it in the past, it wasn’t consistent with the life we wanted to live and so from that moment, we would only be eating when we were all seated at the table having washed our hands, put on our bibs and said our prayers. This worked really really well, and even when other kids that came over to play or that we saw when we were out and about were snacking, my kids did not request food because “we don’t eat unless we are seated at the table” love, love, love and thanks for writing this blog.

    • joellen says:

      Hi Dushenka! Again, it’s so validating to hear when other people are doing the same things and it’s working for them, too! Thanks for sharing your experiences! I’m so glad you were able to effectively “reset” and start a new healthy habit with your family. It sounds like it was very effective because you actually stuck with it and followed through.

      I can easily imagine other families attempting something similar, but regressing to snacking again… and then resetting again, regressing, etc. Maybe I can imagine that because that’s how I am with myself oftentimes when I try to start a new habit (such as cutting down on sugar or caffeine!) haha :). It’s also great that you also changed your own habits (i.e. “walk the walk”), because leading by example can be one of the most powerful ways to teach. Rock on, Momma!

  2. Eva says:

    Thanks a lot to both of you, I greatly appreciate your help. I think I will slowly start with all the steps JoEllen shared, even thought I thought he was too young for them and he would not respond. What we also do is preventing the situations but I see on him that he has been trying hard to find out until where he can pull the strings :).

    Thank you very much again and I wish you all the best.

  3. Andrea clarkson says:

    Hi, I just love your website. I wait with baited breath for every new post. I have 3 very tricky boys. All gifted–all unable to deal with emotion, disappointed, etc. it’s quite serious, I was sure my oldest had ADHD–all the issues–except at school, so clearly not. That clued me in though, I gotta run my home like a teacher. Set expectations, be consistent, yep–something I never figured out till now–10 years later!!!
    By far my biggest problem is consistency. But for targeting specific behaviors– what in the world do I do with all the other bad ones? Do I ignore them??? Please help clarify. I literally have about 4 big ones per kid.

  4. Ruby says:

    I’m not a teacher, but I do work at a summer camp with school-aged kids. This was helpful! Another thing I find SUPER effective is the idea of relating the consequence to the behavior. For example, if a camper is being unsafe with scissors I won’t make him or her sit in the hallway or miss free time, I’ll take the scissors away. If a camper cuts in line, he or she gets sent to the end of the line. If two campers are talking while an adult is talking, I’ll ask them to sit on opposite sides of the room…you get the idea.

    I find that that this way it’s easier for the child to understand why they’re receiving a consequence, since it’s not entirely arbitrary. It leads to constructive conversations later on: “When you play with scissors, it shows me that you can’t use them safely. I had to take them away because I didn’t want you or someone else to get hurt. Before I let you use the scissors again, can you think of some safer ways to use them?” or “How did you feel when you had to go to the end of the snack line and wait longer to get your snack? Well, when you cut in line it meant everyone behind you had to wait longer for their turn, too. Do you understand why that’s not a nice thing to do to other people?” or “When I made you move to a different seat, was it easier for you to listen? For the rest of the campers to listen? For the adult to talk?” If the child is able to make a direct connection between the behavior and the consequence, they’re more likely to learn from their mistakes. Instead of stopping the behavior simply for fear of consequences, they’re able to understand WHY the behavior is harmful and hopefully be more aware of the (natural) consequences of their actions later on in life when there’s no adult to tell them “no.” I always tell myself that I’m not just looking after children, I’m looking after PEOPLE.

    • joellen says:

      Wow, Ruby, thanks for the great ideas! I totally agree that whenever you can, make the consequence relevant to the behavior! Sometimes it’s really hard thinking of an appropriate, relevant consequence, so I love that you shared specific ideas here! Consequences are much more meaningful to students when they understand what the possible consequences of their actions (scissors, making others way, etc.) could be. Enjoy this summer with the kids!!

  5. Anita says:

    Dear JoEllen,
    Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom on education. I completely agree with your principles. We have been using a similar system at home with our children and it does work.
    I would like to ask for your advice concerning the following. Our oldest child is 6 and is starting first grade in September. We have had a lot of problems with his behavior in the preschool he has attended the past three years. He definitely belongs to the 7-17%. 🙂 The main complaints from his two teachers were ‘not obeying’, and hitting other kids (as a response to something they did to him). We have tried different things to shape his behavior at school but nothing seemed to work. His teachers say they don’t really believe in administering consequence but rather in long talks after a misbehavior happens, and that kids should be selfmotivated to behave well. We feel that we are limited in trying to change his school behavior if the teacher is not a partner in this. In his new school we don’t know who his teacher will be and what methods she will use or if she will be willing to work with us. I wonder if you have any suggestions we can do beforehand to prepare our son for a better start in his new place.
    Thank you in advance,

    • joellen says:

      Thanks for reading, Anita!

      Ah, that is a tricky situation. Of course you want the best for your child, and of course you want the teacher to partner with you. It’s tough when you have different philosophies when it comes to working with children. Regardless of philosophy though, as a teacher, I was always thrilled when I could tell the parents were proactive with and involved in their children’s lives, and it sounds like you are!

      Having said that, I do think there are better ways to approach teachers about these things (and some things to avoid). I definitely am not speaking for all teachers– we are as varied as they come– but here are some things you might want to consider:
      1. Write a letter to the teacher beforehand briefly offering some background. Ask to meet in person for a conference to start the year off on the right foot and on the same page. I can tell you from experience that it is not effective to catch the teacher on the first day of school and verbally tell the teacher a few things to note about your child. That first week is so hectic that even if the teacher remembers the notes, she will struggle to remember whose mom you are. Even if you say, “I am Andrew’s mom,” that piece of information is unlikely to stick if the teacher has not met Andrew yet.
      2. Consider if you want to request an SST: http://www.understandingspecialeducation.com/student-study-team.html
      Some parents may be concerned that this will give their child an undesired label, but if you really want a concerted, focused effort to support your child behaviorally, this may be something to consider. In my experience, it is uncommon for a parent to request this, but if you know your child needs extra support, I would think it’s better to address it sooner than later. You can also bring this up with the teacher at the aforementioned conference and see what the teacher’s thoughts are on taking this route. Who knows– maybe the teacher will have a teaching style that works really well for your son and he is able to shape up without further interventions.

      I wish you the best!