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. Sue says:

    Hi, I look after my grandchildren quite a bit, and all is well except for one. He is 8 years old and has had previous counselling for anxiety. We have been somewhat lenient because of this, but now it is hard to know when the anxiety is real and when he is putting it on. He will shut down for me but be fine at school. (e.g.” I feel sick and dont want to go to school” but once at school with the teacher is suddenly well) If he doesn’t get his own way when playing with his 2 brothers he will burst into tears, stomp his feet, and generally carry on. I try talking calmly and explaining the situation, remove him from the situation to think about his behaviour, or the consequences if he does not stop, but he just continues saying what he wants and will not give in. He is very stubborn. He is also a lovely boy at other times and I love him dearly, but I am so hoping to find the answer so he can be happier, and in turn everyone around him.

  2. Pauline Camp says:

    Any advice for a 3year old that bites at preschool when friend does not share?

    • joellen says:

      Hm… I don’t have much experience with preschool-aged children. Sorry! Nothing to add that I haven’t already shared.

  3. Kiley says:

    I just found your site and really appreciate your insight and the way you share it. I’m going through some rough patches with my preschool daughter and these are great, tangible ways for us both to improve.

    • joellen says:

      Hi Kiley! I’m so glad you are finding this helpful, and that you made your way over to this “master” post linking other relevant ones. I hope you do so quick improvement! Hang in there!

  4. Sandy says:

    I am very impressed on your posts on sorry and behavior. I am a grandmother of 7, all with different personalities. If you have posted anything else, please email me on where to go. This will help me and their moms. God bless!!!

    • joellen says:

      Hi Sandy, thanks for the comment and for reading! I have posted other things… probably tagged with “behavior.” So if you search that, relevant topics will come up :). Glad you found it beneficial!

  5. Rob Simon says:

    I found your post on How to Say Sorry” some time ago, lost track of it, and found it again … much to my joy! I intend to pass on the wisdom you gained and shared, but I really , really, really want to give credit where it is due.

    How should I do that, please?