April 10, 2014

This post is part of my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.

I think I’ve had about six or seven headaches ever in my life. Last night, I had my eighth. My head was growing foggy and I grew frustrated as I tried to wrap my head around how to explain my method for shaping children’s behavior. Every time I started a new paragraph, there would be some small but crucial concept that I felt the need to explain first. As I branched off and my explanations and illustrations grew, I would run across yet another concept I felt compelled to cover more thoroughly. This kept happening and before I knew it, I had spiderwebbed out of control and lost track of my initial direction. Headache, I tell you. I lay on the couch in despair. This was harder than any writing assignment I’d ever had in college or grad school, and that’s saying a lot.

fried brain resized2

I couldn’t just go back to post one and continue, skimming over these other essential points. It would be like trying to teach the algorithm for long-division without ensuring that my students were fluent in subtraction, multiplication, and a host of other concepts first. It just wouldn’t be right. Sure, I could spit out the step-by-step directions, but it would not mean anything or be nearly as effective if we didn’t first have a good foundation of fundamentals.

I am trying to teaching something I think is really important here. In the last several years of working with children, I always had this feeling that I had something really useful to share with the world. I’m thrilled that I finally get to do that! However, while I’ve been trying to frame it as “a few important lessons,” I’m realizing it’s more like a whole unit. I had envisioned starting off this series with an introductory overview, followed by a handful of detailed posts. After bouncing ideas around with my husband, however, I’ve decided to revamp my approach. I’m going to start with the fundamentals, and then put it all together in the end. That’s actually how my first two parenting/teaching posts on A Better Way to Say Sorry and Preventing Misbehavior came about in the first place. I had been trying to write up other posts when these two ideas came up, and I realized they merited their own posts.

This next post is completely appropriate, given the conclusions I arrived at last night. Instead of shallowly touching on several big concepts in one post, I will focus on one thing at a time. And today, the topic is exactly that: teach one new thing at a time.

Teach one new thing at a time

If there is something you want a child (or anyone) to learn well, follow this advice: teach just one new thing at a time. If it’s a new procedure, use familiar material. If it’s new material, use a familiar procedure. As a teacher, this played out in many different ways for me. When I wanted students to learn a new vocabulary activity, for example, I used simple words they were very familiar with to teach it to them. This way, students could focus on learning the new activity without fumbling over what the words meant or getting frustrated with how to spell them. Once they grew comfortable with this activity, I could turn it around and use this now-familiar procedure to teach them new vocabulary words. If I had given them new words and a new activity at once, it would have been a frustrating experience and neither would have been learned as well.

New procedure, familiar material

Teach one new thing at a time is an effective principle for teaching anything new—a new skill, new content, a new procedure. For the purpose of this series, I will apply it to teaching good behavior.

A number of years ago, I had a student in my class with several behavioral challenges. He yelled in class, stole from classmates, and left messes wherever he went. The list went on and on. While I wanted to clamp down on all of his difficult behaviors at once, I forced myself to trim down the list and focus on one behavior at a time. I knew that if I constantly called him out on all of his undesirable behaviors, he would end up feeling like he was always in trouble and endlessly failing. Even if he did make progress, it would be hard for either of us to notice; I would be too busy pointing out other shortcomings, and he would be too busy feeling like he was still “messing up” all the time. I wanted to choose one behavior to help him focus. I also needed him to experience concrete success that we could both celebrate over as he improved, so I narrowed it down to the one behavior that grated on me the most: talking back.

Not only is this habit terribly disrespectful, but the back-talker (let’s just pretend it’s a word) doesn’t listen or learn well. They can’t hear or reason well when they are too busy mulling over their own comebacks. My student Jamie hardly heard any of the character lessons I tried to teach him whenever he “got in trouble,” as he was busy interrupting and talking back. I knew he wouldn’t make much progress anywhere else until we got this under control.

Since I wanted him to have a clear head when I introduced our new project, I waited for a relatively calm day, and then called him to the back table during reading one morning.

“Jamie,” I began, smiling brightly. I wanted him to know he was not in trouble.

“Yeah?” he replied, sliding into the seat.

“How do you think things are going at school so far this year?” I asked.

“Uhh… pretty good?” he offered nervously, asking more than answering. I could see him wondering what this was all about.

“Yeah? That’s good,” I said, nodding. “How do you think you’re doing so far this year?” No point in beating around the bush.

“Uhh… pretty good…” he repeated, glancing down as he said it this time.

“That’s good. Is there anything you think you could improve on?” I followed.

“Uh… no?” he attempted.

Really?” Nice try, buddy.

“Well, uh…” he said, picking at his fingers.

I waited.

He waited.

I waited longer.

I won.

“Well, I guess I could probably stop hitting people…” he began.

“That’d be nice,” I agreed flatly.

“I should probably not steal,” he continued.

“That’s a good one!” I said nodding enthusiastically. There may have been a twinge of sarcasm in my voice.

“Ooh, I should stop cutting!” he said, growing excited. It was as if we were playing a game, and he was starting to gain more points.

“Yes. I agree!”

“Umm…” he said, pursing his lips in thought, “Bring my homework?”

“These are all good, Jamie, and we should work on all of those things at some point. But there is one thing that I was really, really hoping we could work together to help you improve on,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s not an easy one,” I began, taking in a deep breath for dramatic effect, “Are you sure you’re ready to hear it?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Okay. Talking back.”

I waited.

“Aw… yeah, I do that sometimes,” he admitted, nodding knowingly.

“Yeah. It makes me feel really frustrated and disrespected when you do that, and it also makes it hard for you to learn from me when you’re talking back, so that needs to stop,” I explained.

“Okay,” he said.

“I know there are other things you need to work on, but for now, we are going to really super-duper focus on this one, okay?”


I proceeded to describe in detail my expectations for this behavior, offering various scenarios where he might feel the urge to talk back, similar to the method I use when preventing misbehaviors. Of course, preventing future instances would be best–I wanted him to succeed! I then outlined a plan for rewarding him each time I saw him holding in the back-talk. I also told him that eventually, he would get better at controlling himself, at which point I would give fewer and fewer rewards for this expected behavior.

“Let’s be honest here– do you really think I’m supposed to reward you for not talking back? Do I reward anybody else in the class for that?”


“Do you think I should?”


“Me either. So really, I shouldn’t have to reward you for that either. You should always just speak respectfully with me. And soon, you will. The rewards are just a short thing to help you get a hold of this habit, but once you have it under control, you shouldn’t need to be rewarded for it, right?”


“So enjoy ’em while you can, but know that it’s not always going to be this way.”

This, of course, was me preventing him from getting upset once he had mastered the behavior and didn’t get rewards anymore. It may seem too easy, but really, that’s all that needs to be said. I have never seen a kid try to abuse the rewards system by trying to slip back into bad behavior just to get rewards for otherwise normal behavior. Like I’ve said before, I think that deep inside, all children wish they could be good. Being able to control their impulses and behave well really is reward enough for them, whether they know it themselves or not.

I reviewed our familiar system of consequences for the times he slipped up, and I sent him off with words of encouragement and support. I really did believe he was going to master this habit, and as he headed back to his seat, I knew he believed it, too.

And he did. It took a couple weeks of me vigilantly looking for opportunities to reward him for controlling the backtalk, as well as a few friendly reminders on his part:

“Did you see how I didn’t talk back when you told me to give Jeff his pencil back? I held it in!” he’d tell me, excitedly.

“Nice! You definitely get a star for that!”

Notice that I held in the urge to criticize his initial wrongdoing, and simply acknowledged and rewarded him for the improvement on our focused behavioral goal. Of course I would address the pencil-taking separately, but I wanted him to have a moment to bask in his success and feel his improvement with our target behavior.

I was also vigilant about administering swift consequences whenever he tripped up, but those instances became less and less frequent. Eventually, talking back was a rare occurrence. When it did happen, it only took a verbal warning to get him back in line. When we reached this point, I knew it was time to start weaning him off the rewards. I would call him back for another chat, enthusiastically note specific examples of his improvement, and congratulate him on his progress. I would notify him that the rewards would be harder to earn, and that this was now an increasingly expected behavior. Soon after, we would return to the back table to celebrate his victory in achieving this goal, then discuss the next target behavior and start the process all over again.

One thing at a time: It works.

Target one behavior

It would not have been as effective if I had simultaneously targeted all the behaviors I wanted him to improve in. Individual behaviors would take turns spiking in improvement, and just as quickly dropping back down to ground zero (or lower). We both would have been frustrated and disappointed with the results. I would deal with that frustration for the remainder of the school year, but he would deal with it for years to come. This approach would not have yielded the deep-cutting and long-lasting and results I wanted.

No, we needed to focus on one thing at a time.

It works.

Maybe you have a child with a number of behaviors you’d like to see improvement in: pack your backpack, stop teasing your sister, don’t roll your eyes, clean up your room, turn off the lights, don’t talk back. Even the best intentions don’t change the reality that, piled one on top of the other, these instructions can feel like nagging. No one likes to be nagged, and few people make long-lasting positive changes because of it. Real change is more often the fruit of serious reflection, a focused effort to change, and a realistic plan to make it happen.

The process of shaping a child’s behavior can be a bumpy journey, but choosing one behavior to focus on is an excellent place to start.

Read more in my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.


Related Posts:

How to Shape Children’s Behavior

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

3 responses to “One Thing at a Time”

  1. olwen says:

    Great illustrations and examples. I wish I was more aware of “one thing at a time”.

  2. Eric Andersen says:

    This was very thought provoking! Thank you

  3. teacher says:

    an excellent series so far! thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom and experience. i’m looking forward to the rest of the posts.