3 Steps to Behavior Change

Use Brain Science to Change Behavior

As parents and educators, we are often faced with encouraging children to change their behavior.  We want a child who uses physical  force to express their frustration to learn to express their anger in more constructive ways.  We want a child that is bossy to learn how to communicate differently with their friends.  We want a child that always wants to have things their way to learn to share. So how do we teach children to change their behavior?

Here’s how not to create behavior change:

Wait for them to figure it out on their own

Lecture them and point out what they are doing wrong

Create consequences for their misbehavior without ever teaching and modeling how to do things differently.

Don’t worry if you see yourself in the examples above.  I’ve done all of them myself.  But there is a better more effective way.  For many of us, we’ve never thought about teaching behavior in the same way that we teach academics.  When educators teach children to write, they don’t make the assumption that they should already know what to do.  They don’t show a child one time how to write and then expect them to be experts who never make a mistake.  Instead, we teach writing or most any other subject, in simple steps that build on each other.  We repeat instructions and encourage children until they develop the necessary skill set.  What if we applied the same principles to teaching behavior?

In her book, Wired to Grow: Harness the Power of the Brain Science to Master any Skill, Britt Andreatti identifies three steps to learning anything well.  Here are the three steps and how to apply them to behavior change:

  • Listen and take in the information.  Research has shown that the attention span is about 15-20 minutes. Take the time to clearly teach the expected behavior.  Pointing out what was done wrong may be part of this discussion but the main emphasis should be on what the correct behavior looks like.
  • Get the information into long term memory.  In this step, have the child practice some sort of retrieval that involves participation. You may have them summarize and repeat back what they learned.  You can play a game or quiz them on the correct behavior. This can be done over time. Three incidences of intermittent repetition is the sweet spot.
  • Practice for about 40-50 repetitions. I know that sounds like a lot but it doesn’t have to all be done in one day and if you think about it, there are lots of things that we repeat numerous times. Looking for opportunities to practice the given behavior repeatedly should be much easier than repeating a lesson in writing forty times!  Look for teachable moments. Point out interactions that provide a chance to practice the expected behavior.  Create additional opportunities and prepare the child ahead of time by coaching them through what to expect and how to act. Role play how to behave before an upcoming event. Review how it went afterward. Keep the expected behavior top of mind at all times. Set them up for success.

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