How do you change a child’s behavior?

Changing a Child’s Behavior

Educators wonder how to get children to apply themselves and care about learning the prescribed curriculum.

School counselors wonder how to get children to change negative behaviors into positive ones that serve the both the child and their peers.

Parents wonder how to do all of the above while managing to earn a living and maintain a household!

It’s a complex issue and often the answer is:  “It depends…”

Change is almost never easy. I think as counselors we ought to be amazed when our strategies work right away, rather than discouraged and frustrated when they don’t. In fact, I think we should prepare ourselves, the students that we work with and the educators who rely on us to effect change to anticipate that things may get worse before they get better.

Whenever there is change or growth there is almost always some resistance to start. It is much like planting a seed. When you plant a seed, what is the first thing that comes up? Not the tender, green shoot but a lump of dirt. Anything that is growing must first push away the dirt that is the obstacle to growth and and it can certainly be messy. But that doesn’t mean that something positive isn’t happening.

Change and the Elephant Analogy

In their book, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath take the  complex concept  of change and present it in simple terms that anyone can learn and apply to a particular situation.

Here are the basics:

The authors present the analogy of a rider who is trying to control an elephant (those of us who have worked with young children can certainly relate to this).  The elephant is the emotional side of us and the rider is the rational side.  While the rider has the reins and seems to be in charge, his control is always iffy because the elephant is so much larger than the rider and can easily overpower him. There is also a third element that needs to be considered and that is the environment that all of this activity takes place in.

The Three Sides of Behavior Change

Many times when adults try to ‘motivate’ children they approach the  problem from the rational side of the rider.  They try logic.  They try reasoning.  They try strategies.  They use candy and stickers for a job completed. They explain why good grades now will get you into college later.  These tactics may work… but they may not.

At this point many of us give up in frustration. Instead, what if it’s possible to create change through considering the needs of the elephant? Here are some resources for school counselors and others to create changes in behavior:

  1. Consider  the feelings involved and tap into those feelings.  What would make a child feel enthusiastic or excited about the desired change?  What is involved in developing compassion, loyalty or ambition?  These are not easy questions but understanding a child’s emotional development is just as important as understanding their mental development.
  2. Consider the environment.  Can you manipulate the environment so that the desired behavior is more likely to happen?  Are the directions and the path to follow crystal clear so that children know the plan and the end result? Have you removed any obstacles to the desired behavior? Are there role models in the environment that provide concrete guidance?
  3. Consider the rational aspect of the problem. What is the child’s reasoning and mindset? What is the antecedent to the behavior and is it a trigger? What are the consequences of the behavior and are they in some way rewarding even though negative?

Change for children is driven by the same factors as change for adults.  Anytime you are attempting to change a behavior, think about it from the point of view of a rider on an elephant.  How can I appeal to the rational side?  How can I appeal to the emotional side?  How can I create an environment that supports change?

School Counselor Book on Coping with Change:

Wyatt Goes to Kindergarten

Wyatt has never liked change, at least not at first.  Once he tries something new, he usually finds he really likes it.  Now that he is about to begin kindergarten, Wyatt is really worried.  Will he make friends?  Will he get lost in the new school?  Will he miss his mom?  Join Wyatt in his latest “wonder-full” adventure!

This book is destined to be a classic in every home and kindergarten classroom.  It is a fun and gentle way to introduce young children to that every exciting-but scary big step in their lives–the first day kindergarten. ~Deanna Trott, Kindergarten, First Grade Teacher

Wyatt the Wonder Dog: Goes to Kindergarten

Additional School Counselor Lesson Plans:


Six Lesson Plans with Activities on Goal Setting


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