Imagine all the problems in the world that could improve if the focus shifted to prevention rather than reaction.

We all know that preventative health measures (eating healthy, exercise, sleep, decreasing stress…) are beneficial and could help us avoid illness but in reality the majority of health problems are only addressed after the point in which they are causing a problem. The same pattern can be seen across a variety of issues in society.

Preventative measures can be used in a variety of ways to help behavior; Behavioral Science helps highlight the variables that lead to problem behaviors and how to change environmental conditions to prevent those problems.

One of my biggest critiques with some of the leading parenting methods is an over-emphasis on consequences and punishment when dealing with challenging behaviors and not enough emphasis on how to prevent those challenging behaviors in the first place. Behavior Analysts (Behavior Specialists), are ethically obligated to find environmental changes (antecedent approaches) and reinforcement methods before considering other ways to decrease a problem behavior (punishment). Behavior Analysts are also required to always use the least-intrusive method when altering behaviors which often tends to be simple changes to the environment and preventative strategies.

Prevention strategies for parents can be a powerful tool to shift the family dynamic and give parents a way to avoid having to rely on consequences and reactivity. As parents, it is easy to fall into old practices of reactive parenting; especially when we are tired and stressed. But if you choose to use these proactive, preventative techniques, your whole family will reap the benefits.

Here are 4 ways to prevent problems by making Proactive Parenting choices today:

Find the Good and Praise It (Reinforcement)

The science of behavior focuses a lot on reinforcement; it’s one of the basic principles. Technically speaking, reinforcement is when something happens after a behavior which increases that behavior in the future. All children want their parents praise and attention, so when you see your child doing something right – praise them for it! Catch them being good. The more you recognize and point out those good things, the more they will occur. Specific praise is even better, for example, “Hey Sally, I noticed how you shared your new toy with your sister and waited patiently for your turn.” Reinforcement can also occur with tangible rewards or activities. For example, “Hey Joe, nice job cleaning the basement, lets order from your favorite restaurant tonight.” The key to effective reinforcement is to deliver something desirable immediately after the behavior you want to see more of.

Increase the Ratio of Positives

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All humans perform better in relationships and at work when they get more positive interactions than negative.

Research shows the ideal ratio is 5:1. Pay attention to what your ratio is and make a goal to increase the positives. If you find yourself dishing out demands and criticism to your child, flip that ratio by increasing the positives. Positive interactions can be verbal (find the good and praise it), or nonverbal- be generous with your smiles, hugs and affection. A simple challenge I love giving parents is to see how many times per day you can make your child laugh.

Offer Choices

Giving choices is a simple but powerful tool, especially when your child tends to resist instructions.

There is extensive behavioral research demonstrating the benefits to offering choice. Studies have shown that offering choice increases on-task behavior and decreases problem behavior as well as increasing rate of learning and retention.

Every human wants to have control over their environment and will resist excessive control. Kids want to feel in control. You can give them that opportunity in a variety of ways during the day. For example;

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“Do you want to get dressed or brush your teeth first?”

“Should we eat toast or cereal for breakfast?”

“Do you want to wear the blue or pink shirt today?”

“Do you want to do your homework before or after dinner?”

Of course, kids can’t make every decision for themselves, parents have to step in and make responsible choices. But simply giving them the opportunity to make a choice will have positive results and decrease the chance of a power struggle.

Regular Undivided Attention

Nurturing a warm relationship with your child is key to effective parenting. Providing positive attention to build your relationship will have multiple benefits for you and your child.

Children desire their parent’s attention and they will consistently engage in behaviors to get that attention (good or bad behaviors). If they are getting their fill of positive attention (noncontingent reinforcement) then they will be less likely to engage in behaviors to get your attention through inappropriate ways.

Undivided attention is sometime rare and requires intentionality. Keep this in mind:

    • Designate 15-minutes a day to spend giving your child your undivided attention.
    • During this Special Time, you are completely attentive to them – no multitasking, phones, or TV.
    • Just be with them; follow their interests, notice them, comment on what they are doing (narrate what they are doing), and don’t give any demands or criticism!
    • Ideas for quality time: try a new activity together, research a topic, make a meal together or bake a treat, go for a walk, conversation games (2 truths and a lie, would you rather, pass the story, rose and thorn), or open ended questions (what do you think about ___).

Use this time as an opportunity to practice mindfulness; notice your child and be present in the moment with them. Remember all the hours you spent staring at them as babies – looking at their little fingers and toes – look at them now with those same eyes, appreciating all the amazing things about them.

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Preventative measures, in general, are sometimes harder to find the motivation for, but in the long-run they will be worth the investment. We will always have those days as parents when we don’t have the energy to do what we know we should do; no one is perfect! But if you invest in your relationship a little today you will see the benefits tomorrow (any beyond). I challenge you to practice these 4 preventative measures and see how your parenting energy shifts. You will notice your energy is spent more on enjoying your kids rather than managing them. Prevention pays off.

Behavioral Science offers reliable ways to prevent challenging behaviors but also ways to address behaviors that have gotten to be a significant problem. Addressing those larger behavior issues doesn’t rely on a one-size-fits-all strategy, but rather looks to the individual in the environment to understand why a behavior is occurring before making suggestions (function-based treatment). If you find yourself in a position of not knowing how to deal with your child’s behavior don’t hesitate to reach out for help- sometimes prevention techniques aren’t enough and you need an expert to help. Behavior Analysts are trained to understand why behaviors are occurring and how to work within the environment to improve behavior and quality of life.

Behavior Terms:

Antecedent approaches– Strategies that alter environmental variables to change the conditions in the setting that precede a behavior (contingency-independent). For example, behavioral momentum, functional communication training, demand fading, noncontingent reinforcement, choice, adapting program material. Prevention strategies.

Function-based treatment- Treatment that relies on identifying the function or reason why the behavior is occurring before choosing and implementing an intervention.

Noncontingent reinforcement- Stimuli with known reinforcing properties are presented on a time-schedule completely independent of behavior. Getting good things for free.

Punishment- When a stimulus change immediately follows a response and decreases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions. Two types: negative (remove stimuli) punishment or positive (add stimuli) punishment. Decreases behaviors.

Reinforcement- When a stimulus change immediately follows a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions. Two types: negative (remove stimuli) reinforcement or positive (add stimuli) reinforcement. Increases behaviors.


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