Preventing Difficult Behaviors

Dear Parent,

Last week I mentioned that some behaviors were better taught through prevention. It isn’t a new concept. You probably do it already without thinking about it. However, I’d like to write about it today because it is the most effective way to deal with some of the most difficult problem behaviors. We use prevention to change ingrained habits or to avoid some behaviors from developing. I will give you an example.

Some children have tactile natures—they touch everything they see, often picking items up and pushing all buttons, or exploring each item in some physical way. This child gets in trouble at the store, when visiting other people’s houses, at preschool and even church. The parent cannot prevent the next happening by saying “put that back,” “look at what you’ve done now,” or using a time-out.  Instead, the parent needs to scope out tempting situations and then prevent his child from handling items. Done consistently, in each situation, the child becomes one who is welcome everywhere.

In real life, it looks something like this: A parent is about to go into a store so she reminds her child to have “hands down walking.” She keeps her child within close physical reach. If her child starts to reach for something, she gently takes his hand and says, “Mommy is the shopper today. It’s your turn for hands down walking.” She continues to hold his hand until they are out of reach of tempting items, and then they try again. She doesn’t punish him, she is teaching a new way of walking through a store.

Here is what it looks like when this same child is visiting Grandpa. Let’s say that this child has messed up Grandpa’s TV and other electronics in the past. This time upon arrival at Grandpa’s, the parent walks around the house, holding the child’s hand, and says “This is Grandpa’s. You need to ask Grandpa to help you before you turn it on.” Again, she keeps close watch on her child. As she sees him approach the TV, she stops him. He was not purposely being naughty, but his impulse overruled his memory. She walks him over to Grandpa and helps him ask Grandpa to turn on the TV. Depending on the Grandpa, Grandpa may just turn on the TV to what the child wants to watch, or may give a lesson on the proper way to use his electronics. This will need to happen over several visits until the child always asks for permission to use the electronics every time, or until Grandpa is satisfied that the child can successfully operate each device on his own.

With a bit of strategic thinking you can target and eliminate inappropriate behaviors and keep undesirable habits from starting. I won’t pretend that this is easy, but prevention is the most effective and reliable method of changing a difficult behavior. It doesn’t work overnight, but should within a week or two (sometimes three) of consistent practice.


Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.

1 thought on “Preventing Difficult Behaviors”

  1. Great suggestions. And we explain WHY a behavior is not appropriate at a given time. Kids find it hard to resist running in large open areas at the mall or at church. We remind them to walk when there are many people around so as not to bump into or startle an older grownup.


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