There are many times when parents are frustrated by specific behaviors of their children that they wish they could stop but have been totally unsuccessful.  Just to name a few – and you can add many more:

  • Failure to complete homework
  • Getting into constant yelling battles with siblings
  • Failure to comply with a parent directive
  • Becoming very anxious at night and wanting to sleep with parents
  • Showing emotional overreaction to more ordinary events
  • Yelling and screaming when frustrated
  • Overdependence on the parent for things the child could do on their own
  • Hitting peers or siblings
  • Talking back to the parent
  • Interrupting others (parents or children)


When trying to change a specific behavior of concern it is essential to narrow down that behavior and focus on one or at the most two at a time. I would recommend that you initially start with one behavior and then you can add more as you go along. There are many rules that I would suggest you follow when coming up with a plan to eliminate that behavior as much as possible from your life. If you are having trouble deciding on the first targeted behavior: ask yourself – if I went to sleep tonight and by a miracle – when I woke up – one behavior of my child was totally changed for the better – what would I see?

Dr. Lynda’s Rule #1

You need to put the targeted behavior in positive terms rather than in negative terms. So applying this to some of the behaviors listed above you might say:

  • “Mary will complete her homework within the timeframe allowed”
  • “Ted will show positive interaction behaviors when playing with his siblings”
  • “Lily will be able to sleep in her own bed throughout the night”
  • “Chandler will use his control behaviors when frustrated”
  • “Samantha will complete age-appropriate tasks without parent involvement”

You need to go through this step – it is extremely important to phrase what you want to see in a very positive way for your child.

Dr. Lynda’s Rule # 2

Once you have decided on the targeted behavior and phrased it in a positive way, have a meeting with your child to explain this new way you’re going to do things. We are going to use a reinforcement system that most children “love”. Rule #2 emphasizes that your child must understand completely what the behavior of concern is so that she can recognize it when it happens. Recognizing the behavior is essential for the student to change it.  Spend time discussing the behavior of concern, even role-playing, so that everyone is well aware of what you’re working on.

Dr. Lynda’s Rule #3

Boy, this one is very important!  Discuss with your child what you would like to see instead of the behavior of concern. Children and even teenagers need to know explicitly what you are looking for – what you expect.  It needs to be specific and easily understood.  Some of the targeted behaviors speak for themselves, e.g. “Lily will be able to sleep in her own bed throughout the night”. But others are more detailed and require more work.

Let’s take, for example, “Ted will show positive interaction behaviors when playing with his siblings”. Ted has no idea what positive interaction behaviors are and so we must teach him, and show him what the expectation would be. Again, some modeling and role-playing might be helpful. Keep it simple. Come up with a few positive interaction behaviors that you can write down and talk about so that Ted knows exactly what should happen when he is doing something with his siblings. Of course, this could be introduced to all the siblings at the same time. We may decide that these positive interaction behaviors are:

Keeping voice level down (go through three different voice levels such as whispering giving it a # 1, normal inside voice #2, shouting #3.)  By doing this you can use a simple technique such as raising fingers to indicate that the voice level is too much.

Sharing materials and playing fair in games – go through examples of what this means and what you expect to see; you may discuss being polite, making sure everyone has their turn; refraining from grabbing things from others

Keeping language pleasant  – talk about words that would be inappropriate, ways to thank someone for their help, how to express concern about something that happened

Dr. Lynda’s Rule # 4

Especially with elementary age students, it is often helpful for the student to externalize the behavior of concern so that he would see himself in a game or competition to beat the opponent. He should name the opponent, perhaps choosing a comic character. In this way the behavior becomes more concrete and is less likely to be internalized as something “bad” about himself. He will be fighting against the opponent – trying to win the competition. He may also want to draw the character and write down the negative behaviors this opponent that he is fighting against exhibits. Help him with this.

Fighting an opponent is a great strategy not only for more external behaviors but also for behaviors such as anxiety. Knowing what you are fighting against and developing strategies to win against that opponent can be extremely helpful in reducing anxiety.

Dr. Lynda’s Rule # 5

For many situations, it is important to put into place some techniques to take into account the particular situation presented by the child. Let’s take as an example, “Lily will sleep in her own bed through the night”.  In a case such as this, it is important to put into place some calming rituals that are done consistently with bedtime. The parent reading a book, the use of night lights or calming lights systems, drinking milk and a cookie, having a pet sleep in her room or have a special stuffed animal, etc. It will also be important that when the reinforcement menu is constructed that it includes lots of special time with parents that she earns for her ability to fight her opponent.

For some situations such as “failure to comply with a parent directive” – make sure that you have given the directive directly to the child with eye contact (not yelling from the kitchen). This is especially important for students with ADHD and auditory processing disorders. You can build in some leeway, e.g. if you’re trying to get the student to comply with a directive the first time she hears it, at the beginning you may give more points for complying the first time and fewer points if you have to give one reminder. Just figure out what you need to do for your child.

Students who tend to overreact with frustration need to be taught some specific personal strategies to employ once they can recognize that they are frustrated. It’s a good idea to explore the whole concept of “frustration” with the child, talking about how normal it is with everyone, but that people need to develop their own strategies for dealing with frustration in an appropriate way. You may need to spend some time in having your child recognize frustration, use the actual word, and then develop with her a few strategies that she can use when she feels it (instead of making loud noises, whining or loss of emotional control). You could even put these in a strategy notebook that she illustrates and she can be reinforced for the actual use of her strategies. This should lead to a reduction in negative behaviors.

A Good Way to Introduce the Word "Frustration"

Sometimes children need help in seeing other people’s points of view.  She can sometimes be so focused on her own needs and wants or her own points of view, that she can’t see other options.  Specific techniques to deal with frustration and to promote flexibility in thinking would be helpful for her.

For example, your child may become frustrated when tasks are too difficult for her, when she doesn’t get her way or what she wants, or when something she expects to happen doesn’t.  Frustration can be broadly defined as an emotion brought on by the inability to reach the desired goal. Frustration can easily result in other emotions such as anger and sadness.

Frustrations can often be dealt with through the individual’s use of inner speech to change the perception of the goal, of how the goal should be achieved, or the barrier to the goal.  Students can use self talk to decide that the goal isn’t that important, that it is okay if they can’t achieve it because it’s not as easy as they had thought or because they are too young. Also, the student may look at the barrier and decide that there is nothing really that she can do to get around it, so she should just relax and accept it.  The student may also experiment with other ways to reach the goal other than the method that was originally chosen.  This use of inner speech must be taught to the child.  Some children such as those with ADHD are developmentally behind in their ability to use inner speech.

One way to introduce the concept and the word – frustration – would be for the parent and child to read the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst.  The child could then be asked questions such as:

  • “Alexander didn’t have a very good day, did he?  If you had a day like Alexander’s, what sort of things would happen to you?”
  • “How do you think Alexander felt when these things happened to him?  How do you feel when these kinds of things happen to you?  What do you feel like doing?”

Explain to your child, after recording her responses, that frustration seems like a good word to describe these kinds of feelings and that frustration is when you want to be able to do something and you can’t.  Tell her that frustration is an uncomfortable feeling, but it isn’t quite as uncomfortable as anger and we can learn some good ways to handle frustration.

Your child could then be given some exercises that have her imagine what Alexander might have been saying to himself that was making him feel so frustrated.  This is an attempt to help her see ways to change her inner speech in order to change how she feels.

A step-by-step approach to dealing with frustration could then be taught to her.  This would include:

Step 1: Stop and Calm down

  • Calm down your body by taking some deep breaths
  • Calm down your mind by saying to yourself things like:
    • `”I’d like to have this but I’ll live without it.”
    • “It’s not worth getting upset over.”
    • “I would have liked it but it’s not a disaster.”
    • “I can’t always get my own way.”
    • “People aren’t always going to do what I want.”
    • “I can handle frustrating things.”
    • “A few days from now this won’t even matter.”
    • “I’ll start over.”
    • “I’ll try again later.”

Step 2: Think

  • Think about some creative way you can get what you want.  Think about some other thing you could do instead.

Step 3: Talk

  • Talk to the person who won’t let you do what you want and suggest a compromise.  Talk to someone you trust about your frustration.

Step 4: Feel Good Again

  • Do something else you enjoy.
  • Always do a physical calm down first like taking deep breaths. Let your child choose the phrase that works best for her. Encourage and remind your child to use the think and talk steps.

The following section details how an actual behavior reinforcement plan would work for positive change:

First – it is important when trying to reduce unwanted behaviors and increase more positive ones that one or two behaviors be targeted at a time.  So you have now identified the behaviors you want to target, have phrased them in positive terms and discussed and modeled this with your child. Write these targeted behaviors down on an index card or something similar.

Let’s imagine that you have decided as Mom and Dad that the 2 most important behaviors you want to target for Jeff are:  starting on homework immediately when directed and finishing within a certain time frame.  A second important behavior to you is complying with a parent request the first time it is stated.

Jeff must first understand explicitly what behavior is unacceptable and what the expected behavior is.  This may be modeled and practiced so that he could identify it easily.  It is often helpful to externalize the behavior of concern so that Jeff would see himself in a game or competition to beat the opponent. In this case, the opponent may be a character he identifies perhaps from games or movies he has seen.  In this way, the behavior becomes more concrete and is less likely to be internalized as something “bad” about himself. Have him name the opponent and discuss with him some of the characteristics this guy exhibits ( dawdles and never gets around to doing homework; ignores what his parents or teacher tells him to do; gets his parents upset because he doesn’t cooperate, etc.).  Let’s say Jeff names this guy, ” Horrible Harry” and draws this absolutely horrendous picture of him.  Enlist his power in fighting old “Horrible Harry”.

Construct an index card size scorecard” with one side showing Jeff as the winner and the other showing a representation of his character (name or picture).  When Jeff starts his homework within 30 seconds of being directed, his side of the card gets a check by his parent accompanied by verbal praise. ( You might want to use a kitchen timer here). If he doesn’t the Opponent side gets a check (you don’t need to say anything).  Jeff can get another check if he finishes his homework in the 30 minute time you allotted for it. You then tell Jeff it is time to take his bath and say directly, “Jeff, I need you to take your bath now”.  Since you are such a good parent you have already warned him that he has 10 minutes to finish what he is doing before you give the directive.  If Jeff complies within 30 seconds, he can earn another check on his side of the card (or Horrible Harry gets a check).  For any direct instruction you give him that he complies with, he can get a check. (Jeff, I need you to go brush your teeth). Always praise such compliance, saying something like,” Jeff – it was great that you brushed your teeth as soon as I said so! You certainly know how to fight Horrible Harry!”

Basically, a simple system is to use an index card for the targeted behaviors for each day. Keep the targeted behavior list in sight and close by for both you and your child to refer to when exchanging check marks for poker chips.

This plan can be very effective if done consistently.  I recommend that both parents be involved – it makes it more powerful.  There are so many different behaviors this can be used for.  It would be impossible to provide all the scenarios.  However, press the button to see some other possibilities.  Often parents have gone through 18 weeks of therapy to learn and implement these techniques – but you can do this by following this plan. Remember, once a child has pretty much mastered the targeted behaviors, you can add a new one and a new one.  You must keep it motivating by allowing the child to change the reinforcement menu any time – you just have to come up with an appropriate point value.If Jeff has gotten a lot of checks, give him lots of praise and give him the poker chips he has earned. He can turn in for reinforcement from his menu right away or for the next day or choose to save up for something he needs more chips for.  If Horrible Harry is the winner, don’t give it much attention.  Do give Jeff any chips he has earned, commenting on why he earned them.  If Jeff doesn’t win, simply state that you are sure that the next day he will win against Horrible Harry.  Do not admonish Jeff in any way.

Establishing an Effective Behavior Management/Reinforcement System


Although this information is geared toward parents, it can be used effectively by teachers as well.  By this time you have chosen your targeted behaviors for change, have thoroughly explained and modeled for your child what the unacceptable behaviors and the desired, replacement behaviors are.  Now you are ready to implement the actual targeted reinforcement plan.

  1. Parents should sit down with the child and discuss how the plan will work and cooperatively plan a reinforcement menu. Emphasize to the child that he is in control of the reinforcement he receives as well as in control of his behavior.  Determine how many points he will receive daily for each check on the index card ( or another type of checklist).  Use this figure to determine values to give to each item on the reinforcement menu. This is one of the most difficult parts of setting this up.  Think about whether your child will initially be reinforced daily or weekly.  That can give you an idea of how many points she could earn in that time frame – then assign values accordingly.
  2. Construct the reinforcement menu with your child with a large number of reinforcers. The child can add to or change the menu at any time.  Emphasize activities with parents or other “free” activities.  Remember that the most powerful reinforcers for children are attention and affection from parents.  Post the reinforcement menu with point values in a prominent place.  (For students with more severe problems, include on the menu activities he would normally do anyway, e.g., watching a TV program, playing a video game—any activity other than meals.  Stress to the child that he will earn “the right to engage in these activities.”)

Examples of a Reinforcement Menu

Play a computer game with Dad (15 min) – 5

Pop popcorn with Mom and Dad – 8

Throw a football with Dad – 5

Skipping an assigned chore – 8

Candy bar – 4

Playing a board game with a parent – 10

Trip to Six Flags – 100

Have a friend spend the night – 20

Rent a video game – 25

Choosing a movie – 20

Staying up half an hour later – 7

Going for a hamburger – 15

Get a small toy or prize at the grocery store – 15

Money toward allowance – 20

A good rule of thumb is to have about 1/3 of the activities something the child usually gets to do anyway but can have a choice for like watching a favorite TV show or playing a favorite video or computer game, etc.  Have about 1/3 “bigger” things that would “cost” more and 1/3 things she may want to save up for.  Many children at first don’t want to spend their points or chips – they love getting them and handling them.  I recommend for elementary age children you use something like poker chips that they can keep in a jar they decorate. An older child might like using a blank check register to keep track of their points (credits and debits).

  1. Set aside a certain time each night for parents to review the child’s index card or other checklists. At first, you may want to do daily – but after a while can change to certain days of the week – but do take the time to sit down and review. Provide praise and affection for points earned. Emphasize your pride that the child was in control of himself and used his strategies!  On days when few points are received, comment upon any positive events briefly and state, also briefly, that you are sure the child will want to earn more checks tomorrow.  Do not scold the child or focus on negative behaviors.  This can inadvertently reinforce the child with your attention for inappropriate behavior.  Many children prefer a tangible record of the points they have earned (poker chips, pennies, paper clips).  Allow the child to accumulate in a special jar and spend or save as he pleases.  Again, this emphasizes that he is in control.  Have a few activities on the reinforcement menu with high point values to encourage “partial saving” for a more distant goal.
  2. If your child’s teacher is doing this plan, he or she should send home daily the index card with the student. Parents are in charge of providing reinforcement –  this makes it much easier on the teacher, although verbal praise or a non-verbal sign from the teacher should be given, specifically referencing the good performance on the targeted behavior. If the child forgets the checklist, parents should simply state: “I’m sorry you don’t have your checklist tonight.  If you bring it home tomorrow, we’ll give you your points.”  The child must bring the “forgotten” checklist the next day in order to receive points.
  3. Parents must be consistent with providing reinforcement. Make the daily review of the checklist and giving of points a special part of your daily family life.  Do not put anything on the checklist that you are not prepared to follow through with immediately when your child wishes to exchange his points for reinforcement.  View the system as a method for your child to learn self-discipline and control and to complete his “work” – which is performing in school.  Everyone needs reinforcement for his/her efforts. With adults, this comes in the form of salaries, a sense of accomplishment, praise from others, and/or promotions.  A child’s work is no different.  Reinforcement should come in the form of pleasurable activities, some tangible objects, and especially attention and affection.  ADHD children, in particular, may need a system such as this because they are delayed in developing “inner motivation” and self-control.

I also advise parents to carry around a few extra chips with them for spontaneous (extra reinforcement).  Let’s say you observe your child and his siblings really getting along great and showing those positive interaction behaviors you came up with. Feel free to give out chips – specifically stating exactly why you are doing so, e.g. “Wow – you guys are keeping your voices down and are talking nicely to one another. That is great!”