Behavior Modification for Children: Exploring Positive Psychology

For some time now, I have been closely watching the changes in trend in terms of child behavior modification techniques.  Society has grown so much in compassion in terms of handling children as it attempts to make the old adage “Spare the rod, spoil the child” defunct.  More laws are being written to protect the rights of children; and to place accountability on adults (parents and teachers alike) in making sure that these rights are safeguarded.  With this, it is a necessity for us to keep ourselves up-to-date with concepts concerning how we handle kids.

Over the past couple of years, it has been a pursuit on my part (as a pediatric speech pathologist) to explore “other options” in behavior modification that would be less stressful for both the child and myself.  Also, I found that there is an increasing need to focus on studying concepts that tell me HOW to address negative behaviors not only in the here and now but to redirect and develop consistent positive behaviors among my clients even in my absence.  I was delighted to have come across the following free online courses on Coursera to help me with this pursuit:

Going through the initial 2 weeks of the first program, I picked up some points that I would like to share with my colleagues, university students and clients alike:

Understanding “Positive Psychology”
As parents and professionals concerned with “child-rearing”, we are called to be more concerned about growth rather than performance.  Positive psychology is an active choice on our part to relieve children of a particular kind of suffering that would prevent them from learning how to make active choices of their own.  The concept of “suffering” is herein defined as anything that would rob them of their capability of viewing the future with hope and developing strength of character.  Hope for the future is the true definition of “optimism”.  Children need to be trained how to view problems and challenges in such a way that they become increasingly capable of independently responding to them — knowing full well that “Yes, something could be done.”

Facilitating Self-Control
It is generally believed the that facilitation of strength of character begins with encouraging self-control.  Dr. Walter Mischel, the psychologist who spear-headed the “marshmallow experiment” (yes, he is a guest speaker in one of the video lectures) explains the importance of being aware of our brain’s “hot system” and “cold system”.  The hot system (limbic system) is concerned in dealing with the here and now.  It focuses on responding to what is immediate for the purpose of protecting the individual.  The cold system (pre-frontal cortex), on the other hand, is concerned with controlled attention, inhibition and problem solving (also known in education and therapy as the “executive functions”).  In order to successfully respond to problems and challenges, it is important to teach children how to “cool the immediate” — meaning, we teach them to make direct responses towards the cold system rather than the hot one.  This means that we train the children to curb responding to temptations that deter them from achieving a goal that is significant to future feelings of accomplishment and success.  Among the practical suggestions on how to do this are:

  • Help the child identify the goal and make this goal compelling enough for the child to understand the reasons whyit is good for him.  The goal needs to be connected at some point to what the child is interested in or what makes him feel most accomplished or “happy”.  For a goal to be a “burning goal”, it has to make sense to the child.  We have to have more consideration over what the child wants for himself and not what we want for him.  If the child is currently incapable of deciding the best courses of action, then we coach him on how to do so.  We are to remember that the ultimate goal is for the child to develop as an individual who is capable of making good choices through sound judgment.
  • Help the child identify his “hot spots” and differentiate these from “better choices”.  Have the child develop a clear understanding about the relationship between choice and consequence.  Create an “if-then implementation plan” that seeks to train the child into actively choosing to curb tendencies to respond to temptation.  Here, it would be better to ask the child, “What do you think you should do?” and then provide the child with appropriate critique on the LOGICAL consequences of such choice.  By logical consequences, we mean clearly outlining the risks of how the chain of events look like towards achievement or non-achievement of the goal.  Work on teaching the child to modify his options accordingly and increasing awareness on the consequences of each type of choice.
  • Decrease toxic stress.  To understand more about toxic stress, read this article:  Helping Caregivers Shield Children from Toxic Stress.  Related to what the article pertains to as “strong negative events”, Daniel Kahneman explains the significance of “micromoments” which states that “Our memories of experiences depend on tiny moments that are a few seconds long and are thereafter categorized as good, bad or neutral.”  These tiny moments become a junction where one decides whether an experience will be holistically liked or disliked.  One example cited in one video lecture is listening to a piece of good music.  As one listens to the beautiful harmonies on the initial part of the piece, the brain decides that the experience is good; but as one goes on to the middle that carries one or two dissonant chords, the brain shifts gears and decides that it is not as good as it would have liked since it cannot separate the entirety of the piece with that tiny segment that carries the dissonant chord.  That particular “tiny moment” has destroyed the entirety of the experience because the brain experiences difficulty separating the small noxious event from it.  With this in mind, it is thus important for a child to accumulate more positive experiences than negative ones.  This is not to say that the child will be averted from challenges.  Should he be subjected to it, we need to be prepared to process him into successfully finding ways to overcome it.  Doing so would empower the child to turn what is potentially negative into something that is positive.
  • Avoid over-controlling things.  A positive experience is something that should make the child feel empowered to do the things he needs (as well as wants) to do.  There should be a particular freedom given to children to actively decide to take the correct path — whether or not it is ourpreferred path for them.  We are there to only to provide both constructive and critical feedback and not to force or push them into what we think is best for them.  As parents and therapists / teachers, we need to be flexible enough to see things at the child’s perspective.  As has been mentioned in the earlier part of this article, we have to be concerned more about their growth as individuals and not just the outcomes of their tasks.

The Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology in Stanford University, conducted a study that sought to differentiate the outlook of middle school children who believe in fixed intelligence versus malleable intelligence.  Fixed intelligence pertains to the belief that one has a very specific set of skills and talents that define an individual as a person.  Malleable intelligence pertains to the belief that skills and talents can be acquired and honed through treating pertinent challenges as things that “CAN be solved”.  Her research found that those who believed in fixed intelligence are more worried about “looking smart” rather than learning the ropes.  They are the kids who, when faced with difficult challenges, stop trying altogether.  Those, however, who believed in malleable intelligence are the ones who learned how to regroup, restrategize and try again.

With this in mind, we are more apt to teach kids to focus on the process of learning rather than just looking at the outcome.  We need to reallocate their efforts towards valuing the learning experience — successes, failures and regaining momentum.  Some practical suggestions are as follows:

  • Demonstrate the concept of “trying again”.  The best way for us to teach is the model that we, ourselves, know how to acknowledge our mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than something that spells out who we are as a person.  (After all, we are not the sum total of our mistakes!)  As such, we subsequently model that with every mistake, there is ALWAYS a lot of room to try again.  As teachers / therapists, we are then asked NOT to water down a difficult task but to take the child through it — carefully teaching him to identify options, select the best ones and trying them out.  This is how we encourage problem solving.
  • Give “wise feedback”.  Before giving critical feedback, it is best for us to explain to the child WHY and HOW the critical feedback would help him achieve his goal.  We then proceed to phrasing the critical feedback in such a way that it would spur motivation rather than make the child feel bad about himself.  This is usually done through using specific words that label observable behaviors rather than channeling words that label character flaws.  For instance, instead of saying, “I think you are being selfish,” say, “I think we forgot to share our candies today.”  Then, we help the child reconstruct their “if-then” map so they could review the consequences of their choices; and, ultimately, to arrive at a “better choice”.
  • Be careful about the use of positive labels especially when their negative counterparts can potentially dampen the child’s motivation when they fail to comply with an expected pattern of behavior.  For example, the opposite of “You must be proud of yourself” is “You must be ashamed of yourself”.  If a child does good work and you comment, “You must be proud of yourself,” it automatically connotes that the child should be ashamed of himself if he does the opposite.  Instead, it is safer to say “You should feel good about this” or “you did great in finding solutions to that one” — or simply, “You DID great!”  Note that, here, we focus on the action of exerting effort rather than putting more importance on how a character attribute is labeled.  It is also important to note that using the word “best” in putting forth feedback could be potentially limiting for the child as we do not actually know what his “best” work is.
  • Help the kids find repeatable behaviors that they could use in future situations.  When setting goals, we have to keep in mind which behaviors the child could actually utilize in addressing as many future challenges as possible.  One such repeatable behavior is the ability of the child to identify all resources and tools that are available for him to solve problems; and how to craft new tools when desired ones are unavailable.  If we keep on providing environments where we ask the child to complete a project with readily available tools, then he learns only to simply comply with a goal rather than make active choices on how to achieve that goal.

Active Constructive Feedback
When providing feedback, we need to be actively aware of (a) the words we say; (b) the tone of voice that we use; and (c) our body language.  Feedback is said to be classified as either constructive or destructive; and passive or active.

  • Passive constructive feedback is saying “That’s good.”  Active constructive feedback is saying “That is a good way of solving that problem.”
  • Passive destructive feedback is saying “Ok, let’s move on.”  Active destructive feedback is saying “What do you think you’re doing?  That is such a dumb idea!”

Focusing on the growth mindset, we are more apt to use active constructive feedback as this spurs the children to perform their work better.

In closing, positive psychology is all about “seeing kids not as problems but as puzzles”.  We have the responsibility (and I would also believe the “privilege”) to get to discover who they are as individuals in terms of their unique capabilities.  Not because they see things or solve problems differently than we do means that they are making the wrong choice.  Explore first if their manner of solving things ultimately allows them to achieve their goals.  Our role is only to facilitate their own self-discovery and not to turn them into replicas of ourselves.

Teach — not because you want to see yourself in others but because you want others to learn how to value who they are!



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