Whoa, Nelly. We’re still recovering from back-to-school madness around these parts.
Pardon my French, but we had our asses handed to us by an early start-time, new school procedures, and our sweet daughter who is, for sure, part sloth.
We were ready. We made our checklists the night before school, as promised. We were all excited. And we rocked it for FOUR solid days.
Then the shine wore off the early-mornings.
Plus, our daughter’s little 5-year-old brain had so much happening in those weeks that she’d regressed into the dreaded NIGHT WAKING.
I’ve heard similar things from other parents. Mornings are crazy. Old behaviors are rearing their ugly, noncompliant heads (Not the kids! The behaviors!). Tantrums are back. Refusals are back. Whining is back, and shoes are nowhere to be found.
Big Changes Bring Big Behaviors
When kids go through major life transitions, like going back to school, the excitement and anxieties can manifest in different ways. Their young brains and bodies are trying to cope with a flood of new information and a spew of emotions. For some children, this causes them to regress a bit. Others develop new, unwanted behaviors.
Either way, it’s time to circle up and make a plan. We can’t do this for the next 168 days. Fortunately, there’s a tried-and-true formula for getting back on course:
Visual Prompts + Behavior Reinforcers = Get to school on time with less stress
Let’s Start with Visual Prompts
As I mentioned in a previous article, visuals prompts (“visuals” for short) are great for changing behavior because:
- They reduce the processing load on kids’ brains
- They help organize and clarify behavioral expectations
- They keep everyone in the family using the same language around target behaviors
- They encourage self-regulation by allowing kids to track their own behavior
- They reduce nagging: “Check your schedule”
Here are some of the visual supports I use daily with clients and my own kid:
Does it take time to make these? Yes. Is the payoff enormous? You bet. BIG TIME.
(I use an app from LessonPix.com to assemble charts like this for printing, but you may be able to find some that fits your needs by doing a Google image search.)
Now Let’s Review Reinforcers
Visual checklists work best when paired them with our old friend, the reinforcer.
I love using reinforcers and incentives to motivate positive behavior change. They work beautifully and can be easily phased out if you follow these important rules:
- It has to be something your kid really wants.
- You have to keep complete control of it. (They can’t ask for it. Ever.)
- They only get it for a specific, targeted behavior.
- Make sure they earn it the first time to get the buy-in. (Set the bar low, then start raising it.)
- Use it to reward progress, not perfection.
The reinforcer is the piece we were missing with my daughter.
The reinforcer, or incentive, is what motivates a kid to move through the checklist or incentivizes them to engage in your replacement behavior—instead of doing that same old thing that drives you nuts.
The One-Two Combo
For the past half-year or so, my daughter was motivated enough just by using her checklists (Lucky us!). She didn’t need a reinforcer until kindergarten started.
Just using visuals was no longer enough to motivate the behavior changes when they included waking up so much earlier and walking out the door at 7 a.m.
So we got some reinforcers. My kid is dying for those big-eyed stuffed animals. So I let her choose one each week from the store, then I hung it out of reach over her breakfast table.
Don’t laugh. It worked.
She got to rescue it on Friday mornings and give it a quick hug on the way out the door, if she knocked out her checklist all week.
And now that we’re a couple months into the school year, I can tell you she needed reinforcers for only three weeks. Now her new behaviors are integrated, and we only have to lean on the checklist when we have “one of those” mornings. The big-eyes cost me $5 per week, but it was money I was happy to spend toward early-morning harmony.
One caveat: My daughter was already accustomed to using checklists. If you’re introducing them for the first time, your kid may need a longer period of incentivization.
In my experience having two tiers of reinforcers is the optimum recipe for creating an entirely new kid. (OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. But you didn’t want an entirely new kid anyway, right?)
The first tier is a small reinforcer for daily behavior change. The second tier is a somewhat larger reward for MANY days of sustained behavior change.
For example, your kid could earn 10 minutes of iPad time each day he completes his morning checklist without more than two (or 12) reminders. (Hey, 12 is progress if you’ve been giving 78 reminders!) If he keeps it up for a full week, tier two could be choosing something special like your family-night movie or board game.
Make sure your reinforcers are to scale with your family values. I’m not talking about boatloads of candy every day and new toys every weekend. Just something special to your kid that acknowledges great progress. Really, what your kid wants is YOU. So if you pair a little reward with special parent time, you’re probably good to go!
Troubleshooting the Equation
If you have both pieces of the equation in place, but the behavior isn’t changing, check the following two things first:
- Make sure your kid has the skills to do what you’re asking. Practice and rehearse if you aren’t positive.
- Check your reinforcer. If they aren’t willing to “work” (change behavior) for it, then it’s not truly a reinforcer. Let them choose something else. Don’t be afraid to use a big incentive in the beginning and then back it down. That’s totally legit.
One more thing, Bosses. Let’s be sure to acknowledge that everyone has bad days. We all have extra-tired mornings.
So if I’m doing a behavior plan to target getting-ready-for-school behavior, then I’m not going to insist that my daughter be a perfect, self-grooming robot for five consecutive mornings to earn her reward. We all deserve a little slack.
But I do know her well, so I will ask her to execute all items on her checklist with no more than one reminder (each) for FOUR days of the school week. I can always tighten this up later, if I want. But dang, it was a long summer, and we were off the wake-up wagon for a long time.
If you found this information useful, please help us grow the Boss Parent community by sharing it with your friends and family.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.