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Emotional Resilience

New Habits for a New Year! 5 Step Formula for Replacing Bad Behavior with Good Habits

You can try to demand good behavior from your kids. Or you can inspire good habits--by design. This post teaches the ultimate parenting hack: How to help your kids replace bad habits with good habits.

How? By using a time-tested formula backed up by decades of behavioral science.

Learn from the masters--Special Ed teachers

I’ve never met a group of people more skilled in changing bad habits into good habits than Special Ed teachers. They are an amazing source of tips for improving behavior in kids!

The field of special education has been researching behavior and how to change it for decades. My daughter recently graduated with her masters in special education from the University of Washington where she studied much of this research.

Now she helps her students replace disruptive and inappropriate behaviors with good habits.

Here's the exciting news! She's sharing an effective 5-step formula with us!

Now you can use this formula with your kids to develop good habits (and break bad habits)!

Before we give you the 5-step formula, let’s start with a few principles of behavioral science. It’s as easy as ABC.

Related: 3 Mental Shifts That Will Make You a Happier Mom

The ABC’s of Behavioral Science

A stands for “Antecedent” or the “trigger.” It’s what happens right before the behavior. This might be a parent request to do something or a physical sensation or need the child feels. Or any number of environmental cues affecting the child.

B is the behavior, or the thing the child does, appropriate or inappropriate (pick their nose, complete an assignment, say “please” and “thank you”). Behavioral scientists consider every action a person does a behavior.

C is the consequence. This is whatever happens right after the behavior, not necessarily what a parent intends to happen. For example a child grabs a toy from a sibling (bad behavior) and they get to play with the toy (wrong consequence).

It's important to learn a few rules about consequences:
• If the consequence is desirable for the child, the behavior will increase in frequency. (For example, if the child gets to play with the toys they grab from another child, the grabbing behavior will increase.)
• If the consequence is not desirable (or the child does not get the consequence they want) the frequency of the behavior will decrease. (For example, if a child isn't allowed to play with a toy that he/she has grabbed from another child, the grabbing behavior will decrease.)

Part of the following formula requires that parents help control the consequences so that the undesirable behavior will decrease.

Scenario 1 (umm...not ideal!)

Antecedent: Child sees candy at store

Behavior: Child throws a fit to get candy

Consequence: Parent buys candy for child

In this scenario, the amount of times a child throws a fit at the store will increase.

Scenario 2 (best for long-term success!)

Antecedent: Child sees candy at store

Behavior: Child throws a fit to get candy

Consequence: Parent calmly but firmly reminds child they can have a snack when they get home

Hopefully in this second case the amount of times a child throws a fit will decrease because throwing a fit requires a lot of energy and the bad behavior isn’t getting the desired result.

Three key principles

  1. Consistency is key to changing behavior.
  2. A reinforcer is whatever your child likes or is motivated by. Some kids are motivated by praise. Some kids want privileges. Other kids want a physical reward. You need to figure out what will motivate your child.
  3. Once a good behavior is established, random reinforcement is the strongest form of reward. So if a parent randomly rewards good behavior, that good habit will be maintained. Same with bad behavior! If a parent randomly rewards bad behavior, the bad behavior will either increase or stay the same. So to change a bad behavior, a parent must be consistent in delivering consequences.

The power of planning!

If you know you’re taking your child into a potentially stressful or boring situation, bring appropriate toys and make sure they have a healthy snack beforehand.

Emergency parent hack! However, if you’re caught unprepared (kids haven’t eaten in a few hours and you’re at the store) and you know you would give in if your child threw a fit, it is better to give the child the treat before they throw a fit and tell them it is for their good behavior (or some other reason). That way you are NOT reinforcing bad behavior.

Related: Feelings 101: A Simple Exercise to Build Emotional Wellness in Kids


5 Steps to Replace Bad Habits with Good Habits

Understanding what habits your kids have, and why they have them, can help you teach your children self-awareness and emotional maturity. I believe that when kids learn to identify their bad habits and replace them with good habits, they are also fortified to avoid addiction by nipping bad habits in the bud.

Step 1: Write

Describe one bad habit you would like to help your child change and write it down. It is easiest to start with the one that annoys you the most (so you are really motivated to help them change!).

For example, picking their nose, leaving their backpack in the hall instead of putting it away, using inappropriate language, etc.

Step 2: Think

Consider what happens right before the bad behavior that triggers your child to engage in their bad habit. How does he or she feel? What’s happening around them? Be observant and then list the “triggers’ that bring on the bad behavior.

Step 3: Ask about motivation

Ask yourself or your child--why do you think your child engages in this bad behavior? Remember kids often do things for attention or to get something they want.

Some examples: Leaving stuff around: they want to escape the task of having to put their stuff away. Swearing: it gets them the attention of peers or their parents (though it seems counterintuitive, children sometimes prefer the negative attention of being scolded to no attention at all).

Step 4: Brainstorm alternative behaviors

Think of ideas for behaviors your child could do instead to get what they want or need. Then choose one. Consider how you will react when they do the bad habit and how you will react when they do the new good habit.

  • Make sure their needs are being fulfilled better by the new good habit than the bad habit.
  • Try and find ways to make the good habit easier to do then the bad habit.
  • Provide visual reminders or charts--they can really help. (Adults use these, too! Think of the calendar reminders on your phone, the menu charts on your fridge).

For example, if you want your kids to hang up their backpacks, make it easy! When my kids were young, I screwed in large hooks to our wooden banister. It was near the door my kids entered when they came home from school. They hung up their backpacks and walked straight to the kitchen sink to wash their hands. Those two habits were tied to each other. Consequently, we never had trouble finding their backpacks and the amount of their sick days were drastically reduced!

You can use these handy cards to identify and record the ABCs of your child's behavior.

Related: How to Discipline in the Digital Age: 5 Top Tips for Parents

Step 5: Choose the consequences

List the positive consequences for doing the new good behavior and the neutral or negative consequences for choosing the bad behavior.

Your homework

  • Make plans for how you can remind your child to practice the good habit when they are triggered to do the bad habit.
  • Consider ways you can make it easier for your child to do the new good behavior.
  • Make a chart to track progress.
  • Be patient. Change may come slowly at first. Remember, you’re rewiring the brain and that takes time and practice! Know that you’re on your way to helping your child replace bad habits with good habits!

Helping your kids change their bad behaviors into good habits is a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of their lives. Children who use their thinking brain to develop self-control and good habits will be stronger and more able to protect their brains from pornography. Rejecting pornography leads to healthy relationships and greater happiness later on. The. Best. Gift. Ever.

Note: Your specific behavioral interventions may need to be tailored for your child and could be complicated by other factors. We’ve outlined a simple strategy in this blog post that should be helpful for the majority of situations. However, some parents may also want to pursue additional information on behavior modification or professional counseling.

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