12 Ways to Coach Good Behaviors

Mother and toddler

If you’ve had to discipline the same behavior several times, it is time to start coaching.  Coaching is teaching your child about better behaviors, and it’s focused on what you want them to do. For this to be most effective, coaching should be engaging and fun. There are so many ways to shape behaviors, but the one thing to avoid is lecture. If you find yourself lecturing or giving more than a few sentences to a child about the wanted behaviors, stop and find a better way. At least make it a more open conversation, ask them questions and encourage them to contribute ideas. As part of a conversation you might brainstorm together and list several possible ways to improve a situation.

If you are at all creative, you can make up stories related to your child’s behavior. When our girls were little, I told Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarably like Alicen, and Catie was remarkably like Claire. If the girls had a big upset at the swing set, that night Amy and Catie would have a very similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should model good problem solving and emotion management.

For many common behaviors, there are good children’s story books available. If there is great upset over having a new sibling, you might read Julius baby of the World by Henkes or I’m a Big Brother by Cole. The idea is to use the book as a starting point for talking about emotions and behaviors.

Role playing scenarios with your child can be way more engaging than a conversation.  Go back through the scenario, act it out together and find better ways to manage. The child can be themselves or the other child as you go back through. This is meant to be flexible so brainstorm and act out lots of possibilities, and continue to guide them towards better choices and behaviors. If your child is hesitant to role play or you’d like to expand from this technique, giving puppet shows is a good alternative. You can use puppets, doll babies or action figures to model better behaviors and work through social situations.

In our house, we ask a lot of hypotheticals to coach behavior. My kids call this the “what if” game. This is asking “What ifs…” related to your child’s scenarios when all is well.  You can plan to play this over lunch or while driving to preschool. If you are teaching your child to take turns, this would be asking something like, “what would you do if you got to the sand box, and you really wanted to use a shovel, but there were only two and other children already had them?” 

If you have an artist, you can coach behaviors by having them draw pictures of it going well. This really focuses them on the behavior and later provides a visual reminder of the discussion. You can also draw them pictures of the wanted behaviors as a gift. For an older child, you might encourage them to draw comic strips rather than single pictures.  This adds the layer of being able to work through a situation across frames.

For some behaviors, there are games available. There’s The Picnic Basket Manners game by Noodleboro for teaching “may I please,” “thank you,” and, “you’re welcome.” There’s a card game for teaching social skills titled Know the Code, and Feelings in a Jar for teaching about emotions. So many board games are good for teaching about turn taking, and later for teaching about managing competition. You can also make up your own games. To practice listening and following directions, we play Crazy Directions which is giving children a series of two, three or four step directions and seeing how many they can keep in order. On the playground, this might be saying, “stomp to the bridge, jump across the bridge, do two jumping jacks and crawl back.” I tend to repeat this to a child, then say “go!” It’s okay to give prompts if they struggle, and it’s fine to cut back from four to three or two directions the next go around.

You can also get creative and plan art projects to coach behaviors. In my preschool social groups, we practice turn taking by sitting four children down to a glue and mosaic art project with only one bottle of glue. We prepare them by explaining they will have to share the glue bottle and talk about how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait before we start. We coach them through and add a second glue bottle a few minutes in.

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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