Coaching: Encouraging Behavior Change a Few Minutes at a Time

A mother and daughter drawing in a book on the kitchen

I teach parenting workshops on positive discipline often. At least weekly, I am reviewing the language of I messages, empathy, positive intent, choices and natural and logical consequences. This language is meant to provide parents with a framework for managing children’s behaviors in the moment. It is a flexible and effective approach for shaping behaviors and often helps to calm the parent/child exchange.

To me, for behavior change over time, positive discipline is half the answer. The other half of the answer is coaching. Coaching is best done out of the moment and when all is well. Coaching time is focused on teaching the child better ways to behave and giving better options. A key to coaching is to avoid lecture, to make it more engaging and more of an exchange.

There are so many ways to coach wanted behaviors. When I review these ideas with parents, it can seem overwhelming. The idea is to think of having one conversation or doing one small activity each day towards coaching what you want kids to do. Even if it’s every other day, after a month you’ve focused on teaching the positive behaviors fifteen times.

  • Model behaviors – If you want to teach your children to greet people, go out of your way to greet people often and warmly when your children are with you.
  • Highlight daily happenings – When your child finally waits nicely for a turn with a toy, notice it and give descriptive praise. Descriptive praise includes describing the behavior and giving it a label. It might sound like, “you waited for a turn. That was so patient!” or, “you waited patiently for a turn. You were being a good friend.”
  • Read related story books – There are children’s books on so many common behaviors or concerns. There are books about how to make friends, sharing and turn taking, how to calm down and work through anger and so much more. On Amazon Books, you can do an advanced topic search under children’s books. On this blog you can visit our children’s book list.
  • Tell related stories – It can be fun to make up your own stories. My girls are Alicen and Claire. When they were little, I told a lot of Amy and Catie stories; Amy remarkably like Alicen, and Catie remarkably like Claire. If Alicen and Claire had a big upset on the swings, that night Amy and Catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. It’s like a lecture without being a lecture.
  • Ask children to make up good outcome stories OR give choices in your stories – If they are old enough, you could give kids a story starter and ask them to finish it in a good way. You might also build a few social choices in to the stories you tell.
  • Role play – It can be helpful to act out scenarios with your child. The idea is to encourage everyone to make good choices about things to do and say. Talk about how to make situations work better.
  • Give puppet shows – In a puppet show, your child might be the audience while you tell a story with good choices. Even better, your child can participate.
  • Draw pictures of it going well – Before a friend comes over to play, you might draw pictures together of how to share toys and how to ask mom for help with sharing toys.
  • Make comic strips – As kids get older, you might draw comic strips together and fill in the words.
  • Brainstorm lists – You can make lists of ways to greet people, ways to ask for turns, ways to express anger and ways to calm down. You can always review lists to try new techniques or put lists in order with the best idea on top.
  • Ask hypotheticals – We call asking hypotheticals the “what if” game in our house. For a child learning to take turns, “what would you do if you were in the sand box and you wanted a shovel, but the there were only two shovels, and they were already being used? What would you do?”
  • Ask multiple choice questions – You might also ask, “let’s say I am in the sand box using a shovel, and you want a turn. Would you; A) throw sand at me? B) take the shovel and run? or, C) ask me nicely?”

There are countless ways to coach behaviors. If you have a particularly challenging behavior, you might google, “ways to teach kids to…” Get creative and engage your children. Think to coach as often, if not more than you discipline.

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.

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