Reinforcing the Positive: How Praise Can Transform Difficult Behavior

difficult behavior

We’ve all been there: you’re tucking your kiddo in at night and the guilt washes over you. Guilt from how your kid behaved, guilt from how you reacted, and guilt for it happening yet again. 

All you can muster is, “Let’s have a better day tomorrow buddy,” when you know that’s likely not going to happen. They will be the same kid when they wake up, and you’ll be the same tired and exhausted mom. Your resources are low, your strategies aren’t working, and you feel lost on what to do. 

Change the way you see things, and things change.

First, a pep talk: your kids will be fine. You are a mom reading a blog for moms, so you clearly care about them. You want to find better solutions to deal with challenging behavior (or what I call tricky fellows), and you want to make the day-to-day interactions a little easier.

What’s the best place to start? Take the energy you put into reprimands and lectures for difficult behavior, and put that energy into recognizing moments of good behavior.

Here’s an example of how it works:

*Mom and “tricky fellow” are at Target together and mom stops to talk to a friend.*

“You were very respectful while I was talking to my friend. I could see you wanted to interrupt, but you waited. You didn’t yell ‘mom, mom, mom,’ tug on my arm, or tap me; you just waited and didn’t say one word, even though you really wanted to. That was very respectful and showed a lot of self-control. Now, what did you want to ask me?” 

While my child was waiting, I was making eye-contact, smiling, and giving him a thumbs up, since I knew he was trying hard to not interrupt.

Typically, all that lecturing and connection and energy is reserved for the times that they don’t behave well. You pull them aside to say, “What on Earth was that about? Don’t interrupt!” All your energy goes into addressing their difficult behavior and you give your full attention. Good behavior gets the energy of a simple, “Good job!” and that’s about it. 

Let’s face it, kids are energy-suckers (particularly those “tricky fellows”). But do you know the bright side? You, mom, get to decide when they get your energy.

Put it into practice

According to a recent BYU study, when the praise-to-reprimand ratio increases, behavior improves. Most often, the type of behavior parents want to improve is “listening.”  As a mentor for new teachers, I will sometimes count the praise-to-reprimands ratio to see where improvements can be made. Teachers know that this often improves learning, so they ask to be observed doing it.

Does your child talk about “tickets” they earn at school? Does your child send home “tap-ups?” These are all positive supports aimed at improving behavior. Does that mean that reprimands never occur? Absolutely not. Kids learn that they don’t need to misbehave to get their teacher’s attention. Kids want your energy and they are very good at figuring out how to get it. 

Pay Attention

Often when the child IS listening and doing what they are supposed to be doing, we ignore them. We watch TV, we play on our phone, we do one of the one-million things we have to get done before going to bed. But we’ll drop all of that for difficult, non-listening behavior. The TV goes off and the phone gets put down. We get closer, we get louder, we might sweat and turn red and we are fully present and engaged with them. They have our full energy.

Although the words can be powerful, the energy associated with the words is where the real communication occurs.  After all, some research has shown that 93% of communication is non-verbal

So, how does a parent utilize this positive energy when there seems to be nothing going right? Your tricky fellow just had a tantrum and refuses to do anything you ask of him. You’ve taken away toys and screens and they still won’t listen. Do you know why that doesn’t work? Because YOU are the toy they want. YOU are the toy that connects with them. Your energy is what they seek. While it may not make sense, your yelling is still connection and attention.

Energize the behaviors you want to see.

This energy shift is BY FAR easier said than done. After my own tricky fellow made us realize that we had met out match, my husband and I took a local Nurtured Heart® Course. My older kids called it “the class we took to stop yelling and become nicer parents.” Turns out, they benefitted, too. They felt heard and they felt seen. We connected with them, too, instead of focusing so much energy on one child’s difficult behavior.

The Fargo area has many instructors that can teach you this life-changing approach. Hansen Hearts, Opendoor Consulting, Hope Lutheran Church, and Greatfull Heart are all places in Fargo/Moorhead where you can learn the Nurtured Heart® Approach. The Cass County extension office also offer similar courses that can help you improve your praise-to-reprimand ratio. I could not have done it without some coaching and education. A teacher recently said to me, “You’re just so naturally good at it.” That’s not natural, that’s training!

And my tricky fellow? He’s no longer defined by his difficult behavior. We can see beyond the weeds. We can see all his greatness, because we’ve been trained to see it.

So how do I tuck kids in at night now? With what I call “greatness.” I am fully present in that moment, and I don’t guilt-trip myself for the 100th time that I failed as a parent earlier in the day. I think of a character quality I saw in them that was great. Tonight I told my son, “Your ‘greatness’ was the way you cut your screen time short to hang out with our guest and your siblings and play a game of monopoly. You could’ve just sat on your video game and not interacted, but you chose relationship. That is your greatness today.”

Is that really a big deal? Maybe not. But I want to see more of the good behavior, and so I continue to energize it.

Looking for more tips on giving positive attention to your kids? Check out How I Stopped Yelling to Start the Morning Off Right!

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Erika has worked in the educational setting as a physical therapist for 17 years, after attending UND and NDSU. After recognizing difficult behaviors in her third child, she became an advanced trainer of the Nurtured Heart Approach®. Professionally, Erika is also a mentor, course-captain, and clinical instructor, and has served students in the Autism magnet program for 10 years. She recently served on the Pediatric Advisory Board for Curriculum Development at UND, and on a task force with the Department of Instruction to create the first school-based PT/OT guidelines in the state. She also is a mentor with BioGirls, leads a group of teenage boys at confirmation, leads a Girl Scout troop, and has coached baseball. For the past two Mother’s Days, Erika has hosted a Neighborhood Chalk Party, an event designed to further build relationships in neighborhoods on the principle of “it takes a village to raise a child.” She was born and raised in Hankinson, ND, and has lived in the Fargo area for over 25 years with her husband (who you may know as the radio DJ on Bob 95 FM: "Chris, John and Cori in the Morning"). Together they have four children: girl-boy-boy-girl, ages 10-16. Erika is passionate about empowering kids, preventative health, hiking, and national parks.



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