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Using Positive Reinforcement to Change Behavior

You take your child to visit his grandma, and he chooses this time to throw a tantrum. What happened to your sweet little angel? When it comes to behavior, children sooner or later test the waters. Their reasons vary, but typically they are angry or looking for attention, or they want to feel powerful.

If you lose control when your child misbehaves, the situation will escalate. But if you reinforce positive rather than negative behaviors, desirable behaviors will gradually increase. Negative tactics -- although they might make you feel better for the moment -- don’t teach your child alternative ways of handling situations. Develop an arsenal of strategies so you’re prepared to positively guide your child to better behavior.

Prepare Ahead of Time

Talk about rules and expectations during a quiet time when you and your child are calm. Demonstrate expectations and role-play with younger children. Discuss why these rules are necessary for his protection and character development. If your son lashes out at you when it’s time to do homework, talk to him at a time when he’s not doing homework, suggests Christina Mullen, fifth-grade teacher and counseling intern at Lincoln-Edison Elementary School in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Start with a positive comment such as, “You’re a bright boy, Sam, but I know homework makes you anxious. Let’s try to figure out why and come up with a plan that will make homework time less frustrating.” Anticipate your child’s triggers and help him cope beforehand.

Use Love and Logic

Adapt the philosophy of “Love and Logic” founders Jim Fay and Foster Cline. They developed a program in which children make their own choices. They invariably fail sometimes, but the cost of failure is still small at this point. When you allow a child to have a voice in matters, he learns to make decisions and accept consequences. For example, your child whines when it's time to go to bed. Tell him, "You can stay up, but you’ll be tired in the morning when I wake you up for school.” He may choose to stay up late once or twice, but he’ll soon learn the ill effects of his decision -- especially when you won’t give in and let him stay home from school. He’s not simply following your orders now; he’s figuring out how to logically navigate through life.

RELATED: Who Rules the Roost?

Provide an Outlet

Let your child know that anger is a normal emotion, but it needs to be controlled. Young children can be placed in a “time-out” area. However, time-outs shouldn’t be used as punishment; they should simply give the child a chance to gain composure, says Mullen. Setting a timer can be helpful for young ones. The general rule is one minute per year of age. Decide on a safe spot ahead of time where your child can go to let off steam. This tactic works with older children as well. Maybe your teen will head to his bedroom to punch his pillow or cool off on the back patio. When you’ve both calmed down, talk about reasons for the misbehavior and appropriate alternatives.

Redirect the Focus

Redirecting the focus, or distraction, works well with little ones who are egocentric. If your child has a playmate visiting and they begin to argue over the Bitty Baby doll, say, “Awww, look. Poor Raggedy Ann is sitting there all by herself.” That diverts the attention off the argument and onto Raggedy Ann. If your son and his friend are reading books and they both want the same book, grab a puppet and use an expressive voice to begin telling a story, suggests Mullen. They’ll soon forget about arguing over the book and will redirect their attention to your puppet show.

RELATED: Fostering an Attitude of Gratitude

Ignore Defiance

It’s time to take a bath and your child announces, “I’m not taking a bath tonight.” Calmly explain that he’s dirty and needs to take a bath. Give him ample warning time, so he’s not taken by surprise. “Billy, bath time is in 10 minutes.” If he continues to protest, don’t give in, or he’ll learn that he just needs to be persistent and you’ll finally cave in. Offer him choices: “Would you like me to run your bath water or would you like to do that?” Make sure his dad and grandparents are on board, too or this "ignore" strategy will backfire, advises the Rockwood, Missouri, School District. Choose the right situations for this tactic.

Give Praise and Rewards

You should strike a balance when it comes to rewards. Even though she wants to feel validated and that she has your approval, if you praise and reward your child for every move she makes, rewards soon lose their meaning. This teaches your child that anything goes.

When you provide tangible rewards, make sure they’re not bribes, warns Mullen. A reward is when a child doesn’t know that it’s coming: Johnny gets a hug because he remembered to pick up all his toys so the puppy wouldn’t chew them. A bribe is bigger than it should be and something he wouldn’t normally get: “If you pick up your toys, I’ll take you to the store and buy you that toy you’ve been wanting.”

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