It should not have been surprising, but I was admittedly a bit surprised. My youngest child’s preschool teachers reported that she isn’t following directions at school. This is the same child who escaped the playground on the first day of preschool at age two and has blown raspberries in the faces of hall monitors, so why did it surprise me that she is routinely not listening and following directions?
I spent years caring for and teaching other people’s children prior to becoming a parent myself and so I can attest that the role of caretaker and teacher is challenging in that you lack leverage when it comes to the child’s behavior. Caretakers lack power and authority in the child’s eyes simply because they are not you and so if your child is having a difficult time minding other adults, you need to find a way to give the caretaker more power from the child’s perspective.
I gave my daughter’s situation some deep thought and came up with a behavioral incentive system to give the wonderful and dedicated adults in my rule-scorning child’s life a bit more of an advantage. Perhaps it can come in handy when you leave your child in the care of an other individual such as a babysitter, neighbor, friend, professional (speech pathologist, pediatrician, therapist, etc…), grandparent or other family member. This system can be effective for children who are 3 to 6 years of age.
5-5-5 Behavioral Incentive System
(5 Incentives in 5 Steps for 5 Levels of Behavior)
How Does it Work?:
1) Purchase a large bag of candy (M&Ms, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, mini-marshmallows). Have the child (with your help if needed) count out 5 candies from the bag and place them into a special container or tupperware that they get to decorate and use only for this purpose.
- Providing candy isn’t always ideal, but for the behavioral modification system to work (much like with potty training) you want the incentive to be very exciting. Pick a candy your child will love and switch it up if needed to keep the incentive interesting and exciting. You will not need use the system for very long and can always move onto stickers or other non-food items once your child’s behavior improves. Once your child’s behavior improves, you can phase out the incentive system altogether.
2) Explain to your child that he will be allowed to keep and eat the candy after you return and that the more he chooses to help and listen to his caretaker, the more candy he will get to eat.
- It is important to emphasize “helping” behavior instead of “good” or “bad” behavior. Young children make sweeping generalizations and in their mind’s “good” and “bad” refer to their whole-self as opposed to how they behaved. They see “helping” behavior as temporary and dynamic as opposed to “good” and “bad” which are permanent, unchanging states. Most children usually report that they were “good” because they see themselves as “one of the good guys” and in some cases children who have been told they are “bad” enough will actually see themselves as being a wholly bad kid and will report consistently that they were bad, even when they are not.
- At first, you will need to walk your child through understanding how to connect their behavior to the candy. Connecting behavior to candy is abstract and will require a bit of exposure for them to make the connection and understand the system. Walk them through the system, but keep it simple. Too many details and the child will not be able to understand and make the connection. For example: “I am leaving now. It is important while I am gone that you listen and help your caretaker. If you do your best job helping and listening, then you will be able to eat all 5 candies when I return. If you choose not to help and listen then you will have to give the candy back.”
3) When you return, ask your child to report how well he listened to and helped his caretaker. (You can use a picture and number chart with 5 different faces or cartoons demonstrating excellent to poor behavior or just stick with the numbers. A “five” entitles the child to all five candies due to excellent behavior and “one” for poor behavior entitles him to only one candy.) Ask your child why she selected a particular number.
- Young children (even babies) can compare quantities. Before children can count, they can recognize that one item or group is larger than another. Typically, quantities up to five make sense to the very young. Therefore, this system uses numbers 1-5. Zero is not used because zero is a more confusing concept to the very young. We also want to reward the child for participating in the behavioral system, even if his behavior was not stellar, by allowing him at least one candy.
- It is important that the child draws a connection between her choices and behaviors and the incentives. This process helps the child develop self-regulatory behaviors which are vital to her future success and happiness as an adult. Most children will select the number “5” initially, because children see life from a black and white (all or nothing) perspective and healthy children do not see faults within themselves. With time, your child will come to understand the in-between gray areas of behavior and may be able to accurately self-assess their behavior.
- Refrain from making judgement statements or disagreeing with the child’s self-assessment. Many children will not be able to verbalize why they choose a certain number. Give the child a minute to think. Even if they do not offer an oral answer, they will process and self-assess mentally.
4) Tell your child to ask her caretaker which behavior number she earned. It might sound like: “Ms. ____, how well did I listen and help while you were here?”.
- This step is the most important because it gives the caretaker the power. The child speaking directly to the caretaker reminds him that the caretaker does have some authority over him and he is accountable to the caretaker. If he chooses to behave poorly, it is between him and the caretaker and NOT you and the caretaker. Children are often left out of conflicts between them and other adults and this keeps the child involved.
- It is important to use the “listening” and “helping” verbs, instead of the “behavior” noun. A word like “behavior” is harder to grasp for young children than specific action words (verbs) like “listening” and “helping”. You might have other specific actions that you want your child to focus on that you choose to highlight.
5) The child will count out the number of candies that corresponds with the behavior number (with or without your help) and then will to hand back the remainder of the candy to the caretaker. Offer non-judgmental feedback after the exchange.
- Again, this step gives power to the caretaker, in that the caretaker receives some of the coveted candy if the child’s behavior is less than excellent. This connects the child’s behavior to the caretaker and provides a consequence for poor choices and a reward for good choices. With time, this system will help the child to internalize their choices and will encourage them to continue making positive choices. It will also remind them to respect their caretaker next time she is in their care because the caretaker has power.
- Non-judgmental feedback is a simple comment about how your child appears to feel or an obvious fact. Avoid saying “good job” or “bad job”. Instead, “you did it” or “you look disappointed, but you can always try again tomorrow”. It can also be a description of how the caretaker feels: “Look how happy Mr. ____ is because you choose to listen and help him today and you look happy too.”.
As with any behavioral modification system (potty training, sleep training, starting school, etc…), this system requires an upfront time commitment. But as the child learns more about his choices and how to control his impulses, life for you, your child and the caretakers will become much easier. When you see the child improving, phase the system out. Good luck, fellow parents!
Please note that the 5-5-5 Behavioral System can also be useful for parents as well, and not just the caretakers. Try it out in any situations where you loose your leverage to discipline (no place for a time out, etc…) like at the doctor’s office, grocery store, Target, mall, weddings and church services.