Ain’t misbehavin’: how to improve your kids’ behavior

“You can’t make me!”

Little can upset a parent more than those four words — especially since they’re usually true. The good news: Parents can use proven techniques to improve their kids’ behavior, even if those kids have ADHD or oppositional defiant disorder or are on the autism spectrum.

Scouting talked with James Ball, Ed.D., author of You Can’t Make Me! Pro-Active Strategies for Positive Behavior Change in Children (Future Horizons, 2019) to learn more.

Defining Behavior

We often think of behavior as action, but Ball says we should really think of it as communication.

“It may or may not be the type of communication you’d prefer to see, but a child’s behavior is a message to you,” he says. “And as the adult in the interaction, it’s your job to figure out what message is being sent.”

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Despite what you might feel in the moment, the message is probably not “I’m trying to be a pest.”

“Annoying is not a function of behavior,” Ball says.

Instead, he argues, there’s another trigger, such as attention-seeking, a need to escape a stressful situation or even simple hunger.

Learning Your ABCs

Ball advocates the ABC formula of behavior: antecedent (trigger), behavior and consequence.

“The antecedent is what happens before the actual behavior itself, which could be moments before or could have been earlier in the day,” he says. “The behavior itself is what they’re displaying, and everybody tends to get that right. The consequence is what we do immediately after the behavior occurs.”

The first step is the most important — and the hardest.


“All the work comes in that antecedent phase,” he says. “That’s where we figure out why they are doing it and what we can do to help them get that same need or want met in a better way.”

To figure out triggers, you have to become a behavior detective. Ball recommends creating a worksheet where you track each instance of the behavior you want to change, recording details like where it happened, who was present and what environmental factors were present, such as too much noise or too little stimulation.

Ball argues that giving a consequence without understanding what’s causing a behavior is akin to a doctor prescribing a drug without making a diagnosis.

“The itch is still there, and the kid’s gonna figure out a different way to scratch it,” he says.

Looking in the Mirror

Although parents typically focus on how their kids are behaving, Ball argues that adult behavior is what really needs to change.

“Whenever and wherever we want to bring about behavior change in a child, we start with the adult,” he says. “Change the parent behavior, and the child’s behavior change will follow.”

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Perhaps the biggest change parents need to make is to be more consistent.

“In the beginning, you really have to be overly consistent, almost to a fault,” he says.

Do that effectively, and you might soon hear your child say something new (in behavior if not in words): “You don’t have to make me!”

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