Avoid My Mistake to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

Autism, Behavior, Special Needs Parenting

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Let Me Tell You About My Own Behavior Mistakes


When I think about changing my own behavior, one movie line comes to mind. 


How many of you have seen Trolls?  It’s one of the few movies my youngest has watched over and over and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet.


Remember the scene when King Gristle is getting ready to go on his date?  He wants to look his best so he puts on his workout clothes, starts up his mixed tape, snaps on his headband, and says one of my favorite lines ever —


“I just have to lose 30 pounds in the next 8 hours.”


It’s my favorite because it’s so relatable to me!  I’ve been there one hundred times.  I have an event or vacation or something coming up soon and I do all the things!


Cut out all treats and sugar.  Workout hard at the gym.  Increase my cardio.  Eat like a bird.


We’ve probably all been in a similar situation (every New Year’s Day, right?).


We want to change all of the behaviors that have been getting in our way and do everything different for big, fast, extreme changes.


And about 48 hours into it — I can only think about pancakes, donuts, cookies, pizza, and fries.  Check in with me a week into this plan and my family is scared of me!  I’m so mean to everyone at home because I haven’t eaten much and I’ve been trying to literally run my butt off at the gym.  It gets really ugly! 


I try to change every behavior at once and it blows up in my face quickly!


There’s So Much to Focus On


The same is true for our little toddlers and preschoolers with autism.  We worry about so much so we want to do all of the things.  


We want to enroll them in ABA, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills classes.  We want them in special ed preschool. 


Oh yeah, and we read an article that said our toddler needs to be sleeping in his own bed. 


The dentist said we need to get rid of the pacifier. 


Other professionals have told us that our kids shouldn’t have too much sugar and should be eating a variety of foods. 


Cutting down screen time is another must, right?  


Cue the tears, screaming, swearing, and binge eating old Easter candy. Am I right?


Of course, you want to start all of the therapies and all of the tips and tricks you’ve spent hours and hours looking into. 


You know how critical intensive, early intervention is. 


However, we are setting ourselves and our little ones up for failure by trying to do too much at once.


This was me several years ago after my son was diagnosed with ADHD. 

  • I was working full time as a special ed teacher. 
  • Just had a new baby.
  • I was back in school working on my ABA certification and studying for the board exam. 
  • And now, I needed to figure out this really hard diagnosis. 
  • I had to read and learn everything about meds and therapies. 
  • I had to fight with his school to get the services he needed, teach him how to regulate his emotions, organize his school work, follow directions, ask for help, and complete his chores.
  • I had to become an ADHD expert so I could help my son and teach everyone else how to help and support him.


So, What’s the Secret to Solving Behavior Problems?


I had to move away from trying to do these all-or-nothing transformations and focus on setting up one thing.


James Clear writes, “Success is the product of daily habits, not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”  (His book, Atomic Habits, is amazing!!)


I wasn’t going to change everything at once.  And if I did, I’d probably fail again.  That “all-or-nothing” mentality never seemed to work for me, but for some reason I kept trying to do it that way.


I had to pick one thing — go for a quick win! 


What was one thing that was really important to me right now that I could focus on?


I also had to let some other things go for a bit.


It sounds silly, but my first goal was that my son would make his bed neatly.  His idea of “making his bed” involved throwing the covers back on the bed in the morning and calling it good.  It drove me nuts and I wanted him to do that ONE thing WELL!


That became the priority for a while.  I went back to the drawing board.  


I taught him again to get all of the socks, toys, and pillows off his bed first.  Then pull the sheet up to the top of the bed.  Then pull up the comforter.  Finally, put the pillows back on the bed.  When it was done and looked great, I praised him and he got to earn points towards a bigger reward.


I focused on his bed for several weeks.


Like I said, I had to put some other things on the back burner during that time.


I had to let go of how he “folded” his clothes.  I decided to be ok with having to constantly remind him to brush his teeth.  I had to be ok with lots of fidgeting at the table while he ate.


I had to pick my one thing.


What do you want yours to be?


Choose Your Own Adventure


I’m a teacher and a mom so I believe in giving choices!


You could choose to build on something that is already going well.  Oftentimes, we focus on what’s going wrong, but choosing an activity or time of day that is going well is a great way to build on positive behaviors. 


For instance, if your toddler loves bath time, work on signing water or bubbles for more of those things.  Label body parts.  Teach her to ask for more bath toys.


OR you might decide to focus on the one thing that would help you and your toddler or preschooler get through the day just a little bit better. 


For instance, if your child screams at the fridge for their sippy cup, teach him to come get you or teach him a sign.  That might be your one thing.  


We can’t do all of the things all of the time unless you have those amazing pills Bradley Cooper has in the movie Limitless!  


Questions to Ask Yourself


Before jumping in, keep in mind these 5 considerations when deciding which behavior to start addressing:


1. Do I have the time to focus on this right now?  


If you are moving, having another baby soon, or other big life changes are happening, you might want to wait a bit IF your focus is BIG (sleeping in own bed, eating new foods, toilet training, etc).


2. Will teaching this new skill help my child increase their independence, decrease a problem behavior, or help with their communication?  


Teaching these behaviors can have a big impact on your day!  This could be anything from asking for milk (communication), learning how to eat with a spoon (independence), or staying with you in parking lots (decreasing running away).


3. Will focusing on this behavior allow you to have more positive interactions with your child?


We often tend to focus on the negative, right?  We see all of the things that we want to change or fix.  Oftentimes, that leaves us getting frustrated or constantly saying “no / don’t / stop” all day long.


Prioritizing one thing right now (and putting a pin in the other things), takes a lot off your plate while also having time to enjoy being with your child.


4. Are all of the adults in my child’s life on board and do they know how I am teaching this new skill?


We need support from those around us to help follow through with our plan.  


If you are dead set on your toddler being done with the pacifier but dad’s not there yet, maybe choose something else.  What’s something that you both want to focus on?


5. Do I feel confident?  


Start with something that you feel confident in (or at least, a little better about).  If you just read an awesome book about teaching your two-year-old with autism how to fall asleep and stay in their bed all night, but it seems WAY TOO HARD, start with something smaller or with something you can tackle.


Your goal might be that you want to teach your child to reach up when he wants to be held instead of fussing.  When he comes over to you (and before he can fuss), lift up his arms and immediately pick him up.  That’s a quick skill you can teach throughout the day that has a big impact on your day.


One Behavior at a Time


When I teach a child a new skill or routine, I like to think of it in terms of “The 3 R’s of Habit Formation.”


I wish I was awesome enough to come up with this, but I didn’t.  Several authors including BJ Fogg, James Clear, and Charles Duhigg use this framework in their books and articles.


1. Reminder — This is the cue or trigger that starts the new habit, or, in this case, the skill you’re about to teach.


Let’s say you want to teach your child to reach their arms up when they want to be held instead of fussing at you.  The “reminder” is your son or daughter walking over to you.  That cues you to remember you are teaching her/him to lift arms to get picked up.


2. Routine — This is the action that you are going to take.


As soon as your child approaches you (and it’s pretty clear he/she wants up), you are going to lift up their arms, say “up,” and immediately lift them up.


Once your child is used to you providing physical assistance with this skill, begin to back off how much you are helping until he/she is walking up to you and lifting up their arms without being reminded!


3. Reward — This is the benefit you get from teaching this new behavior/routine.


In this example, the reward is that your child is closer to learning to reach up to be picked up instead of fussing at you.


Your child has some success (mom is excited and I get picked up) and you have success (you are teaching your child a new skill and avoiding the unpleasant fussing).


And because this new habit is rewarding for both of you (and fairly easy to do), it’s highly likely that you’ll continue.


Avoid “All-or-Nothing” and Just Do Something


As a mom, it’s my default to look at what’s happening around me and see all of the things I want to change or fix.  However, it will benefit everyone involved if we prioritize 1-2 behaviors/skills that we want to focus on and give our attention to those new skills until they are consistent and then move onto the next thing.


To Get Started:


1. Write down the behaviors you want to improve or skill you want to teach your toddler or preschooler. (If you want a checklist, grab my copy of the Behavior Change Checklist to use through this process.  It also has an example.)


2.  Review the 5 considerations.


3.  Decide how that new skill fits into “The 3 R’s of Habit Formation.”


4. Practice this new skill or behavior 2-3 times a day.


5. Praise your effort and your child’s!!!!


Lastly, once you and your child are consistent with the behavior(s) you have been working on, look back at your list and choose your next priority!


I’d love to hear if this framework was helpful to you and how you used it!!  Leave me a comment and let me know how it went!



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