You may have gotten through the toddler years without tantrums, but sometimes when a child becomes an adolescent, she refuses to comply with house rules. Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, has devised a system of points and rewards that helps reshape challenging behavior, like, say, a 9-year old’s distressing habit of refusing to get ready for school in the morning.
The following is adapted from The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child: With No Pills, No Therapy, No Contest of Wills, by Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D. (Houghton Mifflin, $26).
The Point Chart
The Point Chart strengthens the link between behavior and consequences. Start by making a chart. Identify the “currency” (points, stickers), attach value to specific behaviors, and choose rewards to buy. For effective use, post it prominently where the child regularly sees it, and award points as soon after the successful performance of the behavior as you can. Always accompany awarding points with effective praise, and be consistent about awarding points and rewards. The point chart has to be predictable and reliable.
Most rewards should be small, the kind that cost just a few points, so the child can earn one nearly every day, especially at first. Agree on inexpensive items – a piece of fake jewelry, or the right to rent a movie – and rewards that don’t cost anything. Give your child the right to make decisions about free-time activities, or what the family will eat for dinner; do one of her chores for her.
Price the Rewards
Let’s say you’re going to work on getting out of bed, getting dressed, and getting to the breakfast table more quickly and without being nagged. You might assign one point for getting up within the new time limit of 10 minutes after wake-up time, one point for being dressed and downstairs within the new time limit of 20 minutes after wake-up time, and one bonus point for doing both on any given morning. Create a second category of rewards: special prizes like a sleepover or an expedition. You know your child best, so you’re the best judge of what she will regard as a significant reward. With these prizes, the price is high – say, 35 points – which means she might take a month to get there, but she earns them with the total accumulated points that she spends on smaller rewards. This kind of added incentive works well for nine-year-olds, who usually get the logic of the special bonus prize right away and take pleasure in tracking their progress.
Remember that praise is critical to the success of the program. Think of awarding points as a cue for you to give effective praise. You will also need to adjust the tone of praise for a nine-year-old. Be enthusiastic, but don’t lay it on quite as thickly as you would with a younger child.
One more important note on rewards: fight the natural urge to be stingy with points. Parents often want to hold out for perfection in their child’s behavior before they’ll consider awarding points on the point chart, and that’s a mistake. We’re shaping behavior here, and you should be looking for excuses to reward positive steps toward the desired outcome.
Once you’re got the program underway, make an effort not to nag. We’re trying to fade your participation so your child gets into the habit of being responsible for herself.