Why Your Behavior Plan Isn't Working (Part 1 of 3)

Parents and teachers, often with the guidance of a counselor or psychologist, build and implement behavior modification plans, or behavior plans.

You use these plans to help your child learn to stay on task, follow instructions, and, ultimately, succeed academically and socially. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, your plan is failing and your child’s undesired behaviors have not changed - or are actually increasing! 

Before you throw in the towel, here is the first of three reasons why you might be struggling.


Reason #1: Too Much, Too Late

A common mistake parents and teachers make when creating a behavior plan is expecting many behaviors to occur in a long period of time.

Raise your hand if you ever told your child, “If you behave good at the store, I’ll buy you a toy” or “If you get all your work done this week, you can get your phone back” or “If you get all As and Bs, you can get an iPad.” Okay, you can put your hand down.

Some children and teenagers can handle these instructions, follow the guidelines, and accomplish the goal. Others, especially those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and executive functioning weaknesses, struggle to meet your expectations.

To improve your behavior plan, make sure to “meet your child where she is.” What I mean by that is, it is important for the expectations built into your plan to be within your child’s reach.

If your child does not know all of the little behaviors that equal “behaving good,” how is she supposed to comply with your request? If she cannot sustain her attention long enough to complete one homework assignment, how is she supposed to complete all of her work in a week? Your beautiful behavior plan will be thwarted if your initial criteria for success are too high.

Note: It’s important to not focus on what your child should be doing at her age or grade level, but rather focus on what she can and cannot do independently at this point in time. Then build up from there.

How to Fix Your Plan

A successful behavior plan is concrete and specific, and there is a “short distance” between behavior and reward.

  • Don't say: "If you get ready all by yourself every morning, you can have any breakfast you want."
  • Say: “If you brush your teeth this morning, you can have Lucky Charms instead of Shredded Wheat for breakfast today.” (Yes, I see the irony in this example.)

In the second one, we made it easier for you and your child to know what is expected of her and when the reward should be given.

Here's one for teenagers:

  • Don't say: "If you do well in school, you can have your phone back."
  • Say: “If you complete your homework after school today, you can have your phone at 8am tomorrow.” 

In this example, if your child successfully engages in a desired behavior for 3 of 5 days in a school week, she can be rewarded 60% for the 60% of work she did, rather than receive 0% or 100% for the 60% of work. Also, if your child fails to complete her homework on Day 1, then she will still be incentivized to do her homework for the remainder of the week.

Advanced Move

When your child consistently engages in the desired behaviors, then work on expanding the time period and number of desired behaviors needed to earn the reward.