Changing your child’s behaviour can be hard work. It’s almost always easier – and often more effective – to change your child’s environment. This simple behaviour management tool can make undesirable behaviour a lot less likely to happen.

How changing the environment can change child behaviour

The environment around your child can influence his behaviour, so changing the environment can help to change your child’s behaviour.

The environment includes the physical things around your child, as well as where and when your child does things, and what your child is asked to do.

But often the environment has things that trigger unwanted behaviour in children. So when you’ve got a child behaviour problem, it’s a good idea to look at what’s going on in your child’s environment. For example, it’s normal for children to:

  • experiment with household objects you don’t want them to have

  • explore new surroundings, even when it isn’t safe

  • have tantrums when they’re tired

  • feel overwhelmed if there’s a lot of noise or activity

  • not want to share their favourite toys

  • not do what you ask if they don’t understand what you’re asking.

The environment around your child has lots of possibilities, which means there are lots of possibilities for changing it too. For example, you can change the physical environment, move the location of your child’s activities, move your child or others, change the scheduling or timing of what your child is doing, or change the way you ask your child to do things.

Changing your child’s physical environment

Here are some ideas for changing the physical things in your child’s environment to help your child behave the way you want.

At home

  • Move fragile or expensive items out of sight and reach of little fingers – this is important for safety as well as good behaviour.

  • Make a quiet, safe space for your child to use when they feel overwhelmed. This could just be a special cushion with some of your child’s favourite books nearby.

  • Make sure screens like tablets and TVs are off when you need your child to focus on something like getting ready for school in the morning.

Out and about

  • Choose an outside table at a restaurant. You’ll be less stressed, and children’s laughter, talking and moving around is less likely to cause discomfort to others.

  • Have one parent sit between two children in the back seat of the car. Or let one child sit next to a window for a while and then change. This might prevent fighting on a long car drive.

  • If you’re planning a family day out, look for places that have things that both you and your children will enjoy – for example, a playground for the children and a coffee cart for you, or a cycle path and shady picnic spot for all of you.

Toys and belongings

  • Install a child gate on the door of an older sibling’s room. This will give the older child some time playing with toys, undisturbed by a younger sibling.

  • Put your child’s favourite toys in a place that she can reach. This way she won’t be tempted to climb or get into unsafe places when she’s looking for her toys. Similarly, keep toys that need your help for times when you can be around to play with your child.

  • Help children choose and put away toys they might not want to share with visiting children.

"We moved all the grown-up stuff from the lower levels of our bookshelves. Grown-up books, breakable things and dangerous stuff went away, and we replaced it all with children’s books, soft toys and household stuff that the kids could play with, like plastic containers. And we attached the bookshelves to the walls too, so the kids could help themselves to things but stay safe at the same time." 

– Mother of two

Changing the timing of activities in your child’s environment

You can change your child’s environment by changing when things happen. Here are some ideas:

  • Encourage quiet, calming activities before bedtime.

  • Take your child grocery shopping after an afternoon nap.

  • Get up earlier to reduce pressure and stress in the morning rush for school.

  • Start bath time earlier to avoid tantrums about getting out of the bath.

  • Plan frequent breaks on a long car drive.

Changing your requests and instructions

You might be able to encourage positive behaviour by changing the way you ask or tell your child to do things.

A request is when you ask your child to do something. For example, ‘Could you set the table, please?’ Your child can choose to say yes or no to a request. Requests give your child choices and a sense of control, which might make your child more likely to cooperate.

An instruction is when you tell your child to do something. If you give clear, short and simple instructions, your child will know what’s expected of them – for example, ‘Please hold my hand when we cross the road’. If there are too many instructions, children can feel overwhelmed or be more likely to challenge them.

You might be able to guide your child’s behaviour by:

  • aiming for a mix of instructions and requests

  • using requests more often than instructions

  • checking that your requests and instructions are clear and your child has the skills to follow them.

    © raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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