Planning ahead can be a powerful behaviour management tool to help you and your child get through challenging situations with less stress. Careful planning can also help with the smooth running of your family.

Why planning ahead helps with behaviour management

Shopping trips, travelling in the car, taking telephone calls, attending appointments for yourself, visiting friends – these are all times when it can be challenging to meet your child’s needs and get things done.

In these situations, there’s a risk of difficult behaviour from your child and frustration, stress or anger on your part. That’s because:

  • You’re trying to care for your child as well as get something done.

  • You’ve got to do something or be somewhere at a particular time.

  • Your children are bored.

Planning ahead can help you to manage these challenging situations better. If you’d like to reduce the stress in your family, you can try using our seven steps to planning ahead. The steps help you to think about what causes behaviour problems and what to do about them.

Identify challenging situations

Before you can plan ahead, the first step is identifying situations that are challenging for you and your child. These might be times when you’ve felt stressed, frustrated or embarrassed by your child’s behaviour.

Work out what’s making the situation difficult. Is it too many demands, time pressures or boredom? Or does the environment lead to difficult behaviour from your child – for example, checkout counters with sweets at her eye level?

It’s also worth thinking about whether you can avoid the situation or ask someone to help.

If the situation can’t be avoided, or if you think it might help if your child learns how to cope better in the situation, planning ahead might help you.

You might find it helpful to read more about how you can encourage good behaviour by changing your child’s environment.

Make expectations clear

Talk with your child before you go into a challenging situation. It helps if you’re clear about what you expect from the situation and what behaviour is OK.

With toddlers and preschoolers, you can say what you expect. School-age children will have their own ideas, so work together to develop a few specific rules. With school-age children, this step is more of a negotiation, but you still have the final say.

Rules should be clear, simple, and about the behaviour you want to see. For example, rules for a doctor’s waiting room might be, ‘Talk quietly’, ‘Ask before you touch’, ‘Be gentle with the toys and magazines’, and ‘Play on the floor next to me’.

It’s also a good idea to agree in advance on what happens when the rules are followed and when they’re broken. For example, for the doctor’s waiting room you might say, ‘If you stay close to me and ask before you touch, you can play with the toys or read the books. If you forget to stay close or touch without asking, you’ll sit on the chair next to me for one minute’.

Check that your child understands by asking him to explain the rules and the consequences to you. Do this again just before you enter the challenging situation – for example, just before you go through the door of the clinic.

Family rules can help your family members get along better and make family life more peaceful.

Think of your child as a ‘learner’

Difficult behaviour can happen because a child doesn’t have the skills to cope with a situation. Ask yourself what you can do to help your child learn what to do in challenging situations. Here are some suggestions.

Reduce stress on your child while she’s learning 

Think about what you can do to decrease stress on your child in a new situation. Give her lots of opportunities to succeed in easier situations while learning a new skill. Once she’s coping better, she can try harder situations. Here are some examples:

  • Shopping: plan a few short shopping trips for just a few items.

  • Visiting/visitors: arrange a series of short visits from/to a friend or relative.

  • Phone calls: arrange a series of short telephone calls.

Think about when your child is likely to be at his best 

If you can, plan challenging situations around your child’s routine. For example, try to make appointments for after your child’s nap or snack.

Work out what skills your child needs to learn 

For example, if problems happen during phone calls, your child might need to learn how to say ‘excuse me’, how to wait for you to respond, how to accept your answer, and how to keep busy and quiet. These are things you could talk about. You could also show your child how to do these things, and praise her when she does them.

Plan ways of helping your child keep busy and engaged

For toddlers, plan some activities that will keep them busy in challenging situations. Have a ‘going-out bag’ ready, with a drink, a snack and a few small but interesting items – for example, paper and coloured pencils, stickers or blocks.

With your help, preschoolers and school-age children can plan interesting activities themselves, or you can get them involved in what you’re doing. For example, while grocery shopping you might ask your child to find particular items on the shelves and put them in the trolley, or to identify colours or words on labels. When queuing at the post office, you could play a quiet game of ‘I spy’ or 'Who am I?’

You can have special activities just for car trips or telephone calls. These could be stories or music on CDs, or a special puzzle.

Encourage good behaviour

During a challenging situation, look for and encourage behaviour you like. Take the time to stop what you’re doing every now and then to let your child know when you like what he’s doing.

For example, during a shopping trip, you might praise your child for staying close, speaking in a quiet voice, and helping you find things. If the high-risk situation is a telephone call, you might briefly stop talking to praise your child for playing quietly.

Use consequences for behaviour you don’t like

If you put the steps above into action, your child will be more likely to behave well. But it’s best to plan consequences that you’ll use if your child misbehaves.

The good news is that most consequences that you would use at home you can also use somewhere else with some changes. For example, if you’re using time-out at home, you can also use it on shopping trips by getting your child to sit or stand beside you for a short time at the supermarket.

Have a follow-up talk

It can help to have a talk with your child after you’ve been in a challenging situation. During the talk, highlight things your child did well, and celebrate the progress you’re making together.

You might also point out one or two things your child might do differently in future. These can become your goals for next time.

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

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