As a mom, I much prefer to be on the offensive rather than on the defensive when it comes to my child’s behavior. Instead of managing meltdowns all day long, we try our best to green light our son’s positive behavior in order to prevent tantrums from happening frequently.
This is especially true when taking my son to church. I have noticed that when I do not use green-lighting tactics, my son will spend the time trying to run away, throwing toys, talking loudly, and whining to get out of the pew. The whole hour in church is an epic fail and I spend the majority of the hour defusing meltdowns and playing cleanup.
On the other hand, when I take steps to green light positive behavior in church, I have a toddler who (mostly) sits and quietly plays with the toys and books we bring to entertain him.
What do I mean by green lighting? It means that we use positive parenting strategies to promote positive behavior. Dr. Karp’s book, Happiest Toddler on the Block, first introduced me to this strategy.
Green lighting behaviors encourages children to:
- Continue doing the positive behaviors
- Have a sense of independence
- Have high self-confidence
Now, this doesn’t mean that tantrums or misbehaviors disappear forever. In fact, for young children, temper tantrums can be a healthy release and are not always as bad as they may seem. Even for older children, misbehaviors can provide learning opportunities and can be signs that our children are seeking more independence!
When using green lighting consistently, misbehaviors and tantrums decrease and are much more manageable. Do I have your curiosity yet? Read on to learn about 10 simple ways to green light positive behavior!
#1: Fill Up Your Child’s Attention Cup
Children often act out because they want attention; and if they don’t think they can get positive attention, then negative attention may be the next best option.
Mommy’s not paying attention to me. But every time I cry or throw something, she comes to me. I’ll keep doing that.
To make sure that that doesn’t happen, fill up their attention cup by using time-ins or special time. Time-ins are a short amount of time that parents spend distraction free (no phones or TVs) with their child. It is surprising how just 5-10 minutes of undivided attention a few times a day can make a difference.
When I am not at work, I like to do time-ins when I wake my son, after breakfast, before nap, in the afternoon, and before bed. These time-ins are nothing fancy and can simply be 5-20 minutes of being by my son’s side, reading a book, or playing with him without distractions.
Of course we can all be busy at times and that’s okay! For parents who work or have multiple children, creating a visual schedule of when you are available for special time can be helpful. Red means Mommy or Daddy are not available, yellow is a maybe, green is good to go! Your child will know what to expect and that his attention cup will get filled up, decreasing the likelihood that he will act out.
#2: Allow for Plenty of Opportunities to Play
Play is so important for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics play:
- Helps master movement
- Encourages language use
- Sharpens thinking and decision making
- Boosts people skills
- Builds confidence
- Develops their imagination
- Learn about the world
As parents, we might think that play has to be structured, such as through organized sports and activities. However, that is not necessarily the case. Children are free to use their imaginations when they are left to play without the rules of adults.
That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t play with their kids. In fact, Dr. John Delony of the Dr. John Delony podcast, says that play is a great way to build connections even with older children. It is best if parents let their kids take the lead and avoid bombarding them with question after question about what they are doing. Instead the CDC recommends actively listening to your child and describing your child’s behavior and what they are doing.
Wow! You built a ramp for your cars and are making them go fast down the ramp. Can I have a try?
Dr. Karp recommends three types of play every day:
- Creative (arts and crafts, water tables, sensory bins, toy cars)
- Outdoor (hiking, running, swimming, digging in the dirt, nature walks)
Play makes for happier and healthier kids; happier and healthier kids are more likely to exhibit positive behavior.
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#3: Provide Consistent Praise
Catch your children doing something good and tell them!
Wow! You drew that picture all by yourself? How’d you think of that?
I liked the way you behaved in the store. How do you feel about that?
You went to the bathroom in the potty! Yay! Good job.
Praising your children for behavior you want to see happen will green light that behavior in the future.
For example, instead of “You’re amazing. What a great artist you are!” try saying, “Wow, you worked really hard on that painting. Tell me about it.”
With the right kind of consistent praise, your child will be confident in continuing his positive behavior, even in the face of adversity.
#4: Gossip About Your Child
While gossiping may bring to mind a negative picture, it can be a positive way to green light behavior. Young children eat this up! What you want to do is gossip about your child, but not behind their back! You want your child to actually hear you talk about them.
Magnify your gossiping by being as non-discreet as possible. You can cup your hands to your mouth with the dramatic flair of a whisper, yet make your volume loud enough for your child to hear. You may want to gossip to Dad or a sibling; but if another person is not available then a stuffed animal or toy will work just as well!
Instead of gossiping about bad behavior, you want to focus on the positive behavior your children are doing throughout the day.
Psstttt, Daddy, guess what your son did today? He helped pick up his toys when Mr. Dinger went off. I didn’t even have to ask. He picked them all up by himself! I was so proud and so was he.
Gossiping greenlights this positive behavior to continue. When your children overhear about what they are doing right, it makes them feel good and want to continue just like when adults overhear someone saying something nice about them.
#5: Give Little Rewards
Dr. Karp also discusses the idea of little rewards to encourage positive behavior. He cautions that rewards are not the same as bribery. Bribery is used to discourage bad behavior while rewards are used to encourage positive behavior.
Here’s how little rewards work (using the example of wanting your child to cooperate when it comes to bed time):
- First, come up with a reward (candy, stickers, hand stamps, small toys). Offer your child half the reward in the beginning (when she listens and comes up the steps) and then the second half during the middle of the bedtime routine;
- As you see your child become invested in the system, gradually back off on giving the reward further into the bedtime routine until you no longer need to give a reward at all!
Keep in mind that the reward doesn’t need to be tangible. It can be a time-in, playing a game with your toddler, playful roughhousing, or reading a book. It’s also important to back up little rewards with praise; never underestimate how much praise means to your child!
#6: Use Positive Behavior Charts
Similar to providing rewards, using positive reinforcement is a good way to increase positive behaviors. As children (especially young children) are often visual learners and thrive when provided with visual support, charts and checklists can be hugely beneficial.
This can look like the following:
- Sticker Charts
- Star Charts
- Checks or stickers on the hand
- Stamp Charts
Everytime your child engages in a behavior that you want to see continue, give them a sticker, stamp, or hand check. As the parent, you can decide on a prize or reward for reaching a certain milestone. For example, maybe they need to earn 10 stars a week to be able to watch a movie.
It is always best to provide positive reinforcement right after the positive behavior happens, so your child can make a connection that I did this, so I got this.
It also helps to get them involved and take ownership for their actions. You did xyz! Go put a sticker on your chart. Yay! How did it feel to earn a sticker?
#7: Connect With Humor
Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine to get a child to cooperate. “Playing the fool,” is a strategy that allows us to connect to our children with humor while encouraging positive behavior. Specifically, parents can utilize “playing the fool” by pretending that they don’t know how to do something.
It’s time to put on your pajamas. Wait, I forget where does your top go? Does it go on your knees? No? Hmmm…does it go on your butt.” No! Ughh please help me. I forget.
That is my piece of broccoli. Please don’t touch it. I am going to do one thing first, and when I come back I want to eat it….What! You ate it? You are so tricky and smart. You always win.
Using humor or taking the time to laugh and be silly with your child builds connections and makes your child feel safe and confident with you–a gateway to positive behavior.
#8: Practice Patience
Kids aren’t born with the ability to know how to wait. This is a skill that develops from learning and repeated practice.
A quick strategy to help children with patience is “patience stretching.” I started using patience stretching with my son from about 6-8 months old. During patience stretching, I will act like I’m going to give my son something he wants; but just before I hand it to him, I remember that I have to do something first.
Here you go, here is your milk. Ohh silly Mommy. I forgot. I need to make sure it’s warm enough first.
I will then turn around and count to ten. When I am finished counting, I’ll turn back around and give my son his milk and praise his excellent waiting skills.
Good waiting! Here’s your milk now.
When using patience stretching to practice this important skill, it can be helpful to implement the strategy at least once a day while slowly increasing the time in which you are asking your child to wait for about a minute. Practicing consistently will make it more likely that waiting skills are generalized to real-life situations.
#9: Create Daily Routines
Children, especially toddlers, like routines. This is for good reason! Routines have been found to:
- Lower stress
- Increase confidence
- And make them feel smarter.
When we create a day that is predictable for our toddlers, we increase the chances of them having good behavior because they know what to expect.
While not every day can be the same, there are ways to input short routines into certain times of the day, such as:
In the event that something big and unexpected might happen, we can use a strategy called prep.
First introduced to me by my mom and backed up by the popular Instagram account of two toddler experts, Big Little Feelings, prep is when you give children plenty of time and explanation of what is going to happen.
A visit to the dentist, an out of town trip, a new baby, or moving out of your house are all things to use prep with to signal to your toddler that something will be different outside of their normal routine. You can read books, role play, or watch a video as a way to prep your child.
With both daily routines and prep, children will know what to expect and be on their way to behaving better.
#10: Use Make-Believe
Showing your little ones how to be kind is a great way to green light positive behavior. We can use make-believe (a kid favorite) to model kindness.
There are two great ways in which you can be purposeful and creative about planting seeds of kindness:
- Fairytales: This doesn’t necessarily mean picking up a book and reading a fairytale! Rather, you can make up your own fairytale “spin off” that directly addresses a situation your child has faced in which kindness can be used. For example, if your toddler has been biting a lot lately, then you could concoct a story about Little Red Biting Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Then, share how the problem was solved, the character was a hero, and everyone lived happily ever after.
- Role Playing: In role-playing, you and your child will act out a situation (or toys/stuffed animals can be the actors). Similar to fairytales, role-playing will start with a problem and by the end the problem will be solved. Your children will have a chance to be part of the action and everyone will have a chance to be silly but still work together to solve a problem.
Planting seeds of kindness through make-believe will give your children the tools necessary to handle conflict and what to do when they feel angry, frustrated, or sad.
Thanks to these 10 simple strategies, we are more often than not being proactive rather than doing damage control with unwanted behavior. Children are much happier when they have tools and strategies for what is expected than when left alone to figure out how they are supposed to act. Give them a try!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a few minutes to contemplate or journal the following questions:
- Does your child have times of defiance and frustration? In those moments do they seem unwilling to listen to anything you ask them to do?
- Do you proactively find ways to set your child up for success? Do you think there may be more opportunities to do so?
- Which of the above strategies stand out to you? Can you envision implementing any of these strategies consistently?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
If any of the strategies above feel like they may be a successful way to green light your child’s behavior, give them a try! In doing so, it can be helpful to keep track of your child’s behavior as a way to measure how well each strategy is working. This may include:
- Keeping track of how many meltdowns your child has throughout the day prior to trying a new strategy
- Pick two of the strategies to try
- Implement the strategies and then recount how many meltdowns you are observing from your child for a week
- Next week, try two more strategies and then continue the process of counting meltdowns; repeat until you have given all strategies a try!
- Take a look back at your data- which strategies seemed to work best?
- Make a list of all these strategies and hang them up so you can see them every day as a reminder to continue doing them