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The Importance of Consistency and Patience While Changing your Child's Misbehavior with Behavior Modification

By Daniel T. Moore, Ph.D.
Copyrighted 2000

Being a parent is not easy. For children with many behavior problems, the job can be very difficult at times. Behavior modification can help. Behavior modification is applying scientific principles to make parenting a little easier.

To make behavior modification work, two concepts are important. The first is consistency and the second is patience. Being consistent in behavior modification is very important. If you are inconsistent, your child becomes confused and learning an acceptable behavior takes much longer. In fact, if you are not consistent, your child may not learn the correct behavior at all.

The concept of patience is equally important to the success of behavior modification. Many parents make the mistake of giving up on a procedure (intervention) too soon. They are unaware of the effects of extinction bursts, spikes, and "honeymoon periods." The purpose of this article is to explain these concepts so that you can be more successful when using behavior modification. But first, a picture or graph is often worth a thousand words:

The above graph illustrates the importance of being consistent and patient when applying an intervention. To explain this graph, let's use an example of Ms. Brown and her six-year-old child who refuses to sit still and eat at the dinner table. The child, Billy, will get up from the table or will play at the table instead of eating. After the dishes are put away, Billy complains that he is hungry and gets something to eat. Not knowing what to do, Ms. Brown went to a Psychologist who told her to use a behavioral technique called time out. The plan was to give Billy to the count of three when he began playing at the table or got out of his chair. When she reached three, Billy was to receive a five minute time out in the bathroom.

According to the chart, the amount of Billy's bad behavior prior to seeing the Psychologist was 20. This meant that Billy would play at the table or attempt to leave the table twenty times during the course of one meal.

Intervention. The intervention was that Ms. Brown would count every time Billy attempted to leave the table or started playing at the table (i.e., not eating his food). If Mrs. Brown reached three, Billy would receive a five minute time out and then return to the table. If she counted to one, and Billy would act well for five minutes and then started playing again, Mrs. Brown would say "that's two." Mrs. Brown was told to follow these procedures each and every time Billy started to play at the table or get out of his chair while eating his food.

Honeymoon period. When Ms. Brown started this intervention, Billy's bad behaviors were reduced to two or three times per meal. Thus, only occasionally Billy had to sit in the bathroom during a meal. Billy responded well to this intervention. This improvement is called the "honeymoon" period.

Extinction burst. With Billy, this improvement was short lived and Ms. Brown noticed increases in misbehavior. Being consistent she counted to three and sent Billy to the bathroom. However, she was concerned because now Billy was misbehaving even more at the table. Behavioral therapists call this increase in bad behavior an extinction burst. Billy would come out of the bathroom and then again start playing at the table or try to leave the table. Many parents become discouraged when this happens. This is the hardest time to be consistent and patient. It is as if Billy was trying to show his mother that he was going to continue to misbehave no matter what she did.

While many parents give up or are inconsistent following an extinction burst, doing so is a terrible mistake. Often when parents are inconsistent (not counting to three or failing to send their child to time out), their child's behaviors are worse than before. Too many parents have complained that their child's behaviors are worse after seeing a therapist than before. A better way to cope with the increase of misbehavior is to realize that if the behavior increases, then your intervention is working because of the phenomena called extinction burst. Just be patient and consistent and the behavior will eventually decrease.

Decrease in misbehavior. In animals and with humans, if the intervention is consistently applied, the decrease in misbehavior will come. The only exception to this is when the consequence is self rewarding. Then you will not see a decrease in misbehavior. However, for most children, being sent to the bathroom or even to their bed room for five minutes is not self rewarding.

Spike. When consequences are consistently applied and if the consequence is not self rewarding then the behavior will decrease to the level during the honeymoon period. With time, it is normal for the misbehavior to increase. This is called a behavioral spike. But again, be patient and consistent and the misbehavior will decrease again. It is usual to have several spikes while using behavior modification.

Hopefully armed with this information, you will be more successful in applying behavior modification. The main purpose of behavior modification is to help your child learn appropriate behaviors. There are many techniques in behavior modification. Time out is just one technique. Your therapist can help you develop many behavioral techniques.

When using behavior modification, only apply it to one or two behaviors you wish to change. Trying to change too many behaviors at once usually causes confusion. When your child has mastered one correct behavior, you can then move onto another. Dealing with one behavior at a time and using patience and consistency, you will be able to resolve many behavior problems through behavior modification.