When listening to parents describe their child’s challenging behaviors, one of the first questions I ask is, “how do you respond to that behavior?” This is because the way parents respond to their child’s behavior has a huge impact—the more attention a behavior gets, the more likely it is to increase. It’s no secret that kids crave attention—in fact, parents’ attention can be the most powerful reinforcement a child can receive. And that goes for positive as well as negative attention—whether you’re complimenting your child or yelling at him. Therefore, it’s important to know how to use your attention wisely so you’re reinforcing the behaviors you want to see more of, while not inadvertently reinforcing the ones you want to decrease.

The first step in harnessing your attention is to identify the behaviors that are problematic: whether it’s attention-seeking behaviors like yelling, talking back, interrupting, whining, complaining, making faces, or swearing, know what it is you’re trying to work on. Be specific. Once you can label the negative behavior, the next step is to identify the positive opposite behavior. For example, if the problem behavior is swearing, the positive opposite is “using respectful language”. If your child is nervous around new people, the positive opposite might be “saying hi”. Feel free to get creative, but try to find a way to describe when the problem behavior is NOT occurring.

Now that you’ve labeled the problem behavior and its positive opposite, the third step is to pay attention to the positive opposite behavior. Since paying attention to a behavior will increase it, the more you point out instances that your child is using a nice voice, being respectful, getting along with his brother, and staying seated at the dinner table, the more those behaviors are going to be reinforced.

The “how” of paying attention is also important. It’s not just important to notice your child when she is engaging in a positive behavior, but to praise her for it. And the best way to do that is by specifically labeling the behavior you like. So, instead of saying “great job”, say “I’m so proud of you for staying respectful!” Adding in physical touch such as a hug or a high five, if that feels right, can enhance your praise even more.

Parents often say, “but my child never does the positive opposite, so how can I praise it?” The answer is: look carefully. It’s natural for us to pay more attention when things aren’t going right, so many of us are not as good at noticing the positives. If we look hard, often we will start to notice some exceptions to the rule. And there’s no need to wait for a grand display from your child; you can praise even the smallest version of the positive behavior

Another objection I get from parents is the belief that they shouldn’t have to praise their child for something the child should already be doing. Whether kids should or shouldn’t be behaving a certain way does not necessarily mean they are. If you are struggling with behaviors in your child, this is one way to help turn things around.

Lastly, paying positive attention to your child’s positive behaviors is necessary but not sufficient for managing problem behaviors. In addition to paying attention to the positive, it’s critical to make sure you’re not reinforcing negative behaviors with too much attention. Of course, you should not ignore more serious behaviors like aggression, property damage, or defiance, but many milder attention-seeking or annoying behaviors can be dramatically reduced with effective ignoring. Stay tuned for the final blog post in this series to learn more about how to effectively ignore these behaviors.