Balancing Limits and Reinforcement-Part 2: Encouraging Cooperation and Avoiding Power Struggles

Balancing Limits and Reinforcement-Part 2: Encouraging Cooperation and Avoiding Power Struggles

Last week we talked about ways adults can make it easy for kids to follow expectations and make good choices. Today we’re continuing with the theme of balancing limit setting with other ways to encourage cooperation and avoid power struggles. Children are going to test the limits. This is part of their job, to see just how much you mean what you say and what they can get away with. But this can be exhausting, especially when you get constant pushback from miniature negotiators who have a tenuous grasp on who is actually the boss here. Some strategies that can be used to avoid power struggles and encourage children to follow directions include: redirection, choices, and setting them up to earn rewards.

Redirection (do this instead)

Often, and particularly with very young children, it’s helpful to pick your battles; avoid getting to the point of needing to set limits by redirecting their attention or behavior instead. If your little one continues to bang loudly on the counter with that metal spoon, rather than tempting a tantrum, give her a rubber spatula to thump quietly. If you know your class has about maxed out their ability to sit still and listen, give those growing brains a break and “get the wiggles out” with a quick gross motor activity. If you’re stuck waiting in line at the post office and you know kiddo #2 is about to have a mini tantrum from boredom, engage them in a game of I-spy, or play a game where you guess what silly things other people might be mailing (“I’m pretty sure that box is full of purple slugs that go ‘mooo’…”). Or in a line at a grocery store, grab some bananas and play “telephone”. The idea is to redirect kids away from needing a limit, and back to something that will keep them busy and occupied doing an appropriate activity. (The classic, “Squirrel!” distraction tactic can be helpful in a pinch when you know kids are about to get into something they’re not supposed to, or a meltdown is imminent. Exs: “*Gasp* I really need your help with this other thing over here!” or “Oh my gosh! I forgot to tell you the story about that weird noise I heard!”…)

Give them choices on your terms

If your child is in that phase where everything is a negotiation, rather than telling them to do the one thing you need them to do, give them the illusion of choice by providing two options you’re fine with. When crossing the street, “You can hold my left hand or my right hand”. When choosing an appropriate snack “Do you want to choose the apple or the carrots?”

Children will also be motivated to cooperate and follow directions when they’re given as a game, “I wonder how fast you can put your shoes on, I’m going to time you, I bet you can’t do it in 35 seconds! Ready, set… go!”

Earn a reward

Sometimes the expectations we have for children may just be too hard for them. It’s not that they just won’t do it; it might be that it is really difficult or a new skill, and they need your help. In this case, setting children up to earn rewards with coaching and encouragement to complete the task is a great way to teach them to follow directions or practice new skills. As adults, we do difficult things regularly that we don’t want to do because we know that it will benefit us in the long run. Things like paying attention in class, sharing your toys, and following directions are really hard to do when you’re a kid. When we encourage children to do these difficult things by earning rewards, over time they will learn the intrinsic value of hard work and social interactions and not need to be extrinsically rewarded forever. If your kindergarten class has a hard time paying attention, pre-teach that they will get to earn a dance party or a game, when they stay seated with calm bodies and quiet voices during the lesson. If you know your child is going to argue and negotiate when you ask her to clean up her legos, pre-teach that when she cleans up her legos the first time you ask her to, she will get to choose the family movie that night. Remember, this is not a bribe. You are providing some extra support and encouragement for a difficult task, and the reward is earned after it is completed. In a nutshell: set clear, behavioral expectations that children can be successful at, be sure to choose a reward that is motivating. Then, as the task becomes less difficult, reduce the frequency of rewards.

Parents and teachers have no easy task when caregiving for children. By balancing the time we spend setting consistent limits with encouraging children to cooperate and making it easier to follow directions, we can at least reduce the amount of eye rolling, foot stomping, and stress-induced hair loss.

Image: © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

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Livia Carpenter
Livia Carpenter is the Clinical Supervisor for KITS. She has been with the organization since 2008. Livia has a passion for working with kids from high risk backgrounds, which began when working with foster children prior to coming to OSLC. When she is not inspiring those she works with, she reads, tries new recipes, makes art, and really enjoys a good, whole-hearted belly laugh.

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