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Couples and Families


I designed the graphic on the left to remind couples and individuals to make statements rather than ask questions. I would guess every one reading this had parents or some authority figure that asked questions like:

What are the right answers to the above questions? "10 times", "Because I am a bad child"? What is a good answer to the last question?

Questions do not make for good communication! If you ask questions people feel as if they are on trial or being interrogated. Usually questions result in defensiveness and anger. How do you like being questioned?

If you want to communicate with someone-MAKE STATEMENTS! Try things like-"I like it when you do that", "I don't like when you talk to me that way".

When you question a child you can create shame and guilt. Rather than "How many times have I told you to get your feet off of the furniture" try, "take your feet of the couch" or better yet, "the couch is for sitting on".

Print the picture to the left to remind ourself or If you would like a decal like the one to the left please click this link and type decal in the subject field and email the form.

Making statements is an excellent way of improving couples communication. Questions may make the person being questioned like they are on trial. Making statements poses more risk for the individual making the statement. Try turning questions into statements for a week. Simple but not easy.

















Changing Behavior

a short article on changing children's behavior with positive attention

By John A. Prange, Ph.D.         January 2012

With out getting too technical there are two main ways that people learn.  One way children learn is watching and imitating the things that they see.  This is called modeling.  The other way involves people getting rewarded or reinforced for their behavior.  This article will talk about the two ways people learn and suggest how you can use them when dealing with children.


Children learn by watching and then they imitate the behavior that they see this is called modeling.  This is sort of like “monkey see, monkey do” and the ramifications can be great.  No child can go through life seeing only positive behavior on the part of adults, but teachers, parents and others that deal with children can become more aware of their own actions. 
One of the cases of modeling that most often comes to my attention is that of the “aggressive child.”  I worked with a child who was going to be thrown out of preschool because he was hitting the other children.  The parents brought the child to me for help.  Most of the time there is nothing the matter with the child that we cannot fix by helping the parents learn new methods.   When I began to examine what, was going on the first thing that I asked is “Tell me about television viewing.”  This child was watching violent shows that depicted people hitting, shooting, and hurting each other in different ways.  The boy watched “Action Hero” movies with his father. 
If we remember that children model what they see it is no wonder that this child was hitting the children at school.  That is what was modeled for him.  Further questioning elicited that this boy was punished by being hit.  When we are afraid of something (being hit) we will often take on the qualities of the person or thing we are afraid of.  Also, dad was modeling hitting.  I have seen parents hit a child for hitting his little brother.  There are two messages here one is “Don’t hit your brother.”   And the other is it is OK to hit because dad does.
Model the behavior that you want the child to imitate.  Then use positive reinforcement to increase it.

Positive Reinforcement

What is positive reinforcement?  Basically it is paying attention to the positive behavior that you want to be repeated.   Remember, the things that you pay attention to will be repeated!  If you attend to (reinforce) the behavior that you don’t want the child to engage in that behavior, that you pay attention to, will be reinforced and is more likely to be repeated.   This is not to say that if a child runs out in front of a car that you should not stop that child.  Obviously you cannot allow that to happen. But you can begin, right now, to reinforce the positive.  The next time you see the child
approaching the street rather than tell them not to go in you can say “that’s great you are not going in the street” before they are near the street.
As, an experiment I tried this approach with my own child.   When she was very young (barely walking) and she would go anywhere near the street I would tell her “what a great girl she was for not going into the street”.  She got lots of attention for not going in the street!  I clapped a lot and made a lot of positive gestures.  Today she is a young adult half and, has a really good sense of the street.  More importantly she has a good self image because we used positive reinforcers rather that punishment
Most important is the fact that learning not to go in the street has been a positive experience for her.  She can feel proud of not going in the street rather than feel bad for going in the street.  Not only does she feel good about herself but since there is no reinforcers (no payoff in the form of attention) for going into the street that she is much less likely to have any desire to.
One of the theories regarding the cause of juvenile delinquency is that a child gets attention for negative behavior and not for positive behavior.  As the child gets worse and worse, he gets more and more attention for “bad” behavior.  The negative behavior is reinforced rather than the positive!

How do we change negative behavior to positive?


posreinIn theory it’s easy.  All you have to do is ignore the negative and pay attention to the positive.  In reality there are some problems.  The behavior that has been reinforced doesn’t just go away that easily. 
If we teach a pigeon to peck at a button by giving him food pellets each time he pecks this button, he will, as long as we reinforce ( and as long as he is hungry and food is a reinforcer) him keep pecking that button.  What happens if we stop giving him food?  If we have been charting his pecking, and he has for example been pecking at 10 pecks per minute and we stop reinforcing him, it may seem logical that he will stop pecking.  Before the pigeon stops his behavior will increase.  His pecking will increase!  And then it will decrease and go away. . . .
When a child has been reinforced for an action and the reinforcer is removed the behavior will increase before it decreases.   Once again don’t forget, when you try to change behavior, it will get worse before it gets better! 
A good example of this is a tantrum.  As you know if you ignore the tantrum it will get worse and then if we continue to ignore it, it will extinguish and go away. 


Consistency is important!

You have heard this said many times.  When you teach the bird to peck you usually use a fixed ratio 1:1 schedule.  That is for each peck there is one reinforcer.  This is an easy reinforcer to extinguish.  If you stop feeding the bird, he will stop pecking pretty quickly.  But what if you have him on a 5:1 fixed schedule.  Five pecks for each pellet.  This takes longer to extinguish because the bird says to himself “maybe if I peck one more time I’ll get a pellet”  and when he does peck he gets a reinforcer he tries five more times.  Hardest of all to extinguish is the variable interval reinforcer.  Five pecks and then one pellet,  three pecks and a pellet, seven pecks and a pellet.  Because the bird thinks if I just peck one more time . . .
The variable interval reinforcer schedule is what is used in the slot machines in Las Vegas.  “Maybe if I just put one more coin into the machine I’ll win.”   Obviously they use this because it is the most reinforcing and the hardest  to extinguish. When you vary the reinforcer it is harder to change behavior.
  When working with children remember to be consistent! 

How does all of this translate to children?

Each child is different but we can remember some simple guidelines:
         Children learn what is modeled for them. 
         The things we pay attention to will be repeated.
         Children want to please.

Let’s try this with a typical problem child.  The aggressive child.  First we can imagine that somewhere in his (or her) life aggression has been modeled for them.  They have seen it at home, on television or out in the world.  And because it has been modeled the child it is the way he learns to deal with the world.  The aggressive behavior is further reinforced when he either gets his way for being aggressive or gets attention for his aggressive behavior.  This attention can be in the form of praise for example; “look at what a tough boy you are” or when a teacher drops whatever she is doing and attends to that child.  It is difficult to use the principals talked about above when confronted with this problem but they can work.  The first thing to do is to find the source of the modeling.   Have a talk with the parents and see if you can find out where is this child learning the aggression?  One of the first places to look is television.  Let’s see what the child is watching and change that to either nothing (What did people do before T.V.?)  or something more positive.  You rarely see children act out aggression after watching Mr. Rogers but you probably will after Power Rangers.   Encourage the parents to change television habits.  Have them keep a log of what is watched in the home.
Next we must remember to pay attention to the positive.  When was the last time that an aggressive child was praised for sitting quietly?    He gets much more attention for causing trouble.  The trick is to ignore the negative as much as possible and praise the positive as much as possible.  It he sits still for a moment praise him as he is reinforced the times will become longer.  If he is aggressive, he obviously must be stopped from harming others but this should be done with the minimum amount of interaction.  I would simply say “that is not allowed” and move him elsewhere.  If someone has to stay with him there should be a minimum of talk or interaction.  Then as soon as I saw positive behavior I would pay attention to it.  And keep paying attention to any positive behavior I saw.  This may be hard at first but gets easier as you practice it and as the child  finds there is more of a payoff for positive behavior.
Many people use the term positive reinforcement but it is hard to remember to actively reinforce the behavior you want to see repeated.  Try to remember to pay attention to the positive?  Use good modeling and positive reinforcement every chance you get.  Give yourself credit (positive reinforcement) each time you notice your self using the positive rather than the negative. 
One last thing you can’t change everything at once!  So just concentrate on one behavior at a time.
When you change what is modeled and what is reinforced the behavior will change.






This page is under construction. Check back often for new materials about Marriage, Family, Relationships, children and Divorce Copyright 2012 DrJPrange.com All rights reserved. Last modified: 12/23/2012.