Reinforcing appropriate behaviour and letting go of rules.

Behaviour change has always fascinated me – but I always skate around the process of changing my own behaviour. It is so much easier to support others, share ideas and assist people in changing their behaviour that it is to consider what changes are needed
in one’s own life. Over the years I have been challenged as I come to terms with some of my own limiting rules that have controlled what I believe are undesirable behaviours. These rules state what conditions need to be in place for certain things to happen. For example, in order to feel relaxed, the house needed to be spotless, dishes had to be done with no washing piled up anywhere and the garden had to be tidy. Consequently I rarely felt relaxed at home and spent much of my free time accommodating these rules to the detriment of my health and well being. In the area of personal relationships, most of us have rules about what needs to be in place before we feel loved or before we will give love, and adhering to these rules may prevent us from feeling connected or developing sound long term relationships. As I explored my own rules, and considered whether they were useful to me or not, I
discovered that others also had less than useful rules that were creating conflict in their lives.
I noticed that parents and teachers had lists of rules that hindered not only their own happiness but that of their children and I began to look at how this impacted on their relationships with the children in their care. Anthony Robbins uses the example of a father of quadruplets who, when asked how he coped, simply said he had fewer rules! After all, as Robbins points out, the more rules you have the more likely it is that someone somewhere will be breaking them! The tendency to look for rulebreaking
behaviour seems almost hard wired in us and the result is that we often miss noticing desired behaviours, simply taking them for granted. In behavioural terms we extinguish the desired behaviour by ignoring it, and we may inadvertently reinforce the undesirable rule-breaking behaviour by giving it attention. I worked with one parent who was having difficulties with her child’s behaviour and we discussed how we could use positive reinforcement to increase certain desired behaviours. However when I asked them what the child did that was appropriate and could they ‘sell’ their child to me, they struggled to find anything positive to say about the child. I can appreciate that when you are down and upset about them it is hard to notice, let alone thinking of
anything good, but if we want things to change we are going to have to climb up out of our well of negativity and find something about them that is fabulous no matter how small.


So what actions can you take? Consider these options and experiment with them before you need them –  try to train yourself in a calm, relaxed environment when you feel great about your child or children – set yourself up for success. If a child makes a request try at all costs not to knock it dead even if it is unreasonable or stupid to you. Is there any way you can accommodate it by asking questions? Ask her what she thinks you will say and why…chances are she knows full well you don’t want her to do it or have it but by getting her to verbalise it you are valuing her thoughts and opinions. After all, she has asked you when she could have just gone ahead and done whatever it is. If it is something that could be planned better suggest that you both sit down and plan it – valuing her time and ideas will give you the opportunity to develop critical thinking and planning skills.

Start looking for things children do that are remotely praise worthy and say thank you more often. Ignore all unwanted behaviour as much as possible – choose your battles and change those rules. Allow children to be more involved in the decision making process and enable them to make more decisions. The more perceived control they have over their own environment the happier they will be. The more someone does for you the more likely you will want to do, or give back to them, be involved in their  activities and be proactive rather than reactive. Keep focussed on what is working. We get what we focus on! Look for what you
can reward. Parents often need to ignore rudeness – let it wash over you – you know they love you. Teachers often need to consider what they can ignore and instead look for every tiny thing the child does that you could possible reinforce and go for it – it works! Catch yourself doing well and reward yourself too!

Rules need to serve us so choose them carefully. The one I have attempted to take on board is another example shared by Anthony Robbins ‘ any day above ground is a great day!’ It’s not about lowering standards – it’s choosing empowering beliefs about yourself and others in order to feel loved and less stressed – its taking you forward and not backward – it’s moving you in the direction you want to go. Remember we will resist change at all costs because we are parents or teachers or partners and we want to be in charge
– we will find excuse after excuse as to why we shouldn’t allow this behaviour and that behaviour but the bottom line is (I hate saying that but it needs to be emphasised) if you want change you have to change something you are doing first. If we can shift our focus away from our rules, we will have abundant opportunities to reinforce appropriate behaviour and ultimately feel happier
and more loving.