Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Preschooler behavior chart

Callum has always been an easy child, relatively speaking. He's a rule follower by nature and he's quite risk-averse. He's never been a climber or a huge tantrumer or a backtalker or any of the other things that would have me running to one-click that book about raising spirited children that I frequently see recommended. Not to say that he doesn't have his moments, and he definitely has a strong personality and independent opinions, but overall, compared to most of his peers, I would definitely say he's been on the compliant side for pretty much his whole life. Our parenting challenges with him have been of a different sort--encouraging him to try new things, reassuring him that it's OK to fail, helping him learn to focus on trying and effort rather than just results. His natural tendency is to do only things that he already knows he's good at - he likes good results and immediate gratification. That's just who he is as a kid.

That said, these last few months have definitely been a little more challenging with him. In some ways it feels like we're being paid back for what was a relatively easy experience with age three, like he's only just now experimenting with some of the limit-testing and self-assertion that one typically expects from a three-year-old, except it's combined with a four-year-old level of intelligence, verbal skills, and independence.

I don't want to give the impression that he's some kind of problem child, or that most of our time spent with him isn't delightful, because truly, he is lovely, and honestly I think he's probably still closer to the well-behaved side of the spectrum... just maybe not AS close as he was and as a result it feels like a shock to us. He is thoughtful, sensitive, clever, sweet, affectionate and loving, an incredibly kind big brother, surprisingly hilarious, and a lot of fun almost all the time. But in the last few months there's been a lot more protesting, arguing, whining, and crying. A lot of negotiating on his part, a lot of extended protesting when he doesn't get what he wants, and a lot of resulting frustration on our parts. This does not lead to me being the best version of myself as a parent, and I know Torsten feels the same way.

But the problem is that because he's always been so easy, I feel like we as parents are behind the curve, so to speak, on how to deal with these very typical, age-appropriate behaviors, because we were insulated from them for so long through sheer coincidence. It's kind of like sleep--both our kids have been excellent sleepers right off the bat, and we never did anything specific to get them to be that way, so not only can we not take credit for it, but on those occasions when they DO have a sleep issue, we're completely clueless about how to handle it.

ANYWAY, all this is a really long-winded way of saying that hey, I have had the unique and revelatory idea of using a behavior chart for my four-year-old! I will pause now to receive the accolades and requests for paid parenting consultations once you've all had a moment to absorb the breadth of my ground-breaking new suggestion.

In seriousness, though, it did feel like we were kind of unprepared for this stage (especially from those people who promised us that age four would be EASIER than age three, which apparently it is? For many kids? But so far, not ours, alas) and as a result, our parenting of these moments has been very reactive. Lots of making a request kindly and lovingly the first couple times... then escalating into frustration and snapping when he doesn't comply. Lots of off-the-cuff threats of loss of privileges without any real kind of thought or philosophy behind it. And that needs to change.

Enter the behavior chart. Again, I know this is something that many parents use, and it seems that's for good reason: they work for most kids. And for Callum, who has a personality that responds very well to praise and rewards, it seems like a no-brainer.

So! I did some reading up on behavior charts (particularly this, this, and this) and while the sources of some of those are either unknown to me or someone I don't always agree with (*coughDrSearscough* and don't even get me started on the Dr. Sears stance on vaccines), I found that reading those helped me sort of crystallize my thoughts on why we want a behavior chart and how we'd like to implement one. Basically, I feel like this will help us be more consistent about setting limits and interacting with Callum when he's being challenging, while also helping us maintain a focus on the positive (which he responds really well to, like most/all kids). A clear chart that we're all familiar with will help ensure that expectations are clear and give us an easy motivator to use, rather than us casting about in the moment for some kind of carrot or stick to get him to do what we need, which frankly, in ad hoc moments of frustration, winds up being a stick more often than it is a carrot, and that is not how we prefer to parent.

As far as implementing the chart, we came up with a list of seven target behaviors to start with. We're starting with a weekly chart where he can earn a smiley face sticker for each behavior each day, and if he achieves a certain number (five is the target at the moment, but can be adjusted if it proves unattainable)) of smileys in a day, he gets a bigger sticker at the bottom for that day. If he gets a certain number (again, five for now, but we'll see how it plays out) of bigger stickers in a week, he can pick a reward such as getting to watch an episode of a TV show on a weekday (usually a no-no at our house), getting to select a casual restaurant for a meal out, or a new Lego set. We will adjust the behaviors over time to keep on track with current problem areas and also keep the chart fresh, but the initial behaviors we're starting with are:
  • Putting on and taking off own shirt (Callum has a weird THING about his shirt where he finds it annoying to deal with and therefore insists that he can't do it and we need to do it for him)
  • No whining/crying
  • Feed the dog without reminder
  • Eat dinner (Ellyn Satter would probably not approve but Callum's disinterest in eating is at such a point that I don't even care - this is a whole separate topic that deserves its own post)
  • Be kind (I'm envisioning that this is sort of a freebie category where if he does something notably great, we can reward him with a sticker--but it may also play out that he just starts demanding stickers in this category nonstop, in which case this one may require some adjusting)
  • Play nicely with Annika (he always does this anyway--he's GREAT with her--but we wanted some easy ones on there and plus of course this is a behavior we want to reinforce)
  • No arguing at bedtime

So! We've been doing it for half a week now, and of course the novelty factor is in our favor, but so far, it's AWESOME. The first day took some adjustment, but he's figured it out pretty quickly, and honestly, this whole weekend he behaved like a dream. The second morning with the chart I gave him his shirt to put on and he started to whine, "But I can't -" and then before I could even say anything, he stopped mid-sentence and corrected himself and said, "I CAN do it." AND THEN HE DID IT. He's been eagerly helpful all weekend, and talking about what a good listener he is and how he can be so kind and helpful. And the thing is, actually, that a lot of the stuff he did this weekend, a huge chunk of his overall behavior, was actually not connected to the chart. I feel like we basically hit reset and snapped all of us out of a bit of a cycle of negativity. I really feel like it's helped Torsten and me focus on the positive instead of getting frustrated, and Callum is responding really well to that.

It isn't perfect yet--for one, he's already outsmarted us--when I encouraged him to eat his dinner the other day and reminded him about the sticker for that, he said, "But I'm not going to get that sticker and I'll just get all the other stickers and then I'll still have enough!" So at some point there's going to have to be some tweaking. And of course the novelty factor will wear off and I'm sure there will be some backsliding into old habits. But for now, we're off to a great start.

I definitely want to hear if any of you have tried this before, what's worked, what hasn't, if you have any tips for making it successful and sustainable, how you picked the behaviors, what reward system you used, etc. I will report back with a status update once we're a bit further into this!


  1. Obviously I'm not at this stage yet but I could see a similar thing happening with Izzy. She is very well behaved and "easy"- although she hasn't hit 2 yet so we'll see what happens at that point.

    I hope that the chart continues to work for you! I definitely want an update.

  2. i should seriously make MYSELF a behavior chart. I think it would help.

  3. I've been meaning to try a chart like this. I think I will try to get that to happen now, after reading this and after the excessively frustrating bed time we had last night. I hope it works for us like it is for you!