How to Get Kids Who Won't Listen, to Listen 

Hacks from from a Behaviour Expert

How to Get Kids Who Won't Listen, to Listen 

If you're a parent reading this, then chances are at some point your child has misbehaved. Maybe even in the past 24 hours. Usually such behaviour is readily explained. There was probably a reason they didn't want to do what you told them to. Maybe they were tired, or hangry, or something completely unrelated was bothering them. 

If you're the parent of a child with special needs such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), your child may act out often and for reasons that are less obvious to the untrained eye. You tell them one thing; they do the opposite. I have one of those kids. He's eight, and his behaviour mystifies me on the regular. Call it what you want: aggressive, defiant, oppositional. In his case it's not typically about knowing right from wrong; it's about sounds being too loud, or people getting too close. And sometimes he just does nasty or annoying stuff and has no idea why. Trying to play Sherlock Mom gets tiresome (the deerstalker doesn't suit me). So when Behaviour Analyst Dr Merrill Winston spoke at a recent conference, I immediately went into fan girl mode. 

As parents we tend to harp on about our kids knowing the rules. But according to Dr. Winston, knowing the rules is only half the battle. Parents have good intentions. We want our children to behave and to cooperate, yet we often go about it wrong. We spend so much time telling kids what NOT to do (proscriptive rules). Don't do that. Don't touch that. But we don't tell them what to do (prescriptive) instead. 

Even the way we provide directives can be be so vague. We say things like, "Be respectful" and "Stay out of trouble" and "Mind your manners." But what do those phrases actually mean? What does "respectful" look like in real terms? My definition of "trouble" and "manners" may differ somewhat from yours or that of your kid's teacher. Such terms assume background knowledge and decoding skills that young kids or those with special needs may not have. People with ASD tend to be very literal thinkers. Abstract concepts can be confusing. So if I expect my son to act a certain way, then I need to be explicit and give him concrete examples of what his behaviour should look like. 

A favourite expression of therapists and teachers is, "Quiet hands." As a writer, this sort of language drives me crazy. How can hands be quiet, exactly? Hands naturally tend to be quiet unless they are clapping... Far better to say how you expect the hands in question to be positioned, like "Hands in your pockets, Lucas" or "Hands by your sides, Owen," modelling with a visual or demonstration.

Often, a simple swap in syntax on our part will help kids comply with our requests:

Instead of saying, "No shouting," say "Can you talk like this [whisper]?" 

Instead of saying, "Don't touch," say "Point if you want to see something."

That's not to say you can never use abstract terms like "respect." But — particularly for young children and those with communication challenges — you must first do some groundwork by clearly defining what "respect" and "respectful" behaviour look like. 

Beyond language, motivation plays a crucial role in guiding behaviour. Punishment is rarely an effective deterrent for kids like mine. For good behaviour to stick, Dr Winston claims it's a question of getting motivation in check:

Motivation for following rule = high + motivation for breaking rule = low

If I don't want my son to [enter annoying or nasty behaviour], I'll need to teach him a replacement behaviour, and praise him anytime he tries the replacement behaviour. 

Make no mistake, having a kid with behaviours will make you want to yank out fistfuls of your hair. It's important to remember that wigs are expensive. No, seriously... Remember that no child (or parent) is perfect. And Rome wasn't built in a day, or even a month for that matter. Dr Winston suggests honing in on the three "hard" rules you most want your child to follow, and letting go of the rest for the sake of your hair and your sanity.

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Image: Gaetano Virgallito