Parenting and behavior change – Behavioral therapy

A behavioral therapy-oriented approach. Practical, concrete guidelines to teach or unlearn a child with minor or major behavioral problems in an effective (scientifically proven) way. This approach is basically written for parents, but is also useful for professionals who work with children, such as teachers, group leaders (medical) daycare center, playgroup, crèche, after-school care and other child and youth care institutions.

Behavioral therapy approach – learning & unlearning

Behavior change – behavioral therapeutic

This approach was developed by Compernolle (an expert in the field of hyperactivity and ADHD). But this approach can also be used very well with children with both minor and major behavioral problems, e.g. children who do not listen well, express themselves aggressively, are restless, etc. The objective is to lovingly and firmly influence the child’s behavior. This approach is a tool to teach the child to make better use of his qualities and to overcome any problems as much as possible. It is an approach that has been and is being used in practice: those who have already applied it have noticed clear improvements in the child’s behavior.

Wait or tackle?

Patience is a virtue, but unfortunately not enough for some children. For some children, the usual rules are not enough. Parents or professionals often become desperate and exhausted and no longer know what to do. Yet it is also possible to direct the behavior of children who are considered difficult. If parents or professionals take a different approach using this approach, it will be very difficult in the beginning. They face a transition period in which the child tests out the new rules: a period that can be accompanied by a lot of struggle. But if you persevere, there will come a time when the new rules will start to work. In practice, according to Compernolle, it is surprising how quickly sullen, angry, sad children change. They usually become happier, happier, more enthusiastic from the moment the reins are lovingly and firmly taken in hand.


As mentioned, this approach was initially aimed at overly active (ADHD) children. During the course of the article, passages will sometimes appear that specifically deal with overly active children. Furthermore, the formulation of this approach is aimed at parents and there are situations that mainly occur in the home situation (e.g. sleeping at night). Those who read it professionally can read as a teacher, teacher, etc. instead of their parent(s).

Behavior is something you can observe

When a child behaves in a certain way, you will sometimes make a certain interpretation of the behavior without even realizing it. When a child cries, you think it is in pain. When a child screams you think it is angry. Yet you can’t really be sure. If a child is in bed and cries, it may be scared, bored, perhaps it does not like to be alone, etc. It is important to look carefully at the difference between what we observe/see and what we assume is going on. is/interpret. For example, anger is not a behavior. What we can observe/see is swearing, kicking, hitting: that is behavior! and that can be changed.

We cannot (must) unlearn a child from feeling angry, but we can unlearn kicking, swearing and hitting


Better understand behavior through observation

It is important to look at/take into account the situation in which the behavior occurs/arises: in the family, at school, with friends? If a child is overly active, this can be the result of many different influences. E.g. Jantje’s teacher complains about his over-mobility and restlessness. The parents say that Jantje does not have this at home. After (psychological) examination of Jantje, which shows no over-mobility, a look is taken at the school. It turns out that Jantje is being bullied and has never dared to tell this at home or to the teacher. When Jantje was eventually placed at another school, the restlessness and excessive mobility disappeared immediately.

Behavior is something that must be learned

A child learns to walk, dress himself, go to the toilet, etc. A child learns this from his environment. Overly active, restless or aggressive behavior can also be learned.

Children learn from others

Children learn from other children and adults. For example, if you get irritated easily, there is a good chance that the child will also get irritated quickly. If it hits easily, chances are the child is also learning to be aggressive. If a parent is restless and overactive, a child can learn this too. Adults also learn from their children. For example, Pietje shows busy behavior at home, father slaps him. Pietje stops. By stopping, Pietje teaches his father that hitting in such a situation is the method to stop the busy behavior. Even if the running around starts again later.

Learning is mainly about imitating in the beginning

Learning starts with imitation. If a child imitates desired behavior, encourage his efforts, no matter how incomplete or disappointing the result. If the child does not imitate or imitate spontaneously, you can help the child by first doing it together. In this phase the reward is important!

The first phase of learning is: Imitating and rewarding the imitation is an incentive to continue learning


Making new behavior very concrete and simple – Single command steps

Concrete statements

The statement ‘be quiet’ may not be as clear to a child as you think. New behavior, any behavior you want to teach the child, must first be described in very simple terms. E.g. you tell the child to be kind. But what does that mean in concrete terms: Don’t contradict?, don’t tease your friend?, help clean up?, share your toys with other children?

Single assignments

Especially for an overly active child, it is very important that the assignments are simple and simple. It is best to write them down: better a list of very simple assignments than a difficult assignment. Little bits of behavior! It is therefore important to dissect complex behavior: to break it down into smaller steps before you want to teach it to a child. The chance of success increases the simpler you keep it, if you teach the child one or two partial behaviors at the same time.

Parents together

As parents, you will have to decide together what your priorities are and which behavior you want to tackle first. Especially with an overly active child, it is not possible to teach or unlearn three or four things at the same time. For example, if the child is disobedient and fights and does not do his homework and leaves things lying around, you will first have to decide together which behavior you will tackle first (obeying is usually the 1st choice).

Learning new behavior must be done in manageable steps and in simple, concrete and practical words


Encouragement is important and necessary when learning new behavior

Encouragement behavior

A child has to learn a lot: crawling, standing, walking, toilet training, dressing, obeying, etc. A child perseveres in his attempts because he receives a lot of encouragement from you or because the behavior rewards itself. Encouragement is a form of reward. Every time the child does something and receives a reward for it, he will be encouraged to do the same thing again, to do it better. He will even try to add something new. Parents teach their child spontaneous behavior by spontaneously encouraging and rewarding the child.

Teaching the golden rule: encouraging behavior immediately increases the chance that the behavior will be repeated


Reward desired behavior

Behavior is encouraged if it has a positive, pleasant consequence, e.g. ‘well done’, a kiss, pat, ‘thank you’, a wink, a piece of candy, a treat, etc. These are all rewards for desired behavior. Behavior is also encouraged if it results in an unpleasant situation ceasing to exist. Eating puts an end to the feeling of hunger, obeying stops the nagging of father/mother, getting the door open satisfies curiosity, etc.

Compliment and punishment

Some underestimate the importance of rewarding and consider certain child behavior as normal that does not need to be rewarded. They then find it unnecessary, perhaps even abnormal, to encourage the child to do something well. While they think it is normal to punish the child if the child does something wrong or does not do it at all. It is ingrained in our culture to pay much more attention to what someone does wrong and to punish him for it than to compliment him for what he does right. This is not the right tactic.

Scientific research shows

  • Desired behavior is difficult to learn without any encouragement or reward
  • Punishment often increases undesirable behavior (thus has a counterproductive effect)
  • Encouragement contributes to a pleasant positive atmosphere in which learning new behavior is experienced as pleasant for both the child and his parents.
  • Punishment undermines parental influence
  • Parents who encourage their children, in turn, receive the most encouragement in return. They are rewarded by their children.
  • People choose as friends those people who encourage them the most.
  • Encouragement gives a child self-confidence. The child will learn to help himself more quickly.
  • Encouragement stimulates his creativity and his willingness to take initiatives. A lot of punishment undermines self-confidence and has a deterrent effect


Reward and pamper

For an overly active child, giving encouragement is a hundred times more important than for another child! Even though he does his best, so many things go wrong that his self-confidence is constantly undermined. That self-confidence is extremely important: so encourage! (By the way, encouraging and rewarding have nothing to do with spoiling. You only spoil a child when you encourage him and reward him even if he does not behave well).

Social incentives – Non-material rewards have a stronger effect than material rewards

Giving attention, touching, stroking, caressing, laughing, looking admiringly, giving kisses, praising, clapping hands, cheering, etc. are all social encouragements. These often have a stronger effect than material rewards (money, candy, etc.). Simply giving attention is a very important social encouragement (we need it just like eating and drinking).

Punishment is attention

Punishment is not pleasant for a child, but it is a form of giving attention (the so-called negative attention, as long as it is attention). That is why punishment sometimes becomes an encouragement to persist in negative or undesirable behavior, especially if the child in question receives little (pleasant, positive) attention.

Activity encouragement

In addition to social and material encouragement, there is a third form of reward: the encouraging activity. E.g. taking a walk together, being allowed to stay up an extra half hour, doing crafts together, etc.

Overly mobile child

For overly active children, material rewards will often have to be used, especially in the initial phase of learning something new. The advantage of material encouragement is that it is a clear and concrete rewarding gesture. You give something concrete in exchange for something concrete. Material rewards are also often useful when the relationship between parent and child has become so unpleasant that kindness and/or other social encouragement has no effect or is even counterproductive.

Effect of success

One of the best encouragements is when you notice that you are successful. This also applies to the child. Therefore, the child must be given a real opportunity to succeed, to be successful. The road to the end goal must therefore be divided into small steps so that each step can be completed successfully.

Always encourage immediately and keep repeating, be consistent

Encouragement must be done consistently and repeated over a longer period of time. Over time, the child starts to see the connection between his behavior and the reward he receives. You really have to ‘catch the child in the act’. If some time passes between the behavior and the encouragement, the connection disappears. Not all rewards lend themselves to daily repetition. For example, a trip as a reward. In that case you can introduce a savings system. For example, saving receipts, coins, pictures: an agreed amount in advance (!) then entitles you to the final reward. Or, for example, if a child would like a bicycle. Then make a drawing of a bicycle or cut out a picture from magazines. Cut it into puzzle pieces. Give the child a puzzle piece for the desired behavior (e.g. a day without aggression). Stick this on a large sheet of paper and hang it up. When the puzzle drawing is complete, the child (in this case) gets the bicycle.

It is better to give many small encouragements and rewards right away than one big one over time


Example of direct reward

E.g. a disobedient child receives a Lego block every time he succeeds in being obedient. This is a clear, concrete reward and better than promising a child a large box of Lego in two months’ time.

Phasing out rewards

Only once the child is doing well can you occasionally withhold the reward. Once the child is doing well, it is even important not to reward all the time, but only occasionally. The newly learned behavior will then stick even better than if you continue to reward it.

Achieve the target behavior with small steps

Success breeds success. New behavior that you want to teach the child must first be divided into small parts. So small that the child can handle them one by one and success and reward are within his reach in a real way.

E.g. a child who has scary dreams and parents who take the child to bed, after which he or she does not want to return to his or her own bed.

Applying the step rule

A child sleeps in the parents’ room, but on a mattress next to the bed. Draw a line with chalk from the parents’ room to the child’s room, with a cross line every meter. Every evening, move the mattress one meter towards the child’s own room. Praise for each successful step in the morning, give a sticker and be allowed to stay up 15 minutes longer (because if you sleep well, you also need less sleep). After about ten days, your child will probably be back in his or her own room.

Learning behavior and new skills backwards – Start with the last step

When teaching something, we tend to let the child start where we would start ourselves. It is better to learn it from back to front. So if you divide the behavior into steps, start by teaching the last step. You do everything together the first time (e.g. putting on a coat). Then the child takes the last step (e.g. close the zipper from halfway to the top). Strongly encourage the child to do this. Then you do it together again and the child does the penultimate and last step (e.g. completely close the zipper), etc.

Steps towards success

The great advantage of ‘working from back to front’ is that the new step is always followed by something that the child already knows. So it always ends with a reward and success! If it is not possible from back to front, for example learning to sleep in his own bed, then you start with what the child can already do or do. You then progress step by step towards the goal, encouraging each step.

Satisfied with small steps

Some parents have difficulty being satisfied with a small step and considering it a real success. But if you try to achieve too much at once, there is a good chance that you will go from failure to failure, while it is much more pleasant and efficient to work from success to success.

Influencing behavior by changing the situation

When teaching behavior, we must also look at the circumstances under which it takes place. When a child does something, he often does it because the situation provokes it (in addition to the encouragement).

Provoking situation ——-> Desired hello <——-> Encouragement

Encourage concentration

Many overly active children have great difficulty concentrating. We can help them by starting with short assignments and then encouraging them to have longer and longer periods of good concentration.

Adjust situation

We can also help in another way: we adjust the situation so that their attention is naturally greater, because we eliminate any form of distraction. For example, set up a low-stimulus corner or room for completing school tasks. If the corner or room is only intended for that purpose and the child has learned step by step to concentrate in that room, then an automatism, a kind of reflex, can eventually arise. This ensures that the child feels concentrated as soon as he enters the room. The room then becomes a place where the child is stimulated to concentrate (‘conditioned reflex’).

What to do when encouragement backfires?

An explanation may be that for a child encouragement and discouragement are not always clearly separated. E.g. If you always respond kindly to undesirable behavior by asking the child politely to stop and then quickly become angry when the child does not respond to your friendly request, the child will start to think: beware of those adults. At first they are sweet, but a little later they get angry and you get punished. Your friendly attitude then becomes infected with unkindness.

Provoking unwanted behavior

Or the other way around: you immediately become angry due to unwanted behavior; you feel guilty, regret it and then immediately act friendly again. The child starts behaving undesirably to provoke your kindness and accepts the initial anger that precedes it. So your discouragement becomes encouragement.

Encourage and discourage

It is very important that you make a clear distinction between discouragement (punishment) and encouragement (reward). It’s even better to overdo it a little at first (e.g., with a series of material incentives). Gradually you add other forms of attention. First ‘well done’, then a pat, a kiss, etc. But really gradually and exclusively in response to one specific desired behavior. So you always reward the desired behavior immediately and to an exaggerated degree with unambiguous, material encouragement. Only later do other forms of attention follow.

Encourage simple behavior

If encouragement is counterproductive, it is best to start by encouraging very simple behaviors. Behavior that the child already does quite often, so you have plenty of opportunity to encourage this. It is important to completely stop grumbling, whining, getting angry, etc. You must make punishment clearly recognizable as punishment. There are parents who think that a good punishment must be very painful. That is not true. The most important thing is that you make your punishment unequivocal and that you do so very consistently.

Strictly adhere to the rules for overly active children

The above points apply to all children. It is more difficult for an overly active child to learn something, remember it and continue to do it well. In the case of normally overly active children, parents can apply the rules more flexibly once behavior has improved. With ADHD children, the rules must be adhered to much longer and more strictly.

Behavioral therapy approach in short

If you want to teach the child something, the following aspects are important:

  • Behavior is something you can observe
  • You understand behavior better if you observe the situation carefully
  • Behavior is something that is learned
  • Children learn from others and vice versa
  • Learning is mainly about imitating in the beginning
  • New behavior must be made very concrete and simple
  • Encouragement is needed to learn behavior
  • Social encouragement is the best
  • Always encourage immediately and keep repeating your encouragement
  • Achieve the target behavior with small steps
  • If possible, learn the steps from back to front
  • Keep an eye on the environment and circumstances that can trigger desired behavior
  • If encouragement has a counterproductive effect, encouragement (reward) and discouragement (punishment) must be clearly separated
  • Overly active children and ADHD children find it more difficult to learn something than other children


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