Teaching Tips Are Applicable for Every Caregiver

By Andrew Scherbarth, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Licensed Psychologist/Board Certified Behavior Analyst

All caregivers are teachers regardless of whether they are teaching academics in a classroom or raising a child at home. Parents and caregivers in a home setting teach kids all kinds of things about life – how to clean up after themselves, how to stay safe, how to treat others, how to approach the world, how to behave, etc. As such, caregivers have to rely upon their teaching style to convey the lessons they’re teaching. A lot of research has been done on ways for parents and teachers to effectively teach children and manage their behavior (Walker and Walker, 1991; Barkley, 1997; Latham, 1994).

The following teaching tips are applicable to anything from science to reading to manners to cleaning a room: 

  1. Be clear about what you want. Speak directly, preferably in a single sentence, and say what to do, rather than what NOT to do. Caregivers often make the mistake of saying “Don’t do ____.” The problem with saying “stop” or “don’t” is that caregivers are not providing direct suggestions. The biggest deficits for any child in inhibition and critical, abstract thinking. This rule applies regardless of whether the child is typically developing or the child has developmental, behavioral and/or emotional issues. Clarity counts. For example, say “Throw that away” instead of “Don’t chew on that plastic.” Say “Sit down” or “Get off the couch” instead of “Don’t jump on the couch.” 
  1. Say it, don’t ask it. In polite society, many adults ask each other to do things, and these adults often do it. However, when working with children or teens, questions make it seem that the child has a choice of whether to follow the instruction. The rule that I always tell others is, “Ask a question if the child will have a choice, but tell the child directly what to do it you want the child to do the instruction regardless.” It’s fine to ask if your child wants any peas, as long as you don’t mind if the child says “no.” On the other hand, if you’re not going to honor a “no thanks” when you ask your child to do homework or go to bed, then it is better to just tell them directly “Start on your homework” or “Time for bed – goodnight!” 
  1. Give calm instructions. Many think that giving loud or angry instructions are best, but often such instructions immediately startle or evoke a stress response in children. The stress response is also known as “fight or flight.” The last thing that anyone needs is for a child or teen to get prepared to fight or flee when given an instruction. Further, if caregivers lose their temper when they give instructions, it shows children and teens that the best way to be powerful is to lose control of their emotions. It is a dangerous lesson, because children model themselves after adults and try to be powerful themselves by doing the same thing. Caregivers don’t need to be sugary sweet and say “pretty please” when they give an instruction; just use a normal conversational tone, and don’t lose your cool. 
  1. Get their attention before instructions. Go up to your child or teen, get their eye contact, make sure they’re not distracted and then tell them what you need to have done. Caregivers – especially parents – often believe that if they’ve said an instruction, then the child has heard it and is critically thinking about it, and so will follow the instruction immediately. This leads to a lot of frustration when the child does not get started immediately and may result in the parent getting loud, angry or just giving up. However, caregivers often give instructions from across the room or while the child is occupied with a toy or other task. Giving instructions while the child is distracted makes instructions compete with the excitement level of the distraction. Although putting clothes away or doing homework are extremely important life tasks, they aren’t exciting enough to overcome the distraction of a fun cartoon or videogame, for example. 
  1. Make it pay off to do the right thing. Make sure that a child or teen gets a direct demonstration that you approve of her behavior by being affectionate verbally (“Great work; you did it!”), physically affectionate (high five, pat on the back or hugs) or with a privilege (“You finished your worksheet, so you can take a break now.”) Many caregivers ask, “Why treat them as special when they do what they’re supposed to be doing anyway?” But, would adults didn’t get paid to work, would they keep going to their job day after day? If adults wouldn’t work for free, then why would kids. They don’t have to receive cash to do the right thing; instead inspire appropriate behavior by giving approval, affection or some form of excitement for their efforts.

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