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Catch Them Being Good

By Amanda McLean, Ph.D., Supervising Psychologist and Assistant Training Director,
Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health​

To improve your communication and your relationship with your child, we encourage you to “catch them being good.” Look for good things they do and praise them. Let them know that you notice when they do good things and make a point of consistently praising those positive behaviors. If the only time children hear our voices is when we’re being critical of them or pointing out something they did wrong or failed to do, they will quickly tune us out. Switch it around and strive to notice the good things your child does four times more often than you criticize them for the bad things.

Strategies for Catching Them Being Good:

  • Become aware of good behavior. It is very important that you let your children know that you notice their appropriate behavior.
  • Verbal Praise! Praise your child immediately when he/she is doing something that pleases you (e.g., playing quietly, doing homework, sharing with siblings, following directions). When you praise your child, say exactly what the child is doing that pleases you. For example, “I like when you play quietly with your toys. It helps me finish my work.”
  • Check on your child frequently so that you have many opportunities to “catch good behavior”. For younger children, check on them every 5 minutes. Then, slowly add a few minutes to how long you wait before checking your child again until you get to 10 minutes (you should never leave a young child alone for more than 10 minutes). For older children, check every 10 minutes or so. Gradually add a couple of minutes at a time until you get to about 30 minutes between checks.
  • Do not leave well enough alone.You don’t have to wait until your child does something extraordinary or special to provide praise and attention. If your son, for example, does not interrupt you while you are on the phone and you do not praise him afterward, he will learn that if he behaves, mom and dad will ignore him. When you give your child attention for good behavior (e.g., playing nicely or doing chores), you are teaching your child that appropriate behavior gets more attention than inappropriate behavior.
  • Physical Affection!!Praise does not have to be verbal. Provide children with brief, nonverbal praise (5 to 10 seconds) when they are doing something you like. If your children are playing appropriately, for example, give them pats on the head or a wink or a smile to show your approval.
  • Avoid insincere compliments. It will not help your child if you say, for example, “You did a great job playing nicely with your little brother, why can’t you do that all the time?” Remember, praising your child should make them feel good about what they just did.
  • Use parent-child activities as rewards for your child’s good behavior. Children love doing special activities with their parents. Go to the park or play a game with your children when they do something you like. However, do not make all fun activities between you and your children dependent upon their behavior.
  • Balance “time-in” with consistent discipline. The use of “Time-In” coupled with consistent discipline (e.g., time-out or loss of privileges) creates a powerful contrast between what behaviors you want your children to engage in and what behaviors you do not want your children to engage in. It is the balance between “Time-In” and consistent discipline that is critical in changing children’s behavior.