For all parents and educators of children with special needs

Tips for Parents and Teachers in Preventing and Dealing with Problematic Behavior

–Jennifer Cardinal, Ph.D.


Common Behavior Problems in children include talking back, whining, non-compliance, Impulsivity, Distractibility, Fighting, and Lying.


Remember that Behavior is not all cut-and-dried choices they make!  It’s hard to distinguish CHARACTER from BEHAVIOR.  If we understand that there are other CAUSES of problematic behavior, it helps us understand that our children are behaving this way because of other reasons like:

  1. Cognitive Development.  Where is your child developmentally?
  2. Executive Functioning:  This takes place in the frontal lobe (that isn’t fully developed until age 25-30).  Understanding Executive Functioning helps parents comprehend why their child with a high IQ cannot apply what they “know.”  They may be able to “tell” you EXACTLY “how” they should behave, and even know every single RULE about it because they can be VERY SMART, but if their executive functioning is “weak,” they cannot apply what they know, thus you get behavior problems.
  3. Temperament:  We tend to interact with our kids according to their temperaments (that they are born with).  10% of children are born with a “negative” temperament that actually affects problematic behavior.
  4. Modeling:  What do our kids see us (their parents) do?
  5. Environmental Stress:  Nature vs. Nurture.  Does the parent have “issues?”
  6. Solving a Problem:  Children are always looking for ways to “solve” their problem.  For instance, if they don’t want to do their homework, they will try to solve their problem by getting out of it anyway they can, even if that means fighting, arguing, etc. about it.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, Depression, Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, Schizophrenia, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Asperger’s, Brain Injuries, Birth Injuries, Dementia, Low Birth weight, Prematurity, Anxiety.


  1. Inhibit:  This is where kids cannot control their impulses or stop behavior.
  2. Shift:  This is where a child cannot move freely from one activity or situation to another.  They have difficulty with transition, and problem solving flexibility.
  3. Emotional Control:  This is where children cannot modulate emotional responses appropriately.
  4. Initiate:  This is where children have a difficult time beginning an activity and generating ideas.
  5. Working Memory:  This is where children cannot hold information in their mind for the purpose of completing a task.
  6. Plan/Organize:  This is where children cannot anticipate future events, set goals, develop steps or grasp the main idea.
  7. Monitor:  This is where children cannot assess their own performance.  Some kids just can’t monitor their emotions.  Monitoring is something they just cannot do!


When we assess children, we understand which executive functioning deficits they have instead of misinterpreting actions and what they mean about a person’s traits and skills.

Many parents say, “It looks like my child doesn’t care,” when they just can’t DO.

Interventions/Behavioral:  Russell Barkley said, “Intervention is not done primarily to increase skills or information, but to enhance motivation disorder of performance.”  The deficit of implementing is NOT because kids don’t know better.   They can TELL us what they need to do—But can they DO them?  NO.  Their deficit is that they don’t have the ability to have FORESIGHT based on their HINDSIGHT.

We can put our kids in every social skills group out there to “learn” social skills or solve the issues our children have socially.  But THAT’S NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER!  (Not that Jennifer doesn’t believe in them since social skills groups are a big part of her job) but she said that the real problem is the POINT OF PERFORMANCE.  If parents can figure out exactly where their kid is showing the deficit in the environment/situation they are in then they can solve the problem at that point of “performance.”  So if they are in a social group and they are pinching someone, we go to that point of “performance” and figure out what the issue is right there and try to help them understand what to “do.”  We need to operate from the OUTSIDE in with our kids because they just don’t have the internal structure to do that!


Kids LOVE to get you caught in it and we parents fall for it!

Here’s the cycle:  If you can picture it as a circle, you can see how it just goes round and round and gets us nowhere with our children.

  1. Adult Makes Request. (At the top 12:00 spot in the circle.)
  2. Child reacts with hostility or says things like, “I will in a minute.”  (At the 3:00 spot in the circle.)
  3. Adult escalates and reacts with hostility or worse yet, withdraws (which just strengthens the child’s behavior the next time you make a request, so the child has learned that all he/she has to do is react with hostility again because mom/dad will withdraw and he/she won’t have to do what was asked again).  (At the bottom 6:00 spot in the circle.)
  4. The child doesn’t do what was asked. (At the 9:00 spot in the circle.)

The Parent Child Coercive Cycle can start with either the child or the adult making a demand on the other which leads to arguing, which suppresses the original demand or escalates to the point where someone gets mad and the other submits, reinforcing the person who either gets mad first or who becomes the “most” intimidating, who then calms down enough to reinforce the other for submitting.  In both cases the participants feel helpless to do anything different, and the entire exchange is reinforced at the end either negatively (by the other party withdrawing) or positively (by getting what they demanded) or both.  This pattern is especially dangerous in families prone to domestic violence, where neither child nor adult submit until physically attacked.  Even then the pattern is “locked in” by the submission that ends it in negative reinforcement.

If we continue in the coercive or “power struggle” cycle, WE just keep reinforcing instead of stopping negative behavior!  We’re a huge part of that cycle!  We have to stay OUT of the cycle.  So how do we do it?


  1. Positive Reinforcement:  increases the likelihood that the action will happen again.
  2. Negative Reinforcement:  Makes behavior more likely to occur in the future…but the action causes a PAINFUL or OBNOXIOUS experience to end. It happens frequently in parent-child interactions. For example, a Dad who stops spanking his son when he says, “I promise I’ll be good!” negatively reinforces such comments during punishment. A mom who stops lecturing her daughter when she talks back to her negatively reinforces back talk. Kids who stop making noise when Dad yells at them are negatively reinforcing Dad for yelling. Once a behavior successfully stops a painful or irritating experience, it is more likely to occur the next time the irritant occurs. In behavioral terms, this is called escape conditioning because the person learns to escape from the painful experience by behaving in a certain way.
  3. Punishment:  Suppresses or decreases behavior.  Punishment should be used with caution because this TENDS TO NOT CHANGE BEHAVIOR!  Children start to avoid YOU when you walk into a room.
  4. Extinction:  Removal of Reinforcement.  This is hard to do because completely ignoring a behavior to make it “extinct” is often not easy to do.  A child will keep trying to interact with us and if they get any response, we are giving them reinforcement, not extinction.
  5. Intermittent Reinforcement:  This occurs once in awhile, occasionally.  This is the strongest reinforcement because it only happens after every 5th or 6th time they do something and it’s reinforced.
  6. Stimulus Control:  When the mere presence of a parent is associated with either a positive reinforcement or a punishment.  Is there a “bad cop” parent in your home and a more “lenient cop?”  Are YOU the “bad cop” parent?  This is CONFUSING for kids and hard on parents.


First, ask yourself how YOUR executive functioning is “functioning.”  It starts with US as parents.

Tip #1  Give Precision Commands.

  1. In a calm moment, explain to your child how you will be giving requests from now on. Explain each step below to them.
  2. Before you ask your child to do anything, have a pre-planned consequence in mind (that your child may have even chosen) before you ask the child to do anything.  (Is it an object that goes to time-out?  They have 5 minutes less time on Wii?  A chore the child will have to do?  Figure out what consequence will work best for your child.)
  3. Stand close to your child.  (In front of them with eye-contact is best.)
  4. Use a calm, quiet voice when speaking to them.
  5. State calmly what you want your child to do.  “I WANT you to make your bed, please.”  Assume authority, but don’t do it with hostility.  Be calm.
  6. Don’t use more than 2 requests.  If child responds on first request, PRAISE the child.  If the child does NOT respond on first request, Wait 10 seconds after the first request and then say, “_______I NEED you to make your bed, please.”  (Notice the first time you said “want,” the second time you said “need.”  You are basically asking one time and then giving one warning to the child.  When you say NEED, it’s the “warning” before the consequence.
  7. SIDE NOTE:  Remember that the brain doesn’t do well with “RIGHT NOW” commands.  Try other techniques instead of “RIGHT NOW.”

Tip #2  Praise

  1.  Praise the process not the outcome.  (Don’t always praise the “grade” at the end, but the process along the way.)
  2. Make a clear objective or goal with your child.
  3. Track their progress.
  4. Use reinforcers (i.e. variety)
  5. Don’t over praise every little thing they do.
  6. Be sincere.

Tip #3  Your Mindset Matters!

  1. “The new view you adopt for yourself affects the way you life your life!”  (Dweck 2006)
  2. Our attitude influences our behavior.
  3. Think about the parent you really want to be.  Many times WE parents respond like “zombies.”  We respond without thinking like Zombies.  We smell blood.  We don’t think.  We just keep reacting the same way without thought to what we’re doing.  Ask yourself, “How do I want to be seen as a parent by my kids six years from now?  What is it I want to be like as a parent six years from now?”
  4. Effective parents understand the long term impact they have and how their behavior influences the children they care for.  They ADAPT their parenting style to the needs of their children!!!!   They are empathetic to the NEEDS of their child.  We do NOT want to EVER be an “authoritarian” parent, because when our children leave the home, they will most likely REBEL.

Tip #4  Monkey See Monkey Do

  1. Children learn how to behave by watching the actions of others.
  2. Children WILL do what they SEE.
  3. What are they learning from YOU?

Tip #5  Make Emotional Deposits in your Child’s Emotional Bank Account

  1. Positive thinking children are more likely to be happier and have successful relationship.
  2. RECOGNIZE your child’s CHARACTER strengths!  They are DIFFERENT than behavior!!!!
  3. Make emotional deposits into your child’s emotional bank account.
  4. You WILL get returns on your investment.
  5. Teach your child to not just be “resume,” but a person.  It’s not necessarily the things they’ve done, but the things they’ve learned!

Tip #6  Control the Environment

  1.  Minimize distractions.
  2. Don’t over schedule your life.
  3. Make lifestyle changes if necessary.

Tip #7  It’s All About the Relationship!

  1. Listen to your child.
  2. Remember that LOVE is a BEHAVIOR, NOT an EMOTION!!!  (Being present for your child, even if your child is doing poorly in that basketball game, etc. is more important that saying I love you and not being there.)
  3. Don’t freak out!  Use a quiet and calm voice with your child!!!
  4. Young adults are NOT easy to parent.  Jennifer talked about a client she has that just announced that he was “done with parenting” his young adult daughter with a disability.  He announced this in front of his daughter.  She stressed how devastating this is.  She stressed that You just CAN’T give up on being a parent.  You’re in this parenting role for LIFE.  If you are in a stressful situation with your child, take a break or a nap before you work with them if you find yourself escalating, but don’t give up!  Our children can SENSE if their parent is in this for the long term!


“Between Stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  –Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

In that “space” that we have between a “stimulus” our child may “push” us with, WE PARENTS have a space in which we choose our response.


Sometimes our passion as a “Mother Bear” in “helping” our children actually makes us “less” effective.  When we have that intensity we don’t think calmly.  Our “Mother Bear” response is based on love but it’s more like a FIRE HOSE we shoot out at our children that “blows them away,” rather than a calm stream of water they can drink from.  So how do we be LESS of a “Mother Bear?”  The key is to DETACH our emotions.  It’s not giving up being the “Mother Bear.”  It’s just saving that “Mother Bear” action for real life/death situations where we need to “save” our babies.  When we’re in the “moment” with our children, instead of being that fierce “Mother Bear,” we can pull back.  We are sentient human beings.  We can help by DETACHING.  Memorize a set dialogue or treat every situation as if we are working with someone “else’s kid.”  Detach a little to be more effective in dealing with them.

A “Professional Parent” can step back and DO what needs to be done for their children.

Use your knowledge for the “Point of Performance,” and BREAK the “Cycle of Coercion!”


Comments on: "“Tips in Preventing and Dealing with Problematic Behavior” by Jennifer Cardinal, Ph.D." (1)

  1. Some great reminders here!

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