Proactive Parenting

In the world of behavior, we often discuss the importance of being proactive when addressing behavior.  What does this mean?  Well, in simple terms it means that we reinforce the behavior we want to see when it is occurring and we work to prevent problematic behavior before it happens.  

To be clear, we are not suggesting that you avoid situations that may result in challenging behavior--for the most part we actually suggest the opposite (in particular cases we may not, but a trained behaviorist can assist you in identifying these cases).  After all, those moments are often teachable times when we can work to provide your child with support in how to work through difficult situations that he/she may continue to encounter.  What we are suggesting is that you go into those situations prepared and set your child up for success!  Too often as parents and professionals, we make the mistake of being reactive--addressing undesired behavior once it has occurred.  We frequently forget the importance of being proactive!

At this point you may be wondering what you can do to be more proactive in changing your child's behavior!  Here are a few quick tips:

  • Consider explaining the situation to your child before it happens (you may want to research Carol Gray's trademarked Social Stories).
  • Think about easing your child into the situation, if possible.  For example, if the grocery store is a challenging environment for your child, think about what you can do to ease him/her into it.  For instance, you may want to start out going to the store during non-peak hours when it is less crowded.  You may also want to begin by taking your child for very short periods of time, and then gradually increase the length of your shopping trips.
  • Make the behavioral expectations clear beforehand (e.g. "at the grocery store, it is important for you to hold my hand and stay next to me").
  • Establish some type of reinforcement plan.  Think about (and discuss with your child) what will happen when he/she demonstrates the expected behavior (e.g. "If you hold my hand and stay next to me the entire time, you can pick out a special treat when we check out).  Also remember to catch your child being good!  Provide lots of praise and attention when he/she is doing what you have asked!
  • Consider additional supports you can provide your child during the challenging situation (e.g. a toy to hold, a book to look at, a star chart/token board, visual reminders of the expected behavior).  Remember to use these wisely and proactively, not reactively (i.e. in response to challenging behavior).
  • You may also consider consulting with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for support in how to best apply these tips!  A BCBA can also assist you in implementing a more structured and detailed plan if needed (e.g. a systematic desensitization procedure).

By thinking ahead and being a proactive parent, you are teaching your child the right thing to do and setting him/her up for success!  If you would like more support or clarification, please feel free to contact our behavior team!

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Speech vs. Language

Speech and language are two terms which are often used interchangeably in error! Though related, the two terms are clinically separate entities.  As they are both areas of potential delay in your child’s development, let’s get some clarification on the differences between them!

Speech is the sound system produced as a result of vocal fold vibration in coordination with respiratory support and shaping of the articulators (cheeks, lips, tongue, oral cavity).  Speech is what we hear.  More technically and specifically, speech is comprised of phonemes (sounds) that are labeled as consonants and vowels. Speech production becomes more complex as speakers combine consonants and vowels to form more complex syllable shapes

Take a moment and sound the following words out and you’ll become aware of just how many different actions your articulators are making in “elephant” compared to a more simple word “me.”  

In typical speech development, there are certain sounds that a child produces earlier vs later. The more visual sounds (bilabial) are those that are made with our lips such as “b” “p” “m” are our earlier sounds.  The more complex sounds that are produced inside the oral cavity using specific tongue placements come later in speech development, such as “r” “s” “l.” Parents can expect children to mispronounce words that are more difficult or have later developing sounds for a period of time, while they are honing their speaking skills.

Language is the way we exchange information.  “Exchange” implies the presence of two individuals, or communicative partners, because language requires a listener and a speaker.   Language can be verbal (speech) and non-verbal (gestural/graphic). Language is further broken down into receptive language (understanding gestures, eye contact, spoken and written words) and expressive language (using gestures, eye contact speech, and written words to communicate a message).

Common gestures that children use include pointing, waving, and shaking their heads “no” and “yes.” If the child is using words, is she starting to combine them? This typically happens when a child is approximately 2 years of age. Is the child using their words for different communicative functions? The main areas of communicative functions that I look for as an Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) include the following: labeling, commenting, calling attention, greeting, exiting, refusing, requesting objects, answering yes/no questions, requesting actions, and requesting information (e.g. asking wh-questions).  A huge component of language development is the function of language. A child may be able to name every animal while reading his favorite book, but can he use that same word to request an animal during play?

Some questions to ask about your child’s language development include:

Receptively, does my child …

Respond to his name with eye contact?

Following familiar commands?

Follow new commands?

Answer questions?

Locate familiar people and objects?

Identify his body parts?


Expressively, does my child…

Use gestures such as pointing and waving?

Look at the person he is communicating with?

Continue to add to his growing vocabulary?

Put words together to express his wants?

Ask questions about his environment?


As with all early childhood development, it’s important to understand that each child develops a little differently, some at slower paces than others.  In the early years, I always stress to parents to worry less about the articulation (speech) because to a certain degree, unintelligibility is typical! You really want to make sure that even if your child’s speech is not quite there yet, are they still communicating effectively through other routes of language?

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Reinforcement: What It Really Is

"Reinforcement" is a behavioral term that is often used and even more often misused!  We are here to clarify!

The topic of reinforcement is a very large one, so for now let's start with a definition.  Most likely the simplest definition of reinforcement is: anything that follows a behavior, making that behavior more likely to occur again, under similar circumstances, in the future.  Unfortunately that's not a very simple definition at all!  Think of it this way: reinforcement either (a) increases behavior or (b) continues a behavior that is already occurring.  Make sense?  So, unless you are seeing a behavior continue or increase, you are not using reinforcement.  We always want to look at what is happening to the behavior.  Just because we think we are reinforcing a behavior, that does not mean we actually are!

Here's an example:  You are trying to teach your child to use the potty but she typically resists and tells you she does not want to.  Finally one day she uses the potty!  You praise her and give her stickers and a lollipop!  You have now reinforced this behavior, right?  You gave her things she likes after she used potty--that must be reinforcement?  Well, it's actually a trick question!  The truth is that from this example, we cannot be completely sure if we have reinforced the using-the-potty behavior or not.  If your child now begins to use the potty more frequently, then it's safe to say you reinforced that behavior!  However, it is also possible that she does not continue to use the potty (many parents have found themselves in this confusing situation!).  If her potty use does not increase, that means that we have not actually reinforced the behavior.  In this case we want to reassess what we are doing and try something else that might function as a reinforcer. 

The main point here is that reinforcement has little to do with intentions and everything to do with results!  Very often we make the mistake of saying or thinking that we are reinforcing a behavior, when the results show that we are not.  So, when thinking about your child's challenging behavior (or the wonderful behavior you want them to keep showing!), try to focus less on what you think you're doing and more on what is actually happening!

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The Power of Positive Language

What does it mean to use "positive language"?  Contrary to popular belief, positive language is not the same as positive reinforcement or praise!  "Positive language" refers to language that tells a child what he or she should be doing rather than what he or she should not be doing (this would be "negative language").

Let's look at an example...

A common example of negative language is telling a child, "no running!" (this tells the child what not to do).  We can easily turn this into a positive statement by saying, "we need to walk" (this tells the child what he or she should be doing).  Do you see the difference?  In the second example we are providing the child with information about the right thing to do rather than simply telling the child what he or she is doing wrong.  By using positive language, we are making the expectations clear and providing our children with instruction rather than reprimand.  This is more productive and lends itself to more pleasant interactions!  You become your child's guide and teacher, not only his corrector and punisher.  Make sense?  We can turn any negative statement into a positive one--try practicing and see what happens!

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Every Moment is a Teachable Moment!

In the case of young children, parents are often the people who spend the most time with their child.  Although your child may participate in classes, attend childcare programs, or take part in playgroups, it is likely that your child spends a large portion of his day or week with you.  What this means is that you are your child’s most important teacher!

Given this, consider what would happen if parents and nannies learned to think like teachers!  What if you were able to multiply your child’s learning opportunities every day?  What if every moment became a teachable moment?  Imagine the possibilities!

To be clear, we are not suggesting that you sit your young child at a desk and drill him or her with flashcards (that is simply not good teaching anyway)!  We are also not suggesting that you do not allow your child down time, or time to simply be a child!  And finally, we are not suggesting that you, as a parent, never take a break!  What we are suggesting is that we work to maximize the teachable moments within our daily lives!  We do not need to add more to our days—we just need to make more of what is already happening!  Simple activities or unexpected events are often some of the best times to foster your child’s learning.  Think about the things you and your child do every day, and then brainstorm how you can turn those into effective teaching moments (without adding too much stress or hassle to your already busy day!)

Here are some ideas to get you started…

Each day, we all engage in activities that lend themselves to child development—we just have to learn to view them that way!  One example is bath time – an event that is built into most of our days.  For many of us, this is a routine we rush through in order to move on to the next event.  But, if we take a moment to view bath time differently, we can see that it lends itself to a wealth of learning opportunities!  Bath time is an excellent time to teach your child to identify body parts (e.g. “put the soap on your tummy”), to follow simple instructions (e.g. “pour the water!”), to understand prepositions (e.g. “put fishy in the bucket”), or even pronouns (e.g. “put the sponge on your nose” vs. “put the sponge on my nose”).  If we simply rush through bath time, scrubbing our children down, then getting ready for the next thing, we may be missing out on some great teaching moments!  This is true of many of our daily activities—take a few moments to think about your other routines!

In addition to activities, we also can begin to look at toys and materials differently.  Rather than viewing toys at face value, we can look at toys and begin to ask ourselves: what can this help me teach my child?  Often we make the mistake of viewing toys as serving only one purpose.  For example, most of us see Legos as items that are meant to teach building skills.  While this is certainly one skill Legos may address, there are countless others!  When building with our children, we can be teaching colors (e.g. “can you find the red one?”), sizes (e.g. “where’s the small block?”, “which one is bigger?”), prepositions (e.g. “put it on/under/next to”), following directions (e.g. “give the block to ___”), counting (e.g. “how many do you have?”, “pass me 3 blocks”), and imitation skills (e.g. “try what I’m doing!”)…just to name a few!

The point here is not that you should build a formal classroom in your home or should focus every moment of your day on being a teacher.  The point is that we can try to recognize that every environment is a classroom!  All activities are lessons!  All toys are teaching materials!   We can exponentially increase your child’s learning opportunities just by changing our perspectives.  We do not need to add extra work or activities to our days—we just need to maximize what we are already doing!  When we learn to make every day moments teachable, our children are provided with endless opportunities to expand their skills and minds!

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Nurturing Nature: Gaining Perspective

Language acquisition is a dynamic, complex, and natural process that our children go through to learn how to communicate with others and build meaningful relationships.  Like many other things in life, it’s not something that we question until something atypical occurs that raises concern.  As parents and caregivers, we want to make sure that we optimize our interactions with our children in such a way that we help them bloom into their full potential.  While this at times can seem as a subjective and daunting task, there are a few things that we can keep in mind to maximize our relationships and engagements to give us peace of mind.

While there are many different theories and beliefs about how children specifically acquire language, we all know for sure that there is an interaction of “nature” and “nurture.”  Most children are naturally inclined to extract sounds, words, grammar, and eventually conversational language that allows them to manipulate and control the world around them.  However, it’s our responsibility to nurture their natural inclinations to language acquisition with educated and careful techniques.

It’s important to remember that children have only been experiencing life and the world for a short period of time.  As adults, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we’ve been here for a long time and that we have a lot to teach to the following generation.  Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine placing yourself on a different planet, where you don’t speak the language, and where your environment is completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced before.  This is what our children are going through.  And they are sponges… for knowledge, information, communication.

Children explore their environment through play.  It’s meaningful.  It’s fun.  It’s interactive.  Through this natural and pleasant medium, we can teach children language and how to build relationships with others.  However, it’s important to put yourself in your child’s shoes and to see through their eyes, and provide them with language that’s developmentally appropriate in order for them to learn how to pair symbolic language with concrete things that are occurring in their environment.

While we’re engaging in play with our children, it’s important to be mindful of what their attention is focused on.  It’s very common that we have our own idea of what the direction and dialogue of the play should be; however, it’s meaningless if it isn’t in line with what our children have in mind.  For example, if we’re playing with a train set, and the child is focused on pushing “Thomas the Train” back and forth but we’re talking about how “Percy the Small Engine” is happy because he gets to play and is going “up” and “down” and “around” the tracks – we’re missing the point.  If our child’s attention is on pushing Thomas back and forth, our language is essentially meaningless if we’re talking about anything other than that.

In this particular situation, we can model nouns (i.e. Thomas, train, wheel), verbs (i.e. spinning, go, stop), and adjectives (i.e. fast, slow) – and make it meaningful by assuring that whatever words we’re producing are directly correlated with what’s happening.  In a way, we’re just narrating for our children.  And as long as their intentions and observations of their environment are aligned with the language that we’re providing them with – they will learn it.  And eventually, we help them progress by expanding on their play and the language models we provide them.  We show them that the “Thomas the Train” can go “under the bridge” and “over the bridge”, and can say “hello” to “Percy the Small Engine,” and request “help” when Thomas is “stuck” because the “tracks are broken” and “need to be fixed.”  However, we need to make sure that our children’s attention is also focused on and interested in our expansion of their play in order for the language to be meaningful and learnable. 

All in all, it’s important to know where our children are developmentally (i.e. single words versus three-word utterances versus conversational speech), and to dedicate some time each day to engage in play using language that is directly correlated with where they are developmentally, and to push the bar using language that’s just above their current threshold.  This is how we can teach and challenge our children to learn language and interact with us in a meaningful and fun way.

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Take a Time Out from Time Out

Time-out is a procedure often used by parents (and some teachers) in an attempt to decrease a child’s interfering behavior (i.e., behavior that may impede learning or interfere with functioning in their daily environments).  These behaviors can take many forms, such as hitting, temper tantrums, yelling, etc. Time-out often involves having a child sit in the corner or a chair and excluding them from a desired activity contingent on the occurrence of this interfering behavior.  Time-out is sometimes an effective procedure, which is why parents and teachers may use it so often.  But you have to be very careful when applying this procedure, because you can also run the risk of increasing that interfering behavior. 

Here is why:  Let’s say you give your child an instruction to do something that he/she does not want to do (e.g., take a bath) and then he/she repeatedly starts to hit you.  Many parents in this situation would then put the child in time-out in an attempt to teach him/her that hitting is bad!  But what parents are actually doing in this situation is reinforcing (i.e., increasing the future frequency of) the behavior.  The child hit you because he/she did not want to follow your instruction.  By putting the child in time-out, you are allowing them to avoid the task that they did not want to engage in.  So what did your child learn in this scenario?  “When I hit, I don’t have to do what Mommy/Daddy says.”

So please be careful when using time-out to decrease interfering behavior.  You may actually be accidentally increasing the behavior.  If you know that your child is engaging in an interfering behavior to avoid doing a task or following your instruction, the best way to respond is to follow through with your instruction.  You will then teach him/her that when they engage in interfering behavior, they still have to listen to their parents!  If you remain consistent, this interfering behavior will decrease because it will no longer get them what they want.

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Catch Them Being Good!

Catch your child being good!  As adults/parents/professionals, we often make the mistake of providing children (and other adults for that matter!) with attention only when something is going wrong.  When children are engaging in desired behavior, it is often easy to just let them be!  Let sleeping dogs lie, right?  Wrong!  It is important to show children that they receive our attention and praise when they are engaging in the behavior we want to see!  Rather than catching them being less-than-perfect, try to catch them doing the right thing.  This way we are reinforcing (i.e. increasing) the behavior we want to see rather than only providing lots of attention for the behavior we would rather not see!

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