Leading and Caring for Children

Pick a New Good Behavior to Reward

The solutions lie in the positive.

If we stopped our protocol for dealing with difficult behavior right here and only change the consequences that happened after the mistake, we would be constantly looking for mistakes. Wait. Wait. There’s one! Now I’ll do this thing.

Usually changing only the consequences does not alter the behavior, with the possible exception of Personal Record and Positive Practice which seem to operate in a significantly different way.

Behaviors followed by pleasant consequences are more likely to occur again.  This is a true statement proven by years of research. It’s opposite, behaviors followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to occur again is not demonstrably true. So in order to change troublesome behavior we have to make a new “good” behavior more pleasant at the same time as changing the consequences on the other one.

Two Alternatives


Incompatible List

The challenge is to brainstorm possible alternative behaviors that are the opposite of the undesirable behavior, where it is impossible to both the bad and the good at the same time. For example, running in the classroom and walking in the classroom are incompatible. Eating at the table is incompatible with running with food in one’s mouth.

Substitutable List

The challenge is to also brainstorm possible alternative behaviors that accomplish the exact same ends but are more appropriate. For example, saying “Excuse me. Can I get by?” is more appropriate than pushing others aside. Saying “Can we trade?” is substitutable for grabbing. Chewing gum may be substitutable for smoking.

That’s it. I wish I could offer more help, but there are no more choice alternatives than these two guides.

Often I have found that once I create a list in each category, one item on the list emerges as a path and other items seem silly. Here are three examples; then you, with the help of others, I hope, can take on Sandy, Jeremy, and Charlie.

Problem: child drops coat in front of cubby’s coat hook. Hanging up the coat is incompatible with dropping it on the floor. Asking someone else to hang up one’s own coat is substitutable for dropping it on the floor (and become uniquely privileged).

Problem: child deliberately pours glue onto the floor.  Pouring glue onto paper on the table in incompatible with pouring it on the floor. Pouring glue onto paper set on the floor is substitutable for the same action. Now it can happen appropriately (and become science).

Problem: child chews and swallows styrofoam. Using toothpicks to attach styrofoam to other styrofoam bits is incompatible. Having a puppet chew the styrofoam would be substitutable (and become dramatic play).

 Incompatible — Substitutable Challenge

I invite you to cooperate with others and generate lists of ideas for the three children we visited before on the Identifying the A-B-C Pattern page. Sandy. Jeremy. Charlie.

Sandy — whining, crying, screaming, throwing
Jeremy — climbs on tables, ledges, and counters
Charlie — dumps toys, throws toys, dumps food


If you have written lists of each, you can begin to see the best choice for now. That’s it. That’s all this step tries to do.

We are hoping to make that alternative more rewarding than it was before. Instead of just waiting for the whining, climbing or dumping to occur, so we can react with our new consequences, we can now look for the new “good” behavior whenever it happens to occur and make a big deal about it. A little deal can work even better.

Is this it? Not really. We have something now to look for that is positive, and we can change that easily at any time.  Nothing is cast in stone. All we can do is what we think together seems best at this particular time. No one could ask for more than that.

From Their Bad to Our Good

All the way through this protocol I use Sandy, Jeremy, and Charlie to illustrate the ordered thinking the protocol requires. I hope you keep in mind that the protocol is developed by a team, decisions are made by a team, and whatever is decided is implemented by a team. In the beginning we could say that the educators and parents who wish to manage troubling behavior would like to have Sandy, Jeremy and Charlie stop doing their problem stuff. Hello! STOP! That would be it. Over and done, right? Yeah. They tried that.

At this step of the protocol we have some reasonable options to try whenever they commit a wrongdoing. We also might agree that those options may not solve the problem—the air mattress effect: you sit on it here and it inflates bigger over there. Now with the listing of incompatible and substitutable behavior we can reconsider what we are doing. Now we can see more of what is happening: in stopping them being bad; we have to be good. The focus has shifted from them to us, the attentiveness we have to bring and the intentionality to also bring positive ways to respond to what we desire. This flips the first thoughts we had inside out. We have defined something positive to look for and support together as a team, growing ourselves as we address growing the good stuff in the children.

I invite you to look to your own life. You might recall how the course of your life was influenced when others were responsive, attentive and positive about something you did or where you proved yourself capable.

Protocol for Managing Difficult Behavior

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  1. Specify the behavior exactly
  2. Take a before measure
  3. Identify the A-B-C pattern


  1. Change the consequences
  2. Pick a new behavior to reward
  3. Change the antecedents
  4. Continue to measure

Examples of SandyJeremy, and Charlie

Next Change Antecedents