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"Counting Out": An Easy Technique to Reduce Bad Behavior

Learn how to use 'counting' as an effective behavior-modifcation tool.

"Counting Out": An Easy Technique to Reduce Bad Behavior

Sharon: Parents love to count. "I'm telling you, you have to the count of three to get up those steps and into your room." Or, "I'll give you until the count of ten to pick that up and put it back where it belongs." Then there's the countdown to explosion. "You have until the count of five to stop that. And I mean stop it completely. That's one. This is not a game. You're really trying my patience. That's two. Did you hear me? I'm not going to put up with this. That's three. I'm telling you, don't do that again. That's four. You don't want me to reach five. Okay, that's five. You really pushed me too far this time . . . !"

In wrestling, the referee counts to ten, but in a family, children have no idea what today's count is. They don't know whether to expect a lecture at the end of each number or the consequence for failing to comply with the mystery count. Moreover, parents use counting differently every time. And with all that talking between numbers, who can keep track of the count? To be effective, counting needs to be done the same way every time.

A counting procedure gives your child a limited time to change his behavior before he incurs the consequences. With a structured--and unvarying--counting procedure, your children know how long they have to shape up ... or else . . . and it's critical that they know what that "or else" will be. For example, give Junior until the count of three to stop teasing the dog or he has to go to his room for five minutes. Give your children until the count of four to stop bickering or you'll pull the car over and sit for ten minutes (making them late to the movie).

Guidelines for Counting

  • Each time a negative behavior occurs, the parent counts one number. That behavior "earns" a number. (Emphasize that the behavior "earns" the number to help your child make the connection between his own behavior and the outcome.) You can count different negative behaviors to reach "time-out."

  • When you announce each number, hold up one, two, three, or four fingers, as appropriate, and identify the behavior that earned the number, for example, "That's one, for yelling. That's two, for calling names. That's three, for arguing. You've earned a time-out." The most serious behaviors, such as hitting, earn an instant time-out.

  • If you reach the final number (often three of four--but make clear ahead of time what it is), the child "earns" a quiet time or time-out.

  • Set a timer for one minute. If he gets to the designated place for serving time-out before the timer rings, he owes a short time-out (e.g., five minutes). If he's not in the time-out place when the one-minute bell rings, he owes a long one (e.g., ten minutes).

  • If he refuses to go to time-out, he will have no family privileges until he serves the time-out. That means no screen time (anything that uses a screen--TV, videos, computer, video games, Internet, etc.), no snacks or sweets, no outside play, no friends in the house--none of the big stuff you can readily control.

  • Once in time-out, set the timer for the predetermined time, e.g., one minute per year of age. When it rings, calmly tell him time's up. No lectures, nagging, or sermonizing is allowed.

  • If your child doesn't reach the final count within a fixed interval (such as twenty or thirty minutes), you start over. Any new misbehavior earns a new starting count of "one". You can't count him out for three behaviors that occur twelve hours apart.

  • Important: Reinforce your child for intervals when he doesn't hit the final number. Offer an incentive to stop before he reaches time-out, rather than just the disincentive for going too far. Tell him he can earn the incentive if he doesn't earn time out during a specific interval such as an hour, a half day, or a whole day.

  • If you're heading for a difficult situation where there is likely to be trouble, up the ante. Offer a double bonus if your child doesn't reach the final number.
Guidelines for Time-Out

  • The time-out procedure puts space between parent and child and between the child and anything that might perpetuate the behavior.

  • Time-out should be in a quiet area, away from family "traffic," with no access to TV or computer. It can be on a mat, in a chair, or in a separate room.

  • In a matter-of-fact tone, parents state the behavior, remind the child of the rule that was broken, than say "Time-out." No discussion until after the time-out, if then.

  • Set timer for one minute to allow time for the child to go to the time-out spot. If he's there before the bell, he owes a short time-out. If not, he owes a longer one.

  • The rule of the thumb is that the length of time-out is based on age. A short time-out for a five-year-old is five minutes. A long time-out is ten minutes. Once he is in the time-out area, set the timer.

  • Time-out is over when the bell rings, not before.

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