How to Improve Your Toddler’s Behavior

Parenting a toddler with unpredictable, “bad” behaviors can be compared to trying to control a volcano. Imagine the point when lava reaches the peak of a volcano, which is about to erupt. For parents, the lava represents our toddlers’ tantrums, angry outbursts and raging fits of tears that can go on forever. By the time the lava reaches the head and spills out of the volcano–for the hundredth time–we parents just want to run away in terror!

I’ve spent the past two years trying to clean up the spilling, spewing lava and cram it back down the mouth of the volcano! To no end. I’ve tried the positive parenting methods of calmly explaining to my son what he’s feeling. Sometimes the affirmation does good and he can have a cry and he melts in my arms. Sometimes my emotionless approach just leads to hotter, faster flowing lava.

In my experience, telling my child he’s angry or unhappy and needs a break only paves a small path out of the lava. Yes, we can get to safety, to higher ground, to escape the angry mess. But, then, an hour later another bad behavior will begin to boil to the top. We will repeat the methods to escape again. But the mess is still there each time, and we did nothing to keep the lava from spewing out to begin with!

Then there’s the preventive positive parenting technique which is if you know your child is tired, frustrated, hungry, in a bad mood, don’t allow them to be triggered. Don’t expect too much, don’t take them to the store, don’t take them to an event, and so on. Avoid all stimulation until needs are met. Okay, but when we’re upset or hungry, tired, etc, do we avoid life altogether? Is that a beneficial technique we want our kids to follow into adulthood? Plus, once anger or other emotions start to boil, it takes very little to trigger the eruption anyway.

And then you have yelling and physical discipline, which in this day in age, most parents oath to avoid! Yet, bad, volcanic behavior that seems impossible to tame can definitely lead even the most even-tempered mom or dad to resort to yelling or spanking. In total honesty, I speak from experience. But yelling and hitting is certainly not what I want my kids to view as a normal consequence of unwanted behavior. So, what do you do to help the volcano to learn to self-regulate? How do you keep the lava from boiling up to the point of no return?

Bad Behavior is Tough On Parents and Even Harder On Kids

The positive parenting techniques I just mentioned can be helpful for getting out of tantrums and crying spells or tip-toeing around them, but doesn’t teach children about good and bad behavior or about consequences that are applicable throughout life. Those methods might help maintain peace, but they do not show children what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. And that is a huge part of parenting we can’t afford to miss!

When I realized that I had very little “control” of my son’s behavior I felt out of control myself. I felt desperate, which led me to have my own moments of fits and angry outbursts. I’m not a person inclined to aggressive behavior, yet I felt so much anxiety and anger about my son’s tendencies to fall apart or get angry when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. We then became duet volcanoes, erupting off of each other’s behavior.

When I was able to see the unhealthy relationship I was creating with my child I realized I wasn’t bringing out the best in him. Even worse, I had an almost four year old who couldn’t behave appropriately (for a kid) in any public or social environment. And that caused us to miss out on a lot.

How to Change Bad Behavior Before It’s Too Late

With a lot of research, I found a simple solution to encourage positive behavior. It’s not a trendy system. It’s not a secret list of techniques being sold by entrepreneurs who found the hidden treasure of parenting skills!

It’s literally as simple as a behavior chart. Utilizing a behavior chart was a game changer for us! Since implementing the chart two months ago, we’ve had less bad behaviors, less ruined days, less anxiety and more opportunities to teach how to deal with setbacks and feelings in general. We’ve been able to avoid the volcanic eruptions! Mostly without punishment.

What Is a Behavior Chart?

To put it simply, basic behavior charts make it clear that good behavior offers benefits while bad behavior comes with a loss of benefits. The behavior chart we use at home for both of our toddlers are a reminder that having “good” behavior allows you to keep your privileges, like playing outside after breakfast or getting ice cream after dinner. And unwanted behaviors can cause you to lose privileges, depending on time and place.

Are Behavior Charts Bribery?

Some people totally disagree with behavior charts, saying this method is just bribing your kid to do what you want. To that I say, if the behavior charts are used incorrectly, then yes, it will look more like bribery. I also think there are many, different, positive ways to utilize behavior charts. I choose to make the charts more about keeping privileges rather than earning them. Right now, that is what’s working for us.

I also want to emphasize that the goals should be for “extra” privileges or rewards, not usual play time, food or parental attention. I chose the privileges I did because these are special benefits, in addition to meeting all of my kids’ needs for play time and one-on-one time with us.

To further explain how behavior charts work, I’ll tell you more about how we use ours. Refer to our homemade behavior chart below as you follow along.

At the start of each day, Jake and Jolene are on the Super Happy Face, as it has come to be called. Each morning the goal is to be good listeners and helpers for Mommy in order to retain a privilege. And throughout the day, the expected behavior is to be nice, a good listener and call Mom when you need help.

behavior charts for changing bad behavior

So in the morning I’ll say something like,”We are going to play outside right after breakfast. That’s your privilege this morning. Make sure to be a good listener and helper for Mommy so you can stay on the Super Happy Face and keep that privilege.” Later, I let the kids decide what they’d like to do after lunch and then we will have a privilege for after dinner as well.

If and when situations arise where my son has previously shown bad behavior, such as screaming as he runs through the house after being told not to scream inside, I am confident that he will stop without me getting upset! All I have to do is say something like, “I’ve asked you to stop screaming inside. This is your warning.” I move his face pin to the Warning Face (take a break) and let him know if he screams again he goes directly to the Very Unhappy Face and loses the privilege of playing outside after breakfast (or whatever is the upcoming privilege).

Instantly, Jake sees the consequences of his actions. He will then, usually, stop the action that threatens his privileges.

If he loses a privilege, depending on what his bad behavior was and if he showed progress, he sometimes has the opportunity to earn privileges back. I will give him a chore or task to complete that can get his face moved back to Super Happy. He even comes to me and says, “What can I do to earn my privilege back?” I was blown away when this happened the first time!

Otherwise, I wait for time to go by without any further incidents and let him start over on the Super Happy Face to keep the next privilege.

How Behavior Charts Are Effective

I’m not a child psychologist, but I can tell what I think makes behavior charts so effective. There are three things that happen when you use a behavior chart to change your child’s bad behavior.

First, you are showing your child where he is in the world of good and bad. Jake sees the happy face and relates that to goodness, which brings him the things he wants (like going to the store with Daddy after dinner). When my son could visualize this spectrum of happy equals benefit, unhappy equals no benefit, I saw an almost immediate positive change. I’m talking the same day I implemented the chart! And the desire to do good grew with each day we used the chart.

The second thing that happens when you utilize a behavior chart is your child sees that they have control over gaining or losing what they want. Giving the responsibility of keeping his privileges to my son meant I am not the “bad guy” in his eyes. It’s more of a consequence than a punishment. He is solely responsible for his own actions and therefore the privileges he experiences, an important lesson to grasp in life!

toddler behavior chart

And the third thing that can be gained from behavior charts is more a result of the first two benefits. While my son is busy making the choice to keep his privileges, I have the opportunity to analyze the situation much more calmly and determine what new lesson can be taught or reiterated.

For example, the other day my son got upset and yelled when his sister wrecked his train. He stopped his outburst quickly when I threatened to move his face down the chart. Since we didnt have to deal with more of a tantrum I could address the correct way to handle the issue while it was fresh.

Later that day I watched as he chose to refrain from an angry outburst when his sister demolished his train tracks. He called for me and took a deep breath. I heavily praised his restraint, dealt with his sister and praised him again! This whole dilemma would have been much more dramatic and unproductive in the days before the chart!

How to Make A Behavior Chart At Home

how to make a behavior chart at home

There are many examples of what a behavior chart can look like. And depending on the ages of your kids, the charts can get pretty elaborate and detailed. Since I have an almost 4 and almost 2 year old, I use a very basic chart with 4 faces that represent different levels (Super Happy Face, Just Ok, Warning, Very Unhappy Face). I cut out small pictures of my kids’ faces (I call it their mug shots because humor helps me stay calm!) And used a hot glue gun to glue the tiny headshots to clothes pins. The chart is displayed on the refrigerator, out of their reach of course!

Honestly, I usually forget to move them along each face level and end up giving verbal warnings then moving from Super Happy to Very Unhappy. So, my advice is do the best you can and as long as it’s effective, your method doesn’t have to be perfect!

Again, my kids start out on Super Happy and get warnings anytime they display unwanted behaviors like not listening, being mean, pitching a fit, etc. The warning is to remind them what’s at stake.

There are lots of examples I found on Pinterest of what a behavior chart could look like. And here and here are professionally designed behavior charts on Amazon that incorporate things like chores and responsibilities.

Behavior Charts Instead of Punishment

Using a behavior chart has cut out nearly all punishment in our home. The only form of discipline we ever use now is time out. This happens only if my son continues the same bad behavior even after losing a privilege. Before the chart he ended up in time out daily, sometimes several times a day, but now time out rarely happens! (Usually only after eating sugar)

Behavior Charts at Schools

As much as I love what our behavior chart has done for us, I think this method of addressing troubling behavior is best used at home. I don’t think behavior charts would be useful in a school setting. At least not the way I utilize our chart–special outside privileges, special snacks or trips, etc.

What Ages are Behavior Charts Most Helpful?

I personally believe the behavior chart is useful starting at age two. My daughter, 21 months old, has much less control over herself than her almost four year old brother. So I don’t expect quite as much from her in terms of stopping herself in the midst of a tantrum. I use a lot of redirecting for her, which works for now. My three and a half year old understands and is fully capable of utilizing the behavior chart and is very remorseful and eager to do good when he falls on the wrong end of the spectrum.

I’m not saying behavior charts will fix all unwanted behaviors. But for us, it has drastically changed our approach to dealing with negative behavior. In our experience, it works in curbing tantrums, angry outbursts and not listening by about 80%, which is good enough for me!

So while it’s certainly not the cure-all for the terrible twos and threes, the behavior chart just might be what your family needs to improve your toddler’s behavior fast!

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