Kristen McNeely

consulting & family Counseling, INC.

Kristen McNeely

consulting & family Counseling, INC.

5 Ways to Stop Problem Behaviors Before they Start

One of the most common concerns families express to me is that they don’t know how to respond when challenging behaviors happen.  They’ve “tried it all.”  “Consequences don’t work.”  And they’re often caught by surprise when I ask them to pause the discussion of how to respond to behaviors, and instead shift our strategizing to preventing the problem behaviors in the first place. 

“Proactive strategies” is an umbrella term to describe many interventions that are aimed at preventing challenging behaviors.  Strategies include multiple ways of changing the environment, altering our words, and adding various components to our interactions with our kids.  To put it simply, proactive strategies are the best behavioral intervention out there.  Let’s talk about 5 of them.


Put simply, priming is providing an advanced warning.  This could be a warning of an upcoming transition, a reminder of a behavioral expectation, or a reminder of an incentive that a child is working for.  Priming is most effectively used right before the expectation will take place. Here are some examples: 

  • In 5 minutes we’re going to leave the park.  Pick 1 more activity before we walk to the car.
  • On our walk we need to stay on the sidewalk, and when we get to a corner you need to wait for me before crossing the street.
  • Remember, in the library we need to have whisper voices.  There are signs around the room to help us remember.
  • After you unpack your backpack and do your homework you may watch TV.
  • Remember you are earning a trip to Starbucks for following your morning routine this week.  

Environmental Arrangements

Environmental arrangements are physical ways of changing an environment to promote success.  You probably use many environmental arrangements in your own life – some examples – 

  • Getting your coffee prepped at night so you don’t have to do it in the morning.
  • Placing your keys, wallet, and phone in familiar and easy-to-access places so they don’t get lost. 
  • Putting your child’s backpack near the door so they don’t forget it.
  • Keeping shoes in the garage so they are easy to access when you leave your home.
  • Turning on the TV or music for background noise to help you relax.

We can use the same ideas to help kids be successful.  Especially for kids who struggle with attention and memory (which is normal for young children!), environmental arrangements can be extremely effective in preventing problem behaviors before they happen.  Examples include – 

  • having designated spaces for important belongings
  • having calming music in the background during times of day that may be stressful
  • completing homework routines in an area with minimal distractions
  • keeping the TV off when your child needs to pay attention to something
  • keeping highly preferred toys out of reach or eyesight when your child should not be accessing them

Choice Making Opportunities 

Choice-making opportunities create shared control.  I briefly discussed this in a previous Blog post (Nuance Over Noise).  Using choice-making strategies effectively requires a couple of key things – 

  1. You are providing concrete, not open-ended, choices.  For example, “do you want chips or french fries,” rather than “what do you want with your lunch?”
  2. You need to be willing and able to provide whichever option your child selects.  This may seem obvious, but sometimes we provide choices with an expectation, and then are surprised when our child picks otherwise.  This can create a problem.  Always be sure that both choices are actually available and acceptable. 
  3. You need to know your child.  The vast majority of children I’ve worked with respond very well to this strategy; however, for some children, especially those with anxiety, choice-making can be tricky.  These kids often need choices to be more discreet, rather than direct.  For example, instead of saying “do you want to wear your blue pajamas or your red pajamas,” you may try “we have blue pajamas and red pajamas, I’ll leave them here and then come check on you in a minute.”  You’re still creating shared control, just doing it in a less directive manner. 

What are some choices you could provide?

  • Would you like cereal or toast for breakfast?
  • Do you want to wear your sweatshirt or your jacket?
  • Are you ready to get up now or do you want 3 more minutes?
  • Do you want to read with me or by yourself?
  • Should we ride bikes or scooters outside?
  • Are you going to have a red popsicle or an orange popsicle?
  • Do you want to do the slide 1 more time or 2 more times?

A final note about choice-making opportunities – sometimes, it is beneficial to provide a choice even when you know what the answer will be.  Young children have such little control in their lives in general.  Providing them with a choice, even when not necessary, is an excellent way of giving them a little bit of control over something that may just really matter to them. 

Behavior Momentum

Do you remember your elementary school math textbook?  Remember how your addition page started with something like 14 + 14 and ended with 1845 + 2857?  This is behavior momentum. Research has shown that small amounts of success increase motivation to keep going, and the likelihood of success with more difficult tasks.  This same principle can be applied with our children, and can help prevent problem behaviors before they start. 

Let’s say you need your child to do something that’s harder for them – perhaps you’re working on the skill of sitting at a table to do their afternoon homework.  Sitting at the table and paying attention is the end goal, but to get there, we need to add in some small, easy-to-accomplish goals first.  The routine may look something like this:

  1. Can you please take off your shoes and set them in the garage? … Thank you!
  2. Let’s go wash your hands, I’ll help you get the soap. … Nice job!
  3. If you’d like to pick a snack, go ahead. …All set?  Great!
  4. Ok, come on over to the table and let’s see what we’ve got for today.

Kids want to feel successful.  Behavior momentum is a great way to show them the baby steps that will get them to that successful place.

The Premack Principle

Also known as “if, then,” or “first, then,” the Premack principle is an evidence-based strategy used to express a sequence of events, one being contingent on the other.  The research explains that a less preferred behavior (e.g. doing homework, completing chores, etc) is more likely to occur when it is followed by a desired behavior (e.g. playing a game, doing a preferred activity, earning a reward, etc).  You may have heard this referred to as “Grandma’s Rule.”  

The Premack Principle provides a really easy structure to use when giving directions to our kids.  It often additionally serves as a means of priming.  For example:

  • When you finish your homework, then you may go watch TV.
  • If you fill up your sticker chart, then you can pick a prize.
  • First go brush your teeth, then we can read a story.

The Premack Principle takes some practice to get used to.  Especially for parents who may have been dealing with challenging behaviors for some time, it may initially feel easier to use threats of consequences rather than phrasing directions positively.  Alternatively, parents may be used to bribing, in which a reward is provided with the promise that the desired behavior will occur.  Both threats are bribes are problematic. The Premack Principle, with some practice, is a great solution. 

Was this helpful for you?

If you’re looking for more individualized help on these topics, as well as many others, head to the Contact page and send me a brief message.  I’d be happy to be a support to you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *