Skip to main content

Teaching Alternative Behaviors

woman and girl hugging

What is the best method for disciplining children who are misbehaving?

The best discipline for misbehavior is to teach alternate positive behaviors. Once parents have begun building positive relationships with their children, they are in a position to teach positive alternative behaviors. Children who trust their parents are ready and able to learn from this teaching.

Modeling is an important way of communicating to our children which behaviors we hope they will learn. By using a skill ourselves, we show our children that the skill is natural and is important and useful to us. Modeling occurs constantly throughout the day, in all of our interactions.

As the child practices the skill following our example, we can provide additional feedback and correction if the skill or behavior is weak or incomplete in some ways.   
Teaching our children positive alternative behaviors means learning some teaching strategies to be more effective with our children. Consider planning out how you will teach and when you will do it. Remember that learning doesn't come through lecturing. Children will not learn as much by listening to you talk as by watching you and then performing the new behavior themselves.

When we are teaching specific skills, we should model what we want our children to do and then ask them to practice what we have demonstrated. Having children role play or practice allows us to check the child's understanding of what has been taught and assess his or her ability to use the skill correctly. Going through the skill as we watch also provides an opportunity for the child to ask questions that may make aspects of the skill easier or clarify ways the skill may be modified for different situations

The following steps can be helpful when planning to directly teach a child a new social behavior.

  • Name and describe the skill.
  • Give the child a reason why the skill is important.
  • Model the skill.
  • Have the child practice the skill.
  • Give feedback and praise for engaging in the practice activities.

The role of time is critical. Teaching interactions should be kept short and to the point.

1. Describe The Skill

Once you are comfortable with modeling making polite requests, schedule time to teach the child, even if it is only a period of couple of minutes. Begin your teaching by creating a pleasant, environment: possibly, commenting on several of the child's positive behaviors or empathizing with the challenges of the situation. Then get to the point of the lesson. It might sound something like this:   

"I Want to talk to you about making polite requests when you want something from someone else. The best way to make a request is to do these things: (1) look the person in the eye; (2) say "please" using a pleasant voice; (3) ask specifically for what you want; (4) say "thank you" after receiving it; or (5) if the person says "no" or doesn't do as you ask, accept the response and do not be rude. When we ask politely, people are more likely to agree to do as we ask."

2. Explain Why It's Important

Talk to your child about why the skill you want to teach her matters. The new skill may help others feel better, or simply be the right thing to do. "It's important to be kind about any gift you get, because the person giving it to you is excited and hopes you will be pleased."

3. Model The Skill

Once you've given a description of the correct behavior, model it for your child. In the case of our example, actually roleplay making a polite request of John.

4. Let Your Child Practice

Following the model, ask the child to make a polite request. If the child successfully demonstrates the behavior, give specific praise: i.e., "I like the way you looked at me, used a pleasant voice, said 'please.' '' If the child left out steps, point out the parts that were forgotten, and have the child practice again.

5. Give Feedback And Praise

After teaching the child, watch for opportunities throughout the day to give instructive praise. If you observe the child making a polite request of a friend, pull the child aside and say, "John, I liked the way you looked at Bill and said please when you asked to borrow his ball. I am sure he let you play with his ball because you made such a polite request." This method of praise provides both sincere positive feedback and indirect re-teaching of the skill.

man and girl looking at each closely

It is totally frustrating to watch my teenager ignore the use of common courtesy in communication with his grandmother, his friends and others. I wasn't willing to just chalk it up to being a teenager. So, I told him I was going to teach him how to get what he wants. We discussed the impact of being polite and sensitive to others. Then I role played it with him. My attempts were not that great and he started to get the wrong idea - that we were talking about manipulating people. After a few more tries he realized that mutual respect and achieving our goals don't happen because we are entitled. In our case we learned together to give polite sensitivity to others. Neither of us is totally good at it yet but we are improving and laughing at our failures.


Latham, Glen I., A Word About Consequences. USU OpenCourseWare Web site:   
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment. Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.