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#66: Knowing when to teach behavioral skills


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One of the biggest mistakes parents make in teaching behavioral skills is when they are teaching them. When a child or parent is upset, frustrated, or angry, that is the worst time for parents to be teaching a new behavior skill. If parents continually insist on teaching at times when a child isn’t calm, it can damage the relationship.

If you want your child to get the most out of your teaching, parents need to be teaching at a neutral time. A neutral time means a time when you or your child aren’t distracted, a time when they are calm and able to learn. Teaching behavior skills is all about helping kids learn and grow, and when you teach at a neutral time, you are encouraging them to find success. You show that you are concerned about what is happening in their life, which strengthens the relationship.

When teaching a new behavior skill, we recommend that parents teach the behavior skill long before it will be a problem and then Role-play with their child until they can do it on their own. By practicing it over and over until they are comfortable, your child understands what they need to do and has confidence they can do it.

For example, if your child has difficulty putting away their toys before bed, don’t teach them the skill at bedtime. Instead, practice the skill with them multiple times throughout the day and showing them precisely what they need to do at bedtime by modeling what they need to do. Or, if they have difficulty turning off their video game, don’t start teaching them to turn off their game when they are in the middle of a game. Instead, practice with them at a time when they aren’t distracted by the game.

For things that are difficult for a child to do, it never hurts to reward a child for practicing. If they practice picking up their toys, they can earn five more minutes of playtime at bedtime. Or if they practice turning off their game, they can receive extra playtime.

When teaching our children, it’s helpful to self-evaluate where we are. If we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, we won’t be effective in our teaching. Have you ever come home from work and see a backpack on the table instead of on a hook and get incredibly frustrated? It happens, and parents need to find things that allow them to bring their stress levels down before addressing the issue. It could be taking a walk or counting to ten. Then, once we are calm, we can better address the situation and to teach our child.

Children feel our stress and frustration and often respond in kind. On the other hand, if we are calm, our children will model that behavior.

The goal of teaching behavioral skills is changing a child’s behavior to help them navigate the world without our help. Teaching at a neutral time will help us achieve this goal.

To learn the behavior skills on Smarter Parenting visit: https://www.smarterparenting.com/lesson/

For more information about how Smarter Parenting uses the Teaching-Family Model, visit the episode podcast page on SmarterParenting.com https://www.smarterparenting.com/adhd-parenting-podcast/

If you are looking for specific help in knowing when to teach behavioral skills, sign up for a free 15-minute Parenting Coaching mini-session: https://club.smarterparenting.com/

Episode Transcript

This is episode 66. In this episode, we will discuss when is the best time to teach behavioral skills to your child.

Smarter Parenting welcomes you to our podcast series, The Parenting Coach for ADHD. Here to heal and elevate lives, is your Parenting Coach, Siope Kinikini.

Hello everyone. How is everyone doing? I hope you’re doing fantastic. I am actually doing really great. And I’m super excited to talk about when is the best time for parents to teach behavioral skills to their child. Now, this is a question that pops up quite a bit and in fact, it’s a consistent question because a lot of times, parents are unsure exactly when to teach a behavioral skill and sometimes they wait until the very last minute when a behavior is happening.

So let me give you an example of this. I was working with a young man, we’re going to call him Mitchell and his father. And whenever Mitchell would misbehave, his father would try and teach him a new behavioral skill. So he would come back from school, he throws a backpack on the floor, his father would get upset because they had already agreed that he wouldn’t do that and so his father would try and teach him at that moment and Mitchell was often resentful of that and pushed back. His father, he was in high school and Mitchell would start to yell back and dad would yell back and we had already agreed and boom, boom, boom, boom.

All of this tension that was happening between son and father, merely because of a backpack. Now, I see the side of the parent. I totally get it. You had made an agreement and he should follow the agreement. And yeah, I see the side of the young man, he’s coming home and the first thing he gets from his father is this tirade. And so, the difficulty between Mitchell and his father was helping his father understand what is the best time that I should be teaching some of these behavioral skills. And then what skills need to be implemented and what needs to be reminded. What his father needs to remind him about the skill.

You are going to find that when you watch a Smarter Parenting video lesson, on the Smarter Parenting website, the suggestion is that you often teach these skills at a neutral time. Now let me explain what that means. Neutral means at a time when your child is calm and a time when you are calm. You’re teaching them something brand new and in order for them to grasp and understand all of these concepts, it is best for your child and for you to be calm. This allows your child the ability to absorb the information that they’re receiving and also, for you to be able to explain it clearly, right?

When things are tense and things are out of control and when emotions are high, it is often very difficult for children to absorb new information and implement new information, which is why this idea of when should you be teaching your child behavioral skills. We recommend that you teach them at a neutral time first. Now, your child is going to still have issues behaving. That’s just the natural range of what happens. And in the case of Mitchell, what we did was, we taught the behavioral skill of what he needed to do, problem solved it. We used Decision Making as a skill of what he needed to do when he returned home and put his backpack in its location, which it was just a hook inside the home. He was supposed to hang his backpack there.

So we used Decision Making as a skill. We also Role-played it at a neutral time. We did this the night before he went to bed, so he practiced it and he knew what to do. In the morning before school, his father actually reminded him and they practiced it another time, so he got it. Then when he returned home from school, Mitchell was able to follow through it and put the backpack where it belonged.

So you can see that actually teaching at that moment was more effective than having his father try and teach him when Mitchell was upset and angry. During the time that he’s upset and angry, we should be focused on calming things down. Being consistent in what we need to get across, but not escalating the situation.

A lot of the way that I help explain this to parents so they can understand what’s going on with their children is, I’ve often used this example of walking around with a cup full of water. So imagine that you are going to run a race, for example, and you have to hold a cup of water and it’s full to the brim. You don’t want to spill anything, right? So think about the steps that you’re going to make, what you’re going to anticipate, all the things that you’re worried about, where your eyes are going to focus. Your eyes are going to be focused on the cup, right? You’re going to be focused on what’s going to overflow? What’s going to happen? How am I going to navigate this? How am I going to walk through this? Right?

Then I would tell parents to imagine walking around with an empty cup. With an empty cup, there’s less stress, right? And you’re walking around and you’re not too worried about it. You’re aware of the cup and you’re aware of that, but there’s nothing to spill, so you’re not too paranoid about it. Your focus can be more on what’s happening in the race. Talking to parents about this, what I explain to them is that, children are often walking around with a cup that is partially full almost all the time, largely because they’re learning so much in their day that it’s stress levels are a lot smaller than they are when you become an adult and you have the skill to maneuver with a cup full of water, right?

And so, when we add on to that, our own expectations and our own things, sometimes it even makes it more difficult for children and they instead of trying to balance it out, they throw a tantrum and they give up and smash the cup on the floor. In this example, the idea is that the best time to work with your child is when their cup is empty because when their cup is empty, or at least low enough, you can actually put more in there and help them absorb and understand the information that you’re sharing with them.

Same goes with parents though. When you have a rough day and things are very difficult, it’s like you’re running around with a cup full of water. You are so full of everything that’s happening and you don’t want things to go badly and you’re just concentrated on no spillage, that often anything will trigger you to become upset or to become angry and the best time for you to teach to your child is when everything is calm and there are none of those stressors involved. It’s always best to teach when things are neutral.

Now, we are always teaching to our children regardless, but it is always to teach new behavioral skills to our children at a time when things are neutral. When things are calm and when they can absorb the information and when you can actually answer questions, practice with them and help them understand how to best proceed. That was Mitchell and his father. It was interesting to notice because Mitchell actually would return home and he would forget to put his backpack where it was and his father would have to remind him because they had practiced the skill. Mitchell actually was more apt to go hang it up because they had practiced it and it was a reminder and his dad was less likely to be upset because he’s like, well, we practiced this. I’m just going to give him a reminder. He knows exactly what to do, but he needs that.

And later to find out between Mitchell and his father is that Mitchell was having a really hard time at school. So he was already coming home with a cup full. Right? He was stressed, highly stressed, and so hanging up his backpack was not a big deal to him and in fact, it was something that would usually make him upset.

However, because we practiced the skill and we worked through and his father was patient and calm and the skill was taught at a time that he could absorb the information and that his father could teach it, then he was able to follow through with it.

Now mind you, the father also had to work on being sure that his cup wasn’t so full that anything would snap and break. He wouldn’t be overly emotional with his responses to his son. So he was able to work that out. So when his son came home from school and he was super upset, instead of becoming upset because the father was also stressed out, he had a lot of things going on. He was sure that he wasn’t so full that he would lose control. He would calmly just remind his son of what they had practiced, on what they had done and then allowed his son to do the rest and things worked out well. It actually opened up a lot of communication between them about what was happening at school.

Unfortunately, Mitchell was going through all of this alone and he didn’t feel like his father really cared or wanted to hear his side of the story. And yet, his father did care and his father did want to hear his side of the story. However, they were getting hung up on hanging up the backpack.

That brings me to this whole point of teaching at a neutral time. When you teach at a neutral time, it also helps to reinforce your relationship with your child. I want you to think about how much time it takes to teach your child something, but when you’re teaching your child something and you’re both in a good state of mind and you’re not overly stressed, a lot of great things happen.

First off, you continue to build a relationship with each other that continues to strengthen while you’re working on this together. It also teaches your child that they are worth your time because it takes time. They also see you in a light where you’re not upset or frustrated, right? So a neutral time is always the best time. Now there is a skill where you will teach when they misbehave and that is Correcting Behaviors. That’s usually whenever a misbehavior happens, you’re going to correct it. So that actually is a skill that you can use and you can implement.

However, learning it, is still recommended that you learn that skill at a neutral time when things aren’t overflowing with angst and anger and frustration and the emotions are high. You want to be able to do it at a time when everyone can absorb the information and implement it and use it in an effective way. This is a fantastic way for you to evaluate exactly how you’re approaching teaching these skills.

Now the behavioral skills on the Smarter Parenting website, they go through each of the steps that you need to follow and they tell you exactly how to teach these skills and what to do. Your challenge is being sure that your cup is not full and that you’re trying to run around and take care of so much, that everything overflows and then you become upset. You want to teach at a neutral time when things are low, you’re calm, your child is calm, they can absorb the information and you can work on it together.

It sounds easier than it really is. In working with Mitchell’s father, one of the things that we had to focus on, was helping him get into that state. How do you calm yourself enough that when your child misbehaves, you do not lash out or become super angry because they’re not following through?

And so, in working with him, we had to find ways for him to let off steam throughout the day. And then he also had to have this mind shift of imagining his son walking around with a cup and that he’s trying his very best to keep things under control and yet, it’s hard as a teenager. So long discussions with his father and reframing his mindset on how he can understand his child better, but also on things that he could do himself, to improve his own responses to his child.

I highly recommend that parents take the time to do some self-evaluation. Look at yourself, understand yourself, are you reacting out of anger? Are you reacting out of negativity or out of frustration? Now, if you are, the best thing to do is to calm down and then teach to that behavior. Teach to the behaviors that you want to correct because you being calm gives permission for your child to be calm. You being calm also clears your mind to really pay attention to what is happening and that you can teach these behavioral skills.

So whether it has to be counting to 10, deep breathing exercises, taking a walk, engaging in an activity that helps calm you down is another one. Drinking tea is one. There are different things that will work for different people, but do a self-evaluation on what you can do to calm yourself down and create this environment of neutrality of where you can teach behavioral skills.

Now one of the other things that I suggest for some parents to do when they’re learning the skills that are on the Smarter Parenting website, is that they take a skill and they focus on that one skill. For a week or so until the child can master it and the parent can master it. And you start to build from there each of the skills. So once they master one skill, then you move on to the next skill, to the next skill and you continue to move in that direction.

I highly recommend to parents that they schedule those things because I think it’s very helpful to say, okay, on Monday nights we are going to learn a behavioral skill. Every Monday night for the next couple of weeks we’re going to do this at seven o’clock and that actually helps your child prepare and get ready for the things that are going to transpire and things that are going to happen.

So those are my recommendations for parents. I want you to be aware of the stress levels in your home and spillage, using that example and understanding that your child is walking around already with stuff in there and we want to be sure that we’re at a point where they feel comfortable and they feel safe to continue to build the relationships.

I highly encourage parents to do a self-evaluation on their own responses to their children. Are you calm? Are you able to listen? Are you able to communicate effectively with your child? Because if you are unable to do those things, then that’s where continual issues are going to arise in your interaction with your child.

I will say this, when you start to master one skill, you’re going to see so much more open up to you. So with Mitchell and his father, what happened was communication started to happen, open communication about his struggles in school. And what I saw was this relationship and this bonding that was going on between father and son, to where Mitchell started making better choices overall because of the influence his father had in his life, because he felt like he was loved and that his father cared about what was happening to him.

So again, those are the takeaways from me. Always imagine that your child is walking around with a little cup. He doesn’t want to spill anything. He wants to be very careful. But that requires some skill and some effort. And when you’re teaching a child, if their cup is full, we need to find a way to decrease that with them and then teach to that behavior as well. I’ve talked a lot about parents coming down. It’s also the same thing for children. We need to find a way and a neutral time to help calm them down so we can teach these skills.

Now, visit the Smarter parenting website, so you can see the behavioral skills that we have there. There are so many behavioral skills that you can use and implement right now. Following Instructions. Decision Making is there. Correcting Behaviors is one that’s a super helpful one. Preventive Teaching is another one. There’s so many skills there. Go ahead and look through. Watch a video, download the printable materials. All of it is there for free, for you.

We want to give a shout out to our sponsors who have made this podcast and all of the materials in the Smarter Parenting website available. We are super grateful to the Utah Youth Village. They sponsor us and they support us in our mission to share this with parents around the world.

If you need individual nuanced help with these skills, sign up for a free 15-minute coaching session. You can do that also, on the Smarter Parenting website. There, I will help you and walk through the skills with you, but also address some very specific needs that you may have and questions that you may have that I can answer. So I am here for you, so reach out to me. I would love to hear from you and I would love to reach out and see if we can help you and your family improve.

That’s it for me and I’ll see you again next time. All right. Bye.



Behavior skills of the Teaching-Family Model

Ep #46: Understanding the ABC’s of Behavior

Ep #47: Mastering Observe and Describe

Ep #48: What it takes to change behavior

Ep #49: Compound effect of Effective Communication

Ep #50: Changing behavior through praise

Ep #51: Finding Success with Preventive Teaching

Ep #52: How to fix negative behaviors

Ep #53: The importance of Following Instructions

Ep #54: Teaching kids to make better decisions

Ep #55: Reducing bad behavior with Effective Negative Consequences

Ep #56: Reinforcing good behavior using Effective Positive Rewards

Ep #57: Teaching kids to Accept No Answers without issue


Ep #12: How to teach behavior skills

Ep #14: Compound effect of behavior skills

Ep #22: Mastering ADHD behavior skills

Ep #23: Setting daily intentions

Ep #29: Traits of successful parents

Ep #44: Where am I emotionally?

Ep #42: What parents need to teach–behavior skills

Ep #64: Increasing teaching opportunities

Blog post: What are good parenting skills? Why parents need behavior skills


Free 15-minute ADHD coaching mini-session

Podcast sponsor Utah Youth Village

Support the ADHD Smarter Parenting Podcast. Donate.

Podcast Transcript

The transcript text is below. You can also download the PDF file of the transcript here.