Bring on the Greenies!

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Gretchen has a behavior quandary: “My 3 1/2 year old is suddenly having major behavior problems and is really wreaking havoc on the household.  She is whining, hitting, calling everyone ‘bad’ and has started ‘hating’ everything and everyone. I’m sure this is just one of her many phases and is probably worsened by summer boredom but do you have any ideas as to how we can minimize the frustration?   I feel like I am constantly yelling and punishing.”

We all have behavioral “ruts”—patterns of doing things that we end up doing over and over, soon enough becoming habits. It’s easy to make a rut, and easy to stay in a rut. Some ruts might even be a good thing, like a toddler learning to clear his plate or put his toys away. But other ruts can be aggravating, like Gretchen’s example. It sounds like the child is in a new negative rut, and mom has formed her own rut of “constantly yelling and punishing.”

It’s time for a new plan: The Greenies!

This is a method of discipline that relies on positive reinforcement. It’s especially useful to break a cycle with a child who is “constantly” disruptive or disrespectful, and is most suitable for ages 3-7 or so.

Every adult in the house should carry a washable green magic marker with them at all times.

  • Catch your child being good at least once every ten minutes.
  • Give immediate feedback that is specific:
    • Good: “Thanks for helping!”
    • Better:  “It’s great when you get yourself ready.”
    • Better: “That was great when you helped by putting your own shoes on. Thanks!”
  • Along with your verbal praise, use your green marker to make a quick dash on the back of the child’s hand.
  • Within a few hours, there will be many dashes.
  • At the end of the day, the backs of your child’s hands should be covered with green marks.
  • At bedtime, go over some of the marks—point to one or two, and say things like “Remember that one? That was when you kissed grandma! And this one here—this one was when you put your dinosaur toy away!” Again, your praise should be as specific as possible.

This is a method only for positive reinforcement. There are no punishments, and the child cannot “lose” any green marks. It builds only on positive praise.

Give it a try, and let us know who it goes!

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