Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Good Behavior Pin

Like most three-year-olds, Vincent is discovering the extremes in his emotions. He is also learning that his behavior - both good and bad - has consequences. And, he is slowly realizing that he can control his behavior.

In the past, when he would misbehave - what we call having "bad behavior" (we have always been careful to label the behavior - not Vincent - as "bad") - the consequence would be a time-out in his bedroom. We chose this method of discipline because it gave both him and us a chance to calm down. Usually, we would have to carry him - kicking and screaming and crying - into his bedroom, set him down, close the door and then hold the door shut so that he couldn't open it. Then, after a minute or so, we would go into his room, have him sit down and look at us and explain to him what he did wrong. If his transgression required an apology, we would lead him back out into the living room to deliver apologetic remarks as needed. Although this bad behavior didn't happen very often, it did occur in waves. Some days would be full of time-outs, and then a week would go by without any issues.

After Desmond was born, it became increasingly difficult to follow through with this manner of discipline. Often, especially if I was home alone with the boys, I couldn't leave Desmond alone to carry Vincent into his room and hold his door shut. The whole process became more and more difficult and less and less effective.

In the days and early weeks following our move to Australia, Vincent's behavior was - for the most part - quite good. I think he was curious about being in a new place and excited to be with his dad again. He was also unsure of exactly where the boundaries were in this new life, in a new house, in a new city, in a new country. But as we began to settle into a daily routine, Vincent began to act out. And our recourse? Time-outs that were usually marked by extremely loud screaming on Vincent's part, lots of tears (both his and mine), and endless frustration.

It is worth noting here that Vincent's demeanor is, for the most part, quite even keeled. He is a polite, curious boy who loves his little brother (he often refers to Desmond as his "best friend" or "best" for short - as in: "Desmond, you're my best"). He has a great imagination, happily plays by himself, and can entertain Desmond. But, he knows how to push my buttons, often tests the boundaries, and can be as stubborn and irrational as any three-year-old. And the smallest thing can set him off. Sometimes, it is because I have pushed him too hard to do something or have done something that antagonizes him. But frequently, he can loose his patience or temper at the silliest, most insignificant thing.

All of these time-outs were starting to wear on Paul and me - and I'm sure that Vincent was tired of them as well. I felt that they were no longer an effective deterrent for bad behavior. We tried taking away his toys and not allowing him to watch videos. But that was not really effective either. We needed something that was simple to enforce and something that we could follow through with consistency. And we needed Vincent to be on-board with it.

My mom suggested some sort of system that would reward good behavior while also serving as a deterrent for bad behavior. Our solution? The good/bad behavior pin system.

I took an old bib and drew a smiley face (=good behavior) on one side and a sad face (=bad behavior) on the other side. Then we got 20 safety pins and pinned them to the edge of the bib. Whenever Vincent had bad behavior, he we would pin a pin to the sad face side. When he had good behavior, we would place a pin on the happy face side. When all 20 pins were on the bib, the pins could move sides depending on Vincent's behavior. So, for example, if he had 15 good behavior pins and 5 bad behavior pins and then had bad behavior, he could "loose" a good behavior pin to the bad side of the bib. When he got all 20 pins on the good behavior side, he would get a prize: a gigantic T-Rex toy from Dinosaur Train (Boris Tyrannosaurus) - something he helped pick out from the toy section at Target. We set the reward out on the dresser in our bedroom - somewhere were Vincent could see it and be reminded that his good behavior would be rewarded.

This method of behavior enforcement had several benefits - it was easy to be consistent, we didn't have to have emotional time-outs (all we had to say was, "That's a bad behavior pin" and Vincent would know what that meant), and it was a visual aid for Vincent to track his behavior.

Since implementing this way of tracking Vincent's behavior, we have seen an overall general improvement in his actions. His angry outbursts are much shorter and less dramatic (i.e., less loud and piercing screams). He seems to be able to regain control of his behavior and now responds to comments like, "Please get your behavior under control." He has also started removing himself from a situation when we tell him he is having bad behavior. For example, he will leave the room, go into his room, close his door, calm himself down, and then come back to us and apologize for his behavior. The first time it happened (he came to me and said, "Mama, I'm sorry I yelled at you" and then gave me a hug and a kiss) I almost fell off my chair - but quickly recovered, hugged him, and told him that I appreciated the apology.

It has taken 18 days, but Vincent finally got all 20 good behavior pins this morning. He was overjoyed to receive his new dinosaur and spent nearly the entire day playing with it. I think he understood that this was a direct result of having repeated good behavior - and having more good behavior than bad. Our plan going forward is to continue this method of tracking his behavior - already today he has one good behavior pin and one bad behavior pin. We will give him another, smaller toy when he again reaches 20 good behavior pins. And I anticipate that it will take less than 18 days this time. After that, we will continue this method, but the final rewards will get smaller.

I know that all kids go through phases where they have good behavior and bad behavior. But this method we now have in place to track his behavior provides both a strong visual for Vincent and gives us a consistent, reliable, calm way of marking his bad behavior and rewarding his good behavior. And - at least for us and at least for now - it is working.


  1. Smart, smart, smart... he probably wouldn't have understood this method back when you first instituted the time-outs in his room, but his cognitive skills have matured to the point where he gets it, with the help of the visual aids (the happy & sad faces on the bib, the safety pins, and the visible reward) and with an action (the actual pinning or moving of the safety pin).

    And the idea that it has to be repeated behavior and more good than not--excellent and realistic.

    Another huge sign of his maturity is his choosing to remove himself to a place where he can calm himself and then apologizing and specifying what he did that was inappropriate. Wow!!

    You & Paul are good parents, but a suggestion from Grandma can sometimes be just the thing. My only additional suggestion is to not make the rewards get too much smaller too quickly. You want the pattern of more good behavior than bad to become firmly established.

    Good technique for dealing with a challenging situation!!

  2. This reminds me of our "Hogwarts Point System" we had with a string of 100 beads. Beads came down for good things and went up for bad. At the end of the week whoever had the most points got to choose the movie we watched on Saturday nights. Aunt Tracy took this idea and instead of having a movie be the incentive, she waits until they get all 100 points before giving the boys a small incentive (lego minis, matchbox car, etc.) Your idea is really neat!

  3. Anna - I think that your mom had mentioned this system to my mom - who then passed on the general gist of it to me. Seems to be working for us so far...