Before joining a private practice I spent several years working with adolescents who had been admitted to inpatient care for severe behavior problems. Most of the youths I worked with had been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder, bipolar disorders, anxiety, or intermittent explosive disorder, among other conditions.
I learned some important lessons that I continue to use in my practice.
One of the things that always surprised me was how much teenagers and young adults needed to hear they were doing something--anything--right. One day I was walking with a 13 year old from his classroom to my office. He spent most of the walk trying to disturb other classes and loudly shouting profanities. I was a bit embarrassed by the behavior, but I tried to be patient and politely encouraged him to walk a bit faster. In the middle of our journey he opened a door just as an adult was about to walk through the same door. Perhaps in response to my request to go faster, my client decided to stop and hold the door for the adult. Using an enthusiastic (but not overly so) voice I praised the child for holding the door so politely, "Thank you, Shaun, for holding the door for Mrs. Peabody. That was very gentlemanly of you. I'm very impressed."
Shaun was a bit quieter on the next segment of our walk and when we got to my office he ran ahead of me to open the door for me. I thanked him again and again made reference to his gentlemanly behavior. For the rest of the semester Shaun would proudly hold the door open for adults headed his way and smiled broadly when praised for that one small, considerate act.
This whole event was a complete accident. I could not have planned for Mrs. Peabody to walk through the door at that moment, but I learned a very important lesson. Teens with behavior issues are often on the receiving end of criticism for misbehaving, but one of the most important things an adult can do is be attentive to even the smallest incidents of good behavior. Each good comment improves the child's mood, the adult's mood, and improves communications.
Research overwhelmingly indicates that catching and praising good behavior is as important if not more important than punishing bad behavior. Many behavior programs suggest a ratio of four or five praise statements for every one correction statement.
I've tried the trick with the door on a few other kids, surprising them with a compliment for their show of respect and I'm constantly surprised by how quickly the new behavior is learned. I've seen it work with eight year olds and eighteen year olds. They like to hear praise and it's a lot more fun for me to be able to smile and say, "Good Job, Helen," rather than keeping the focus on faults.
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