How to Set Behavior Expectations

Children around 3-6 years-old have undesirable (or bad) behavior for two reasons: attention/access or avoid/escape. Older children and adults demonstrate inappropriate behavior for more complex reasons like spite but continue to be motivated by attention and avoidance. Behavior, whether appropriate or inappropriate (PC for good and bad), is all about what works. If something works for you and gets you what you want, you’re going to keep doing it. It’s proven successful so it’s going to be the go-to strategy. So when you create a behavior expectation, like you need eat dinner before you get a cookie, you’ve gotta stick to your guns and not back down. If you give in to an inappropriate behavior, you’ve opened Pandora’s Box.

Changing Bad Behavior to Good Behavior

If there’s inappropriate behavior, first you need to figure out why it’s happening. Is it to seek attention or to avoid something? After you know the “why” of the behavior, then you can manage it.


Attention seeking behaviors can be some of the loudest. Screaming, tantrums, kicking. Deciding whether an inappropriate behavior is all about giving attention can sometimes be a dead giveaway. My favorite example of this is when a child is screaming on the floor. The child stops the tantrum, peeks up at you and when they see that you are looking that them, the screaming starts all over again.

If you know that the purpose of the inappropriate behavior is to get attention, then ignoring the behavior is what you've gotta do. If your child is screaming because they want a cookie, then pretend like you don't hear the screaming. Ignore the inappropriate behavior on purpose so that your child knows that it isn't going to get them what they want. Keep a discrete eye on your child so that you know they're safe, but stay strong and don't give it.


We all have stuff we don't wanna do but as adults we (typically) procrastinate a bit and then do it. Kids have to learn to do what they don't wanna do. As a kid-teenager, I did this when I said "I had to go to the bathroom" at the same time we needed to do the dishes. Or I suddenly become super engaged in my homework when I'm told to clean my room. I'm doing something considered 'more productive' so that I don't have to do work. Avoidance is probably my top go-to behavior. Avoidance can also be loud and noisy like screaming. Like, hey if my mom tells me to clean up and I start screaming...then I don't have to clean. Light bulb. To put an end to the avoidance behaviors, you have to make your child follow through. Change the situation so that avoiding the undesired task isn't going to work. Like my mom did when she left out the dirty dishes and made me take care of them after I reemerged from 'the bathroom.'

Extinction Burst

Things will get worse before they get better. Right after you stop letting your child's attention seeking or avoidance behaviors work, your child is not going to be happy. This intense behavior is the extinction burst. Your child had a good thing going, they were able to work the situation to get what they wanted. Now for their own good, you're not giving in. So your child's going to give you their worst. The inappropriate behavior is going to get worse because your child is testing to see whether taking it to an extreme level could make you given in. Don't give in!!!!!! Stay strong!

Setting expectations

So if you just need to let your child know what you expect them to do, then you've made it to the easiest point! Just state what you want your child to do like "Right now we're walking" or "It's time to sit." Negation or using phrases like 'don't' and 'no' is a hard language concept for children to get so if you don't want your child to do what you say, then just use negation in a direction like "Don't run!" "No jumping!" Tell your child what you want them to do. Don't use the No's, Not's, and Don'ts. Click To Tweet

Reinforce Behavior

Praising appropriate behavior is what you do to seal the deal. Keep the good behavior coming by reinforcing it with statements like "Thank you for sitting!" or "I see your sharing. Thank you for sharing!" See what you just did there? You got your child attention for something positive which can flip the coin from "I'm going to be naughty to get mom's attention" to "Hey, I get attention when I do what mom asks. I like this attention so I'm going to keep doing what she says." And that, my friends, is behavior management 101.

Trying to get your child to follow directions? Check out this post.

  Image Courtesy of PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

3 thoughts on “How to Set Behavior Expectations

  1. It seriously is hard to remember in the moment. It takes time and quite a bit of conscious effort to build the habit.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I know from dealing with my own daughter that this is so true. Telling her what to do instead is so much more effective than telling her what not to do. Unfortunately sometimes it can be difficult to remember in the heat of the moment.

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