Will This Behavioral Stuff Work With My Kids Too?

A reoccurring question I get while facilitating in-person workshops is whether the strategies and tactics discussed in class can be applied to other settings—be it spouse, kids, or family dog. While my wife and dogs are beyond the scope of this reflection, becoming a dad has uncovered parallels in what works both on and off the job.

Below are two key concepts in behavioral science, along with some examples of home and work applications.

Use Consequences to Strengthen Antecedents: Circumstances in our environment (known in behavioral science as Antecedents) set the occasion for behavior. However, they don’t guarantee results. Use consequences – what happens to the individual during or right after the behavior – to strengthen your antecedents.

At home: To anyone who’s raised a toddler, the limitations of antecedents alone should be painfully clear. It was as if a switch flipped after my kid’s second birthday and her brain started translating my instructions to whispered suggestions. A simple request like “Come to Daddo please!” had previously resulted in a grinning baby headed my way. Now the very same words often result in a workout, as I chase and wrangle her into shoes or pjs. At home I found it important to teach my child that they cannot get away with ignoring me, especially when health or safety is on the line. I pick my battles, but when it’s non-negotiable I signal a clear consequence with my second and final request “Please come back right now, or I’m gonna have to help your body.” This tells her that it’s her last chance to come voluntarily before I pick her up. I always follow through on my word, and the first couple times did result in tears. Now however, she’ll typically comply with the first or second request thanks to the clear and consistent consequence specified within my request. I also make sure to arrange plenty of positive consequences for being a first-time listener – praise, smiles, and pointing out how it makes us both feel better while helping us move more quickly to the playground or story time.

At work: Training is an essential antecedent used to guide behavior on the job. Most leaders know from experience that training alone doesn’t always work. Even if employees wholeheartedly agree with what they learn in training, the gap from “knowing” to “doing every day” is often a tall order. It’s especially difficult when teams are rushed, stressed, and running lean. Signaling consequences before and after the training can help you capture the most value. On the front end, make it clear that learners are expected to do something differently after the training, and highlight the expected benefits to them and the team. On the back end, make sure to ask what small changes they’ve made and what differences they are noticing. Be sure to show that behavior change is a priority and expectation by investing time and energy into helping performers scale the learning curve as they form new, productive habits.

Avoid Satiation by Using Questions: Satiation, or the decrease in effectiveness of a reinforcer due to overuse, can present an obstacle to building habits with positive reinforcement. Use open-ended questions to mix it up, while promoting independent learning and discovery.

At home: I know my own praise/attention carries significant weight in my child’s eyes, but I also know there are some arenas where that won’t cut it. For behaviors critical to health and safety, I knew it was important to arrange for as much reinforcement as possible for doing it right. Case in point – the behavior of holding the handrail while climbing up or down the stairs. Instead of constantly telling and reminding my 2-year-old to hold the rail, I use questions to help her understand why it matters. For example, after watching her successfully ascend (while holding the rail) I once said, “That’s such big girl stuff! How did you get all the way up there safely and on your own?” We exchanged proud grins when she responded, “I used the rail so I will not fall!”

At work: At first, using more positive reinforcement can be as simple as taking the time to acknowledge and thank people for a job well done. But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. If employees hear nothing but “good job, thanks,” they may begin to tune it out. You as a leader may even feel foolish saying the same thing, and slow down on proactive coaching. Experiment with different ways of arranging positive reinforcement for desired behaviors, like using open-ended questions. Instead of simply praising someone for achieving a desired result, try asking how they were able to achieve it. This simple question can open the door to more discussion about specific behaviors, which gives you an opportunity to highlight the impact of their unseen but valuable efforts. You may even uncover best practices and opportunities to share insights across other performers or departments.

Behavior and the natural processes that govern it are all around us, operating all the time. An investment in deepening your knowledge of behavior – and how to influence it – is an investment in becoming more effective in each of the many roles we hold.

Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.