By Guest Contributor Mark Paralovos
How in the world do you get your kids to listen to you when they really just don’t want to. Well, that was the problem we faced with our 3 year old. She didn’t care that we wanted to sleep - she wanted to have our attention. Below is how we reclaimed our sanity and change our daughters behaviour all without raising our voices.
Some quick background on my history. I’ve been a Youth Care Worker for the last 15 years. I have a 3 year old daughter and a 6 month old son. My daughter is a fairly good listener and overall is a great kid. But like any 3 year old she has behaviours that we want to change. Every child is different and each one will have different struggles. Our daughter really likes to be re-assured at night. This has translated into us waking up multiple times a night to a toddler (now kid) standing beside the bed. All she wants is to be tucked back in usually, but it still takes at least 10 minutes and often it’s difficult to get back to sleep for a while after being awake. Talk about draining! Imagine having to wake up once every hour on someone else's schedule! It’s a form of torture!
We were nearing the end of our rope and were starting to get frustrated with my daughter. Neither one of us wanted to start yelling or being upset with her on a regular basis so in order to maintain our sanity we decided to do something about it. What worked ended up being a fairly straightforward sticker reward program that I outline below. But first we tried some tactics that others had suggested.
We tried reasoning with her.
“Mommy and I just can’t get up every hour to tuck you in. Stay in bed because you need sleep too!”
Reasoning with kids under 3 never works. So we made a new RULE - kids love them and ALWAYS listen to them!
“Olivia - you are not allowed to get out of bed until this clock wakes up also”
That didn’t work so well either. Shocking that a sleeping 3-year-old didn’t remember (or care) about the rule. And yeah - we bought the special clock. Which she ignores to this day. Maybe when she’s older she’ll follow the rule. Lol.
So we tried asking her directly.
“Olivia. Can you PLEASE stay in bed for the whole night. We just need….sleep.”
That one actually worked - for one night. Then she was right back to her usual ways. We needed a long term solution. But more than that we needed an effective way to help our daughter change her behaviour that wasn’t going to result in both of us resorting to yelling and consequences.
A Word Of Caution
Now - I want to make a few things clear. My daughter is a wonderful, sweet and caring girl who is very loving and generous. But there are times when she chooses not to listen or when she will willfully throw herself on the floor and scream because she’s not getting her way. This is all part and parcel of growing up and I expect nothing less.
She can have, like any three year old, a hard time listening sometimes or a difficult time following your expectations.
But we used our program to tackle only one behaviour at a time. I’m going to put that in bold and say it one more time - because it’s worth repeating - use this for only ONE BEHAVIOUR AT A TIME. When something starts to work it’ll seem like the most obvious thing in the world to do it across the board. That is a fast lane to having it not work at all.
So What Exactly Did We Do?
We ended up doing a Sticker Reward Program that has short “prize” payout cycle. That’s the really simple term for what we did. These types of programs work really well for adults as well (as long as you stick to only trying to change one behaviour). The structure is that you choose one behaviour that you want to change. That is your target behaviour. Then you find a prize that your child wants to work towards. Then you tell them that every time they follow your expectation about this very specific thing they’ll earn a sticker. After 5 (or 10 or 15) nights they get a prize. Our prize structure was she would get a choice of a prize box toy for 5 and 10 and “big prize” choice for earning all 15.
I wanted my daughter to buy into this sticker program. It needed to be something she was interested in so I searched for “Frozen Sticker Chart Printable.” We’ve been running the program for around two months now and I have used the whole top row of reward charts. I printed one of them off (black and white copy) and posted it on the fridge.
We used some stickers that Olivia had laying around. A lot of her books and other toys tend to come with stickers as bonuses so we found we have a large collection of stickers around the house. They’re a necessity for this project so have a look around for some sticker or pick some up next time you’re out!
My wife and I discussed the top three “problem” behaviours that we wanted to talk about targeting with this tactic. Two related to sleep / bedtime and one was a dinner time behaviour. We were really tempted to put the two bedtime behaviors onto the single behaviour chart but I’m really glad we didn’t. It did turn into a stretch goal that we’re actually testing right now. The behaviour we targeted was the constant getting up at night. Previously she had been awake up to five and six times.
We explained to her that she would be allowed to get out of bed if she was scared and that she wouldn’t ever be in trouble if she got out of bed (this was important for me to make sure she understood that), but that if she got out of bed more than 1 time in the night she would not get her sticker. We explained it to her first at lunch time. Then again at dinner and then again at bedtime. We asked her if she had any questions. We restated our earlier arguments about why she should stay in bed. We were throwing everything we had at this.
And you know what? Yeah, it worked the first night. She was a holy terror to put to bed. That other behaviour I mentioned? The bedtime behaviour that we were also looking at targeting? That one got a bit worse during the first week of rolling this out. But for the first time in more than two months we were getting full night’s sleep.
The Prize Box
The Prize Box is really just a wrapped cardboard box with $15-20 dollars spent at the dollar store. We focus on puzzles, stickers, bouncy balls, colouring books, crayons or other “special” toys that otherwise also are things that she might need anyway. And Minnie Mouse Ears. This gives her a lot of power with her choices and makes the reward feel that much bigger. Often these small toys are less expensive than candy as well. While we do sometimes include candy in the prize box we usually try to avoid it. These prizes are given out every 5 nights until a “Big Prize” Milestone is hit. We usually make that after 15 nights but recently we reduced it to 10 nights after adding a stretch behaviour goal. So this process is designed to be flexible. It’s meant to be fluid and modified in response to how your child is responding to the rewards and the expectations.
The Big Prize
My daughter LOVES Chuck E. Cheese play places. Not because we’ve ever been to one, but because she watches YouTube and loves watching videos of kids playing at Chuck E. Cheese. Go Figure. We are lucky enough to have one within a 20-minute drive to my house so we made the “Grand Prize” a trip to Chuck E. Cheese. So after 15 nights (not consecutive) of staying in bed successfully she gets to choose that out of the prize bin. The big prize is meant to be something a little more expensive and something to be experienced together. I wouldn’t use something individual (an app store game for example) as the big prize. The big prize reward time is a great time to reinforce the hard work your child has done to earn the big prize and connect with them. I used it as a great one on one outing with my daughter. Something she gets less of now that she’s not the only child. She absolutely loved it (you can’t tell from the picture lol). The only potential drawback so far - Yesterday she asked us “for my next big prize can we go to the DISNEY PRINCESS CASTLE?!” Yeah, I think we might need to work a little bit on expectation management.
But even without the princess castle on the menu for a prize - she’s still staying in bed. And we’re expanding the program.
Mark Paralovos has been a Youth Care Worker for the last 15 years and a Dad for the last 3 years. He writes for Bearded-Dad.com and other publications around the internet.