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Positive Scanning & How it Can Increase the Behaviors You Want to See

Have you ever noticed that you tend to see the things that you are looking for? I remember when I was trying to get pregnant, I suddenly began to notice every pregnant woman walking down the sidewalk, along with every baby store that I had passed that I had never previously noticed. Similarly, when having a bad day and looking for what else could possibly go wrong, there always seems to be something that does. This is due to scanning. The idea that when you look for something in particular on a consistent and conscious basis – you will find it! However just as you can use it to find undesirable things, you can also use it to scan for things that you want to see.

Scanning for and acknowledging positive behaviors is a strategy that you can use to devote more time and attention to your child’s desirable behaviors than to their undesirable behaviors. This strategy is based on 4 key principles:

1. Behaviors are strengthened or weakened by what happens after the behavior occurs. For example, a toddler who receives laughter and applause for making a funny face is likely to keep making funny faces.

2. Parent’s often attend more to their child’s misbehavior than their child good behavior

3. Attention from parents is so important to young children that they will continue a behavior even if it produces negative reactions. The result can be an increase in the very behavior that parents wish to discourage. For example, think about a child who continues to run away during mealtime over and over again as the parent shouts, “Don’t make me come and get you; you know not to leave the table!” That kind of attention will reinforce and increase that behavior.

4. Although a specific child’s behavior may be temporarily weakened by a negative response from the adult, there is no assurance that a more desirable behavior is being identified and encouraged in the process. For example, telling a child that she cannot go outside to play because she dumped her toys all over the floor does not teach the child how to put toys away. The “more desirable behavior” needs to be taught.

You can start implementing the strategy of scanning for and acknowledging positive behaviors by doing the following:

Select one desired behavior as a starting point

Begin by providing positive responses for the desired behavior while avoiding responding when that behavior is not occurring. Positive responses can include telling the child what he or she did well or providing nonverbal responses such as a smile, a high five, a pat on the back or a thumbs up. It can also include presenting favorite toys or other items.

Build on your success

Start providing positive responses for more desired behaviors while continuing to avoid responding when those behaviors are not occurring.

Move to more challenging behaviors after experiencing some success

Define the behavior you want to see occur more frequently. For example, maybe you want to see your child put their dishes in the sink after mealtime without screaming and crying. Now, think of situations or activities that might increase your child’s opportunities to practice engaging in the desired behavior. For example, maybe after baking cookies together your child helps with putting the bowls, utensils, measuring cups, etc. in the sink. Provide positive responses to your child as they follow through with helping you place the dirty items in the sink. After some practice and reinforcement for placing dishes in the sink, your child will be more likely to put his dishes in the sink after mealtime without engaging in undesirable behaviors.

Be prepared for your child’s behavior to get worse initially before it begins to get better. As long as you reward positive behaviors consistently while ignoring undesirable behaviors, you should see an initial improvement, followed by some variability (i.e., good days, bad days), and finally more consistent good days. Overall if you keep scanning for those good behaviors, you will find them!


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