Saturday, April 9, 2011

What are Coping Skills? Part Four: Teaching Children How To Self-Manage Behavior

We can teach children to verbalize their thinking and to use these verbalizations to guide their own academic and social behavior. Using the self-instruction procedure, students learn to self-verbalize statements, questions, directions or instructions, and even their own cognitions (their thoughts and the way they interpret events) to influence and change their performance.
In the cognitive literature, self-instruction is also called behavioral self-management training, self-instruction training, or behavioral self-control. With minimal variations, all these procedures train children in how to talk to themselves, first aloud and then silently, in order to guide their own behavior. Children learn to use self-statements (words or phrases) to interrupt themselves before they perform an inappropriate act (e.g. leaving task, fighting, or blurting out answers).Through this internal private speech, children bring their behavior back to their control.
Self-instruction deals mainly with academic and behavior problems such as inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, organization skills (scheduling), and anger management. It is also an essential component in teaching children the problem solving steps. The cognitive literature indicates that self-talking influences the behavior and academic performance of students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders.
Behavioral self-control is the ability to direct and change own behavior. When teachers help troubled and anger-prone students identify the negative things they say to themselves (e.g., “I am dumb!” “I cannot do anything right”; or “This is too hard. I will never get it”), and we assist children in changing these self-defeating statements into positive thoughts (e.g., “This is hard, but I will try my best”), we give students an effective cognitive tool that enables them to influence their own behavior and actions. This new, positive self-talking also helps in developing a more optimistic perception and interpretation (cognitions) of social problems and troublesome events, ultimately, leading to more optimistic and better-adjusted children.
Some of the things that children can do while using self-management procedures are:
  1. Giving themselves self-instructions about what to do in a specific situation, for example, talking through the steps
  2. Asking self-questions about:
  1. The nature of the problem
  2. The most effective approach to a task
  3. The relevant information
  4. Accuracy of their performance
  5. Quality of their performance
  1. Giving themselves corrective feedback
The more comprehensive self-instruction training, from which self-instruction derives, includes a set of procedures designed to help children develop the ability of self-regulating their behavior, making students managers of their own behavior. Self-management training is a student-centered strategy that aims at decreasing problem behaviors in the classroom, like leaving task, out of seat behaviors, inattention, impulsivity, and poor anger control, while at the same time increasing the student’s independence by making children responsible for their own behavior (Vanderbilt, 2005). Self-management training, then, aims at developing self-control, or the ability to manage own behavior, based upon the information that the child receives while he or she is applying the different self-management phases or steps. Although with some variations from author to author, basically, self-management training consists of:
1.      Self-monitoring, self-observation, or self-assessment. The child learns to respond to an external cue (for example, the ring of a bell or clock) to determine the presence or absence of the target behavior. In other words, the child learns to discriminate, or being aware of, whether the target behavior (e.g. talking out of order or out of seat behavior) happened or not.
2.      Self-recording, where the child registers the results of own behavior in some pre-established form, for example, tallying how many times the target behavior took place. For instance, on a note card, the student records one-tally mark each time she is on task. Children can record specific features of their behavior like frequency or duration.
a.       Frequency self-recording. The child records the number of times the target behavior happened, e.g. words spelled correctly, raising the hand, or staying on task.
b.      Interval self-recording or time sampling, where the student records whether she engaged in the target behavior during a specified period. Here, a block of time, for example, half an hour, is split into smaller intervals (e.g. six mini-intervals of five minutes each), and, at the end of each mini-interval, the student records whether the target behavior happened. For example, on a note card, at the end of each five-minute interval, Casey wrote “Yes” or “No” to answer the question, “Am I on task?”
c.       Duration self-recording is used when the length of the behavior matters. Using a wristwatch or clock, the teacher or parent records how long the behavior lasted (e.g. tantrum).
3.      Self-evaluation, or determining the adequacy or inadequacy of a response by comparing the results to a criterion level or standard. For example, to the question, “Am I on task?” Casey wrote four “Yes” and two “No” which indicates that, during the half-hour recorded, the target behavior happened four out of six times. If the goal for Casey is five out of six times, this means that the child is close to reaching the standard. With tantrum behaviors, a decreased length in time (e.g. from 18 minutes to 12 minutes) can be used as a measure of progress.
One example of self-evaluation is self-rating, where the child rates herself every specified amount of time according to how well she performed the target behavior. For example, 0= not well, 1= fairly well, and 2= really well.
4.      Self-reinforcement, where the child self-awards points for performance based upon her own judgment or a pre-determined criterion. The child chooses and administers her own reinforcement, for example, extra computer time or a small toy. The child also decides the schedule for receiving the reward, for example, at the end of the day or every Friday afternoon.
5.      Self-instruction. This is the only step that requires oral language. This step is all about saying the instructions to the steps, first aloud and then silently or whispering. For example, the child recites the directions for solving a three-step word problem or the relaxation steps to defuse angry feelings. Alternatively, the child can verbalize affirmations (e.g., “When I do something wrong, I try to think of all the things that I do right”), do a neatness check (e.g., “Did I complete all the steps?”), or check accuracy.
It is well known that just recording the frequency of a problem behavior is often effective in reducing the problem behavior. This is because recording the frequency helps develop awareness of the behavior.
At the beginning of a self-management training the teacher, staff member, or parent may have to point out each time the target behavior appears until the child is able to recognize the target behavior independently. To train a child to recognize a target behavior, we can use matching, that is, both the coach and the child record the behavior, and the coach rewards the child every time they agree.
Self-monitoring works best when we incorporate a cueing system, like a gesture or a signal, into the system, so that we regularly prompt the student to self-record. To strengthen the student’s awareness and to reinforce the child’s self-evaluation skills, we can train him to use a behavior diary. Each time the target behavior appears (e.g. tantrum or cursing), on a note pad, the child writes the circumstances or triggers surrounding the behavior. The behavioral diary helps the child find patterns in the disruptive behavior, such as the time of the day, what the student was doing (activities), and the people who are regularly present. Finding triggers and patterns of behavior also help in developing and implementing preventive measures.

Rewarding the Student

The teacher or coach can administer the rewards, or the teacher can train the student in self-administering rewards. Always keep in mind that a self-administered reward is often more effective than a teacher-administered reward. Some examples of teacher-administered (verbal) rewards that we can use are:
  • A positive or verbal comment
  • Praising the child
  • A nonverbal gesture like smiling to the child or winking
Vanderbilt (2005) identifies effective teacher-administered rewards (verbal praise) like saying the student’s name, stating the correct behavior that the child performed, and giving positive feedback. A simple comment like, “Nicki, I noticed that you checked all the items in your neatness list before turning in your paper. You are doing a great job” can be extremely rewarding to a child.
Our words of praise and encouragement are rewards to our students. Whenever we use words to express a positive feeling (e.g., “This makes me very happy”), we are giving a reward. When we say, “Thank you for sharing,” we are giving a reward. When we pay attention to the child or spend time with him, we are rewarding. When we say, “I like the way you are working on your spelling workbook. Keep up the good work!” we are rewarding. When we say, “Your math is improving everyday” or “That is good thinking, Joel,” we are rewarding. The point is that our words can be both therapeutic and rewarding to children. Cultivate the habit of saying nice things and giving rewards with your words.
Some examples of student-administered self-reinforcement are:
  • Complimenting themselves
  • The child awards himself points for _____
  • The student uses a self-reinforcing statement to recognize success


Vanderbilt, A. A. (2005). Designed for teachers: How to implement self-monitoring in the classroom. Beyond Behavior, 15(1), pp. 21-24.

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Of Interest to Teachers...
Essentials of Emotional Communication for Reaching the Unreachable Student: Where Do I Start? What Do I Say? How Do I Do It? To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

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