no pills, no therapy, no contest of wills

by Dr. Alan Kazdin with Carlo Rotella

The Kazdin Method® was honored with the Self-Help Seal of Merit award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

“This book is THE place to look for evidence-based advice about how to become an exemplary parent.” –Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of The Optimistic Child

“Though Kazdin’s approach seems complicated at first, his easygoing and often humorous tone gently guides readers through an array of problem scenarios, including bedtime, tantrums, grocery shopping with a younger child, getting ready for the school day and homework. The author promises long-lasting results for a temporary investment in his practical, positive method; parents may be well rewarded if they give it a try.” —Publishers Weekly

The best way to eliminate an unwanted behavior is to build a strong alternative behavior in its place, what’s called the positive opposite of the unwanted behavior.  The Kazdin Method® provides step-by-step instruction in how to do this under almost any conditions.  If your child has horrible tantrums or just mildly intolerable ones, if your child does not do homework, or does not listen, to take three common examples, the method gives you a reliable and research-proven set of moves you can make to address the problem in the home, or wherever it occurs.  The method guides you in defining the behavior you want and then creating opportunities for your child to repeatedly practice it–working up to it by increasingly closer steps, if necessary.  And the method shows you exactly how to reinforce good behavior with good consequences without throwing rewards at your child.

There is no magic to the method.  It takes root in decades of accumulated research on how to develop positive behaviors, eliminate undesired behavior, and achieve greater peace in your home.  It will change not only your child’s behavior but your own, giving you a structured repertoire of parenting moves that will allow you to stop falling back on the usual ineffective ones:  nagging, endless explaining, threatening, yelling, harsh punishments, and the like.  In the book, I first identify the myths that guide most of our parenting and then move on to show you, in close and systematic detail, exactly how to use point charts and rewards, manage conflict-inducing routines (like getting to school on time), get control of misbehavior in public, deal with those hard-to-define problems like “bad attitude,” use punishment well (that is, sparingly, mildly, and effectively), work with more than one child, deal with infrequently occurring but sometimes serious problems, and more, lots and lots more.  I also discuss how to troubleshoot and improve a program that isn’t working as well as it should, how to extend good behaviors to new situations, how to deal with parenting stress and household chaos, and how and when to seek professional help.

I recognize that there’s an overload of parenting advice out there.  Part of the problem facing a parent, in fact, is that there is so much advice, it’s often contradictory, and most of it lacks any support in serious research.  With professional experts of all kinds promising that their way works, with friends and friends of friends telling you stories about how so-and-so’s kid was turned around by a new parental strategy or miracle diet or whatever, it’s hard to figure out what actually will work for you and your child.

There is a way to establish what actually does work.  It’s called science.  Over the past few decades researchers have been quietly pressing forward in the effort to understand child development, childrearing, parent-child-interaction, and all sorts of other matters that converge on your child’s social, emotional, and behavioral adjustment.

Within the extensive research on human behavior in general, there’s a great deal that tells us specifically about the behavior of children. You may be surprised to hear that scientists have studied the most effective way to give a command to a child, or that they have rigorously compared the effectiveness of rewarding good behavior and punishing misbehavior.  There are even studies that tell us very specific things like, for instance, the most effective way to speak to a child when asking her to do something she’d prefer not to do:  brush her teeth, wear a jacket, get off the phone, or go to bed on time.  Obviously, very few parents have the time or training to get up to speed on the latest research in psychology, not to mention child development and neurobiology and all the many related fields. But they can benefit profoundly from what researchers in those fields have discovered.

My method for changing your child’s behavior is based on good science–on what we currently know about children’s behavior from the results of sound, well-conducted studies.  I do not offer impressionistic beliefs or unsupported opinions about childhood.  In the book I’ll tell you something about the research and basic principles that underlie this approach, so you get a sense of why it works, but my emphasis will be on what to do and how to do it.

One great virtue of the method is that the same principles and techniques apply to the full range of situations for children of all ages.  I’m talking about everything from the milestones of normal child development–eating, toilet training, sleeping in one’s own bed, not having tantrums–all the way to clinically severe behaviors like fighting, stealing, lying, and fire setting.  The method has been demonstrated to be effective in the usual slightly harried home situation and in much more difficult home ones.  As long as you are committed to systematically taking this approach to changing the behavior of your child, even an imperfect and partial application of the method produces results.

First, you must shift their own focus of attention.  As parents we tend to be experts on what we want our kids not to do.  For example, I want him to stop whining, talking back, and ignoring me.  I will teach you to focus more positively on what you do want your kids to do–When it’s bed time, I want him to go directly, quickly, and quietly to bed–and give you the tools to systematically reinforce that behavior until it replaces the behavior you don’t want.

You’ll learn how to build up the behaviors you want:  how often your child must practice the good behavior in order for it to take, how to set up situations so that the behaviors you’d like to see are much more likely to occur, how to create more chances to practice, how to praise most effectively, how to set up and give rewards that work, how to get from the desired behavior never happening to seeing it happen a lot, how to troubleshoot and improve a program that’s not working well enough.  I will have much to tell you about the details, because they can make all the difference between success and failure.

When you commit to positively reinforcing the behavior you want, you can be kinder to your child while being more systematic.  We tend to fall into a trap of believing that getting serious about behavior problems means getting negative:  more punishment, tougher standards, “zero tolerance.”  But positive reinforcement requires a very different kind of effectiveness from a parent:  better praise, more purposeful rewards, greater attentiveness to a child.  It draws you and your child closer together as it makes you a more effective parent.

Parents who use my method often find great relief in discovering that getting down to business doesn’t have to mean bearing down even harder on their children.  Being more effectively gentle and positive with your child doesn’t mean being spineless.  The reverse, in fact, may be true.  Flying off the handle, perpetual anger, shouting, hitting–those are the truer signs of a defeated, ineffective parent.  Positive reinforcement tends to calm a household because it offers clear, attainable objectives for parents and children alike to aim for in shaping behavior.

My method does not require a life-long commitment.  The program you’ll set up for changing your child’s behavior works like a frame you place around a growing plant to train it up straight and healthy.  The plant is better behavior, and once it can stand on its own you’ll take down the frame.  You will not be awarding tokens or keeping track of rewards forever.  In fact, most parents find that such concentrated interventions take effect very quickly and can be largely discontinued after a relatively short time, like a month or two. The intention here is that you build the frame of this method around your child’s changing behavior, but that once the desired behavior takes deeper root and gains in vigor, you quickly scale down the frame and then take it down entirely.