This pandemic has been hard on families in a lot of ways. Being an employee, a chef, a maid, a home repair expert, a teacher and a parent 24 hours a day 7 days a week is a lot of burden for anyone to bear. Parents who see their children struggling with specific challenges may feel too burnt out to address them heads on right now—and that’s ok.  If your children are at home with you, you are already doing an enormous amount to teach them, even if you’re not consciously instructing them. 

What is Parent Modeling?
Don’t worry—it doesn’t involve a photo shoot! Clinicians refer to a couple of things when they talk about Parent Modeling. In one case, Parent Modeling is a therapeutic intervention employed by clinicians to teach parents how to change their children’s behaviors, also known as Behavior Skills Training. In the other, Parent Modeling describes what happens when parents behave in a certain way, and their children learn from it. We will focus on this one first. This can be for simple behaviors, like putting dishes in the dishwasher after a meal, or something more nuanced; like reacting to disappointing news. Even when our children are not under lockdown from a global pandemic, parents remain their greatest teachers. Though it may seem like our children are not attending to us, they are constantly absorbing the examples we set, for better or for worse.

How can I use this to improve our lives?
This is a real opportunity to help your children at home. Let’s say your child is sensitive to criticism. You can model how to accept criticism gracefully in your everyday lives. If you want to get creative, you can even conspire with your partner or fellow caregivers to offer extra examples of this to really drive the message home. It could look something like this:

Caregiver 1: Hey honey, I see that you washed the dishes, but I’m noticing there is still some food on them.

Caregiver 2: Thanks for pointing that out, I’ll keep an eye for that next time!


Caregiver 1: How did your presentation go?

Caregiver 2: I worked really hard on it, but my client thought it was lacking in a few areas. I was disappointed, but I’m grateful I have the chance to learn and improve. I’ll do better next time.

Parent modeling can be tricky. Sometimes we may model behaviors we do not want our children to emulate. I’m sure you don’t need me to list examples of occasions where you’ve wanted to tell your child “do as I say, not as I do”. Fortunately, this isn’t all bad. We all make mistakes and do or say things we regret. These are also opportunities to model owning up to our mistakes and moving past them. Maybe you have a child who can’t stop at just one serving of dessert, and you have a sweet tooth too.

Caregiver: Oh man! Those extra cookies seemed like a good idea last night but now my body feels uncomfortable. I wish I had stopped myself. Too many cookies is not a good thing.

Child:…how can there be such a thing as too many cookies?

Caregiver: If we eat so many cookies we make ourselves sick, it can teach our body to start disliking cookies! Also, we won’t enjoy them as much when we are already full, which seems wasteful. I’m going to go exercise and have a salad to make my body feel better—want to join?

If you have a child with special needs or who is working on a skill that is particularly difficult for them to master, you will likely have more success working with a clinician who can provide you with some Behavior Skills Training (BST). This is when a clinician models a behavioral intervention to a parent, and the parent performs the therapeutic intervention. In BST, you are the student, learning through modeling how to therapeutically change your child’s behavior. There are four steps to BST:

Instruction: The clinician will explain to you exactly what you need to do. This is also the time for you to ask questions and get answers that make sense to you.

Modeling: The clinician will show you exactly what to do.

Rehearsal: Your turn! You will practice doing what the clinician described to you and modeled to you.

Feedback: The clinician will provide you with specific information about what you did well and where you can improve. They should use easy to understand terminology and define any behavior terms that you aren’t familiar with. Again, ask questions, and share where you could use some help!

If a behavior you want to elicit is challenging enough to warrant BST, you will likely need to utilize a form of reinforcement to help your child develop the skill. This reinforcement can be faded as the skill becomes easier for your child, but will definitely speed up the learning process. For example, maybe your child absolutely will not wash their hands after using the bathroom. You’ve modeled this to them when you use the bathroom, but for some reason they are not doing this themselves. Well, the first step is to work with their clinician to understand why they won’t wash their hands. Are they bothered by the smell of the soap? Are they afraid they will hear the toilet flush? Once the cause is established, we can make some progress. Let’s say they just don’t want to take the time to do it because they want to get back to playing. Your intervention could look something like this:

Therapist: Ok, Corey doesn’t want to wash his hands because it’s keeping him from his toys. So proactively, you want to reinforce him on his sticker chart for washing his hands. Every time he washes his hands, he gets a sticker, and after 5 stickers he earns staying up 10 minutes past bedtime. Once he does this 5 times in a row he will need 6 stickers, then 7, and we will continue to fade until he doesn’t need it anymore. But reactively (when he doesn’t wash his hands right away after using the bathroom) we want to block his access to preferred activities until they are clean so that he doesn’t learn this is an effective way to get more play time. Does that make sense?

Parent: So…if he doesn’t wash his hands and then he tries to play and then I stop him and make him wash his hands, does he get a sticker?

Therapist: Great question! No. We don’t want to teach Corey that he can have this whole song and dance and attention from you and still earn a sticker. He only gets it when he immediately washes his hands after using the toilet. How about I model it for you?

Parent: Sure.

Therapist: Corey, I see you need to use the bathroom! Don’t forget, you can earn a sticker towards staying up late after you wash your hands! But if you don’t wash your hands you can’t play with anything until you go back and wash them, and you won’t get a sticker.

Ok Parent, now you give it a try.

Parent: Corey, when you use the bathroom if you don’t wash your hands you won’t get a sticker or toys. 

Therapist: Great job reminding Corey that there are consequences he won’t like if he doesn’t wash his hands. Let’s not forget that there is also a consequence he will enjoy when he does wash his hands! Corey will be more likely to want to participate if this feels like a positive experience instead of an opportunity for punishment. Lets try again. 

The Caregiver and the Therapist will continue to work together until the parent feels confident and comfortable with the procedure—just like you would want your child to feel if you were teaching them a new skill. 

Whether you modeling a behavior or you learning to change your child’s behavior from a therapist modeling to you, we are here to help. Please feel free to reach out with any questions on how to best help your child!

Written by  Dorrie Barbanel, LMSW, BCBA, LBA

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