What to Expect When Establishing Expectations
As parents, we often say things like, “I just wish my child would ____ (e.g., get ready on time, put away his things, finish her homework)”. Establishing expectations involves letting children know exactly what we want them to say or do, both generally and in particular circumstances. We all have expectations for our children’s behavior, but sometimes we may be less than clear about what exactly those expectations entail. This article provides strategies that will help increase the likelihood that children will understand and comply with our expectations.
Before launching into specific strategies, it is important to note that expectations are influenced by a number of different issues. First, families, communities, and groups have certain cultural and societal norms that dictate behavior, often communicated through laws, rules, and social etiquette. Second, expectations change and children grow and develop. We expect much more from a teenager than a two-year old with regard to their independence, social skills, and other abilities. Finally, expectations vary across circumstances. We are expected to behave differently at ball games, family gatherings, libraries, and religious services. Because expectations are influenced by these circumstances, as well as our personal values, every family will be unique in the behaviors they desire.
Taking these issues into consideration, we can establish expectations using the following principles:
Determine your priorities
Decide what behaviors are most important for your children to succeed not only at home, but also at school and in the community. Think about what is expected now, as well as what children may learn to do in the future. Then prioritize: determine which behaviors will lead to the ‘biggest bang for the smallest buck”. You might fill in the blank, “if my child would only do __, things would be so much better.” You might decide, for example, that sharing belongings, using gentle hands, listening, and/or picking up after oneself are essential to success across settings.
Establishing expectations is an important aspect of parenting.
Be clear about what you expect
Define exactly what you expect your child to say or do to meet the expectations. When defining expectations, be clear, complete, and concise, taking into consideration the age and level of understanding of the child. For example, gentle hands may mean “touching people only on their arms or shoulders with an open hand and listening may mean stopping what you are doing, facing the person, and following the instructions given. It is important to clarify behaviors that violate expectations as well (e.g., hitting, walking away when someone is talking).
Provide environmental cues
If needed, provide visual reminders of expectations. For older children, you might have a list of house rules (e.g., posted on the refrigerator or some other conspicuous place). For young children and other non-readers, you can use pictures or other arrangements (e.g., bins for belongings) to remind them of the expectations.
Model the behaviors you want
Follow the expectations yourself and encourage other family members and guests to do the same (e.g., say “We are teaching Leslie to use gentle hands with her friends. It may help if we would all avoid horseplay for a while.”). When modeling the behavior, point out and describe your actions, making them very clear for children (e.g., “I’m tired and don’t feel like cleaning up, but I will because we have agreed to pick up after ourselves”).
Clarify choices versus instructions
Differentiate whether giving a child the option to do something or telling the child she or he is required to perform a particular action. Choices begin with words such as “would you like, which one, and can you”. Instructions do not provide options (e.g., “Please start your homework now”) and are stated firmly. While we do want to maximize choices in our children’s lives, there are certain instructions that simply must be completed.
Set deadlines and criteria
Let children know when tasks must be completed and how well they need to be performed. For example, we might say “All of the clothes in the laundry basket must end up in your drawers” or “We are leaving at 3:05 and I need you to be in the car at that time.” A great way we can establish deadlines is through fun routines such as singing the “clean-up song” with the expectation that everything will be put away by the time the song is over.
Celebrate children’s successes
Provide praise whenever children follow expectations. If the children respond right away, try very hard, do a little extra, or take initiative, reward them in a bigger and better way such as offering a special activity or treat. One idea is to place tickets with special privileges (e.g., snuggle, trip to the park, choose dessert) in a jar, allowing children to select one ticket for following expectations all day or doing something particularly difficult for them.
Stick to your guns (follow through)
Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you establish an expectation, or ask a child to do something, make sure it is performed. Only ask children to do things that are reasonable and enforceable (e.g., because you can withhold privileges such as video games or outdoor play until it is done). Consistency is not easy, but it is critical to establishing expectations.
Establishing expectations is an important aspect of parenting. In doing so, it is very important not to overestimate or underestimate our children – or ourselves. We need to start with what our children are doing right now and gradually shape their behavior. Expecting more and more until they have achieved goals that will allow them to succeed in all aspects of life. Everyone must be both realistic and limitless. We also need to believe in ourselves: our ability to put all of these things in action, remaining unwavering even when it is hard. Many of us will make mistakes and let things slide from time to time because perfection is not possible, but we can always reset and reinforce our expectations.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2015 Magazine