PARENTING: Teaching Skills, Breaking Habits, and Changing Behavior

Ascension Episcopal School
Is it possible to change your child's unpleasant behavior if it is driven by habit or impulse? Does punishing or shaming change behavior positively? Dan St. Romain, national Educational Consultant and author, posed these questions and more perspective-changing insights to preschool faculty and staff at Ascension Episcopal School recently. 
“We know as adults that taking work home with us isn’t a positive behavior. We need downtime and family time to recharge.  And yet, it has to be done sometimes.  Problems arise when we take home work on a regular basis, and this behavior becomes a habit,” says St. Romain, “because changing a behavior, once it becomes a habit, is very difficult.” It takes practice and choice to change this behavior. Our children are no different. They have moments of negative/poor behavior, which can often be attributed to poor sleep, hunger, stress, or choice. But, when this behavior becomes a habit, a new perspective is needed. 

Although Dan St. Romain focuses on helping teachers around the nation, many of the skills presented, directly apply to parenting in today’s world. With a neurodivergent child of his own, St. Romain is passionate about equipping teachers and parents with the tools to help children grow to confident souls. 

GOLDEN RULE: Building relationships is the first step to changing habits and creating positive behaviors. Children should WANT to please you, not fear you. 

“As humans, we are creatures of habit. Adults will naturally have a predisposition to discipline children the same way in which they were disciplined. This creates problems due to the societal changes that have impacted behavior. Most adults grew up in a compliance-based system. (Because I said so. That’s why.) Although compliance-based discipline was an effective method for changing behavior in past decades, it is not the most effective way to change behavior currently. Compliance-based discipline is an effective method for children who rarely misbehave. However, when we examine the effectiveness of these methods with youth who demonstrate more challenging behaviors, the results are not as favorable,” St. Romain explains on his website,

TIP 1: The more a behavior is repeated, the more ingrained it becomes, good or bad, positive or negative.

“It is not appropriate to punish kids for skill deficits,” says St. Romain, if we have not taught them a better way.  
  • What if a child who impulsively runs in the hall is allowed to practice walking instead of being shamed for breaking a rule? 
  • What if a child who is unkind to another is encouraged to say 3 nice things to the one they hurt? 
  • What if the habitual interrupter is given the idea to write down ideas so they aren’t forgotten?
TIP 2: When we move from a place of reacting to a place of responding to behavior, we start looking for solutions rather than blame. 

Reacting is deeply tied to emotions, fear, and pain.  Responding is cognitive and requires self-control, empathy, and understanding. “By shifting our perspective, we are in a better place to design effective strategies, which will lead to positive behavior change,” says St. Romain. One can begin to change their focus from good/bad behavior to skill strengths and weaknesses.  Responding is more challenging but is vital to building the relationships necessary to change behavior.  It creates trust through consistency, respect through clear expectations, and internal motivation through self-confidence and pride. 

TIP 3: Become aware of the unintended consequences of too much praise and too much fussing.  

“If a child is initially motivated to help a friend because of empathy but then is constantly given external rewards, we risk changing a child’s intentions away from empathy and towards rewards,” says Dan St. Romain. Too much fussing rather than teaching can also teach a child they are not good enough when really it is only a skill deficit.  As a result, a child may label themselves with negative traits like “too much,” “stupid,” or “lazy.” These labels are often carried to adulthood and may be reinforced by society even further.  As parents and teachers, it is our responsibility to change their self-talk and empower them with the skills to overcome skill deficits.  

  • Target behavioral skills and then teach them
  • Help children identify gifts and challenges
  • Set goals with your child and stay consistent
  • Focus on practice more than punishment (model & repeat)
  • Assess with kids and celebrate progress (growth mindset)
We are so thankful for our parent's partnership and contribution to Annual Giving, which allowed us to bring in Dan St. Romain.  With social-emotional intelligence being more indicative of long-term success and happiness than academic success, this special professional development advances Ascension’s mission of educational excellence in a Christian environment.

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When it comes to our children, one of the most important gifts we can provide for them is opportunity. It not only prepares them for their future but also gives them the independence to discover and define who they are: who they want to be. Our faculty and staff focus on developing the whole child, with a curriculum designed to teach lifelong learning skills.