Advice to parents on maintaining a peaceful home during the COVID-19  Pandemic

Updated: Aug 2

As the necessary social distancing measures impact millions of families across the country many have reached out seeking advice about how to manage the new reality that during normal working and school hours all members of the family are now at home. As a parent recently wrote me he is so thankful to have so much time with his family (“of course I love my kids but…”), but also scared that with so much time together, and normal routines disrupted(“…what do I do with them?!”), the family will be impacted by the stress of too much time together (“…how do I keep everything positive?!”). In response, I would like to post the following review of the 5-Step Competing Schedules model (Smith, 2001) and how it could be applied to understand, plan, and execute a coherent and grounded approach to ensuring this opportunity to embrace quality family time is realized. Clear expectations, maintained routines, and communication skills will be key.

 

The 5-Step Competing Schedules model (Smith, 2001) is designed to ensure we use an evidence-based proactive (positive and instructional) approach to influence behavioral patterns rather than rely on a reactive approach that leads to poor outcomes, stress, and damaged relationships.

 

The 5-Step Competing Schedules model (Smith, 2001) empowers people to understand how and why individuals select behaviors, and based on that understanding, the model is used to help plan efforts to promote the behavior one wants. The model was designed to ensure we use an evidence-based proactive (positive and instructional) approach to influence behavioral patterns rather than rely on a reactive approach that leads to poor outcomes, stress, and damaged relationships. This model is applicable across contexts and people so, for example, the model has been used by classroom teachers to develop a plan to promote their class expectations, as well as by a nursing school practicum supervisor to design practicum placement experiences to best prepare new nurses for the profession. The model has been used by training leaders for a business to design staff development opportunities tailored to established strategic outcomes, or even, this model can be used by parents hoping to efficiently teach what they value in the home or to respond to new situations such as the one many of us face today. The unique challenge many parents face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic is the established family-home schedule and routines are changed. Parents must re-define their roles of teacher, activity director, and supervisor.


So using the 5-Step Competing Schedules model to guide our thinking and planning, here are some suggestions to increase the likelihood this new situation is addressed in a strategic and grounded way. Readers are likely to find the model and the evidence-based behavior support recommendations that follow to be good ones for families to follow all of the time for they lead to better outcome. Good behavioral support is good behavioral support.


[I have a 1-page summary of all the strategies discussed in this post available for download and for personal use only please HERE]


Step 1: DEFINE & TEACH: Regardless of where the 5-Step model is applied, we always start with taking the time to define for ourselves what it is we want the learner to do. Without a clear and explicit understanding of the specific behaviors (i.e. expectations) you want, you cannot effectively teach or promote that behavior. So who are we teaching? Where do we want them to behave? And how do we want them to behave? Well, in this case the WHO is your own children and WHERE is in your own home. The HOW will be up to you.

 

Humans, and especially children need predictability, and consistently following routines is a great way to provide that.

 

As many parents scramble to respond to this new challenge we need to take a deep breath and really think about how we want the days and nights to look like. I would suggest you think about what activities and routines do you want the family to engage in, and when do you want them to occur. Humans, and especially children need predictability, and consistently following routines is a great way to provide that.


Think about what structured activities need to happen each day, and how much less structured time is needed. I would urge parents to develop a schedule where the time is allocated for school/learning, fun time with family, social interaction with friends and relatives (phone calls, video conferencing, through a window,…whatever technology you can use to ensure children still have social time with others will reduce much of the anxiety the current situation is creating for many of them), daily chores, exercise ( I can’t stress this enough for reducing anxiety, prevent “cabin fever” and improve the mood of all involved), and for whatever other activity you believe would be important for your children to engage in. Regardless of the activities you decide are important, a written schedule should be developed that lists the what and when of each. Once you know what the activities will be, you must be clear in defining how and when does each activity start, what are the requirements for each person involved, and how and when does the activity end. Now I can hear some saying, well can’t we just do whatever we want? Absolutely, we can’t have, nor do we want a dictated minute-by-minute list of activities for each 24-hour day. But as many of us are seeing, too much free time, and a lack of a predictable structured day creates anxiety and increase tension. So develop a schedule where most of the day is outlined as to what should be happening, and include, “free time” where family members are on their own to do whatever they choose It may be of benefit to think and help others know what the options are.

 

Allowing children ”choice” in deciding for themselves what activity to engage in, or even choosing what the family does as a group, is a powerful technique to use anytime.

 

Based on your children’s abilities, and understanding of time, I would define each activity, in part, by a start and end time (or at the very least a sense of total duration). Will “TV time” be 1-hour? Two-shows? Remember think how to define the beginning and ending of each activity and incorporate that in your definition of that activity. Once you have a good idea for what it is you think should occur, get your children’s input. Show them what you have come up with and see what they may want to add. Allowing children to participate in the development of plans builds enthusiasm and commitment to follow them. Allowing children ”choice” in deciding for themselves what activity to engage in, or even choosing what the family does as a group, is a powerful technique to use anytime. The opportunity for children now to have a say in what happens and when helps create a sense of control, feeds enthusiasm for something new, and increases buy-in and participation. As there are readers with children of all ages, think about your own children and how much choice may be best. Many of you with teenagers I would imagine will want to approach a schedule more loosely with more autonomy from your children than many of you with toddlers, but what is key is a well-defined and structured schedule and routine for the home within which children have choice.

 

Remember telling isn’t teaching.

 

We are clear in our defining of what, so that we can be clear in our teaching. And you do need to teach the schedule to your children. Teaching takes many forms, and we will talk about this more in Step 2, but for now know that you need to let children in on the development, and before you begin this new reality, there should be several discussions to ensure all fully understand what will be required. Now remember telling isn’t teaching. To deepen the level of understanding and learning be sure to create opportunities for children to ask questions. Prepare for and schedule a plan to review how things are going. Three good instructional techniques to remember are: (1) use less words that gets the message across and avoid lectures whenever possible. (2) Try to use many illustrative examples to help your children understand the full idea of what you are trying to convey, and (3) check for understanding after your illustrative examples.

 

…you need to actually follow whatever schedule you took the time to define and develop.

 

Last, I can’t stress enough, now more than ever, you need to actually follow whatever schedule you took the time to define and develop. If something gets off schedule, because something came up that's OK, get yourselves through it calmly and coolly, but get back on schedule as soon as it is reasonable to do so. If you find that something is always coming up that prevents the schedule from being followed, you may need to go back and more clearly define the schedule and teaching it to all involved.

 

To create predictability pre-view the day (or next days) schedule so that there are no surprises.

 

Step 2: PROMPT: Step 2 of the model talks about how parents are to behave and how they set up the environment to increase the likelihood their children do what it is you defined in Step 1. One way we do this is to create a visual schedule for each day of the week and refer to it often. If your children like to be creative, then have them participate in making that visual schedule. Some might use a dry erase board that changes daily, others may draw or paint on poster board the schedule for each day of the week. Some may have one for each day of the week and one for each person in the household, while other families may use a Google calendar that is electronically shared with all members of the family. What's important is you know your family and what might work—but have a visual to refer to, so all can remember the schedule. Call attention to and use it when discussing the schedule. To create predictability pre-view the day (or next days) schedule so that there are no surprises. Pay careful attention and ensure all know beforehand any changes in the schedule or activities not previously defined.

 

Each adult must be clear on expectations and have the same standard.

 

Step 2 is where we also talk about how the adults behave. In particular, we ensure the adults behave in similar ways. Each adult must be clear on expectations and have the same standard. So if dinner is at 6:30 PM on the schedule, both have to make sure it happens at 6:30, and the children know it is at 6:30. If there is a delay in schedule, like we mentioned that is OK, but notify your children. If 8:30, is “TV hour” both parents have to be on the same page on what channels children can watch. Step 2 is all about consistency across adults. Children do better when all the concerned adults have the same expectations and respond in the same way.

 

...it takes just as much time to tell them the right way, right before you want them to do it, as it does to tell them they have done something wrong… Be invested in having the right thing happen, not waiting for the wrong thing to happen.

 

Step 2 also means we use powerful techniques like pre-correction. Pre-correction is when we tell learners what we want them to do, right before we want them to do it. It's amazing that, believe it or not, this actually works about 80% of the time (even with teenagers). In trainings I always remind participants it takes just as much time to tell someone the right way, right before you want them to do it, as it does to tell them they have done something wrong. Plus, it gives the person one less time to practice doing it wrong. Think about it, why simply expect someone to do something, be disappointed that they don't do it, and then lecture them on how disappointed you are. Be invested in having the right thing happen, not waiting for the wrong thing to happen.

 

…this is a great…opportunity for your children to learn about something that they may not be focused on in school.

 

Quickly I want to suggest some ways to organize “school/learning” time at home, because many of you are now increasingly being asked to manage school time with your children. Some of you are managing the time your children are working on lesson material being provided by your school districts while others are taking this opportunity to develop your own lessons for children. Regardless of whether it is part of a formal school lesson or not, I think this “found time” is a great opportunity for your children to learn about something that they are particularly interested in. So what sort of learning could your children be engaged in? They could be researching a topic online, they could read a book or newspaper article(what are those) and develop a book/story report to recite to you. It could be you sit your teenager down and help them understand how to budget, then gave them the task of finding out realistically how much money they would need to go to have that “gap year in Bali” that they're telling you they're going to do next year. There are many online learning resources today. For those of you who have good access I would urge you to discuss, especially with older children, some commitment to enroll and complete online learning opportunities. I will leave it up to you to assess the quality and appropriateness of online learning options.

 

Consider combining these learning opportunities with time for them to interact with their friends.

 

Just with a little imagination, you could have your children learn about a topic of interest. I once worked with a family where their youngest child had a deep appreciation for dishwashing machines. Any aspect of dishwashing machines was of interest to this young man. I would be urging him right now to be googling dishwashing machine manuals, writing a report on the history of and development of various dishwashing machines, sorting pictures of washing machines, reviewing videos of various models of machines on You Tube, or better yet the DIY washing machine fixer videos available online. If your child plays an instrument there are wonderful online resources for them to explore new songs, styles. Consider combining these learning opportunities with time for them to interact with their friends. Have the collaborate on researching a topic, creating a work of art, or putting on a play or concert recital even though they are in different places. It seems like every time I turn on the TV the national media outlets are covering some great ideas individuals are coming up with to be creative at home.

 

Children should not only be engaged in learning new material, but review work, in part, is a good use of time.

 

I would think at the very least your children should be engaged in some sort of learning opportunity at least a couple hours each day. Based on the age and the interest this could be with you, on their own, or some combination of the two. I would urge parents to contact their child’s school for resources. Children should not only be engaged in learning new material, but review work, in part, is a good use of time. It will be important that adult supervise and ensure children do what they're supposed to be doing when they're supposed to be doing it. Assuming is never a good thing .

 

…the more opportunities a learner has to respond… and get instructional feedback the better off they do.

 

While we don't have the time to go into teaching practices in great detail let me cover a couple big ideas for you to use when you design lesson activities. First, the more opportunities a learner has to respond verbally, with a gesture (e.g. a thumbs up), or in writing and then get instructional feedback, the better off they do. Let’s be clear I don't mean simply write 1,000 times their name in one sitting. I mean they have the opportunity to write their name in many different contexts and always with the instructor (you in this case) giving them feedback on how they did. Each sentence in a paragraph on a certain topic are opportunities to respond. Every time someone practices a serve in tennis that is an opportunity to respond. Wise coaches know to be present and giving feedback until the server knows the proper steps and can self-critique before letting that person practice on their own. And the reason is if they don’t know the proper form they are likely practicing-but practicing the wrong thing. The same goes for academic and social skills. An opportunity to respond is simply a learning opportunity. So whatever the task is you are asking your child to do, provide them many opportunities to respond, and provide constructive feedback after each opportunity.

 

Always model what you want them to do first, then work with them through practice opportunities… and then and only then should you ever give a learner an opportunity to do something completely on their own.

 

The second big idea is to be sure you follow a good instructional sequence. Always model what you want them to do first, then work with them through practice opportunities to create an opportunity to gauge their performance, and give constructive feedback ( i.e. specific corrective feedback when they make an error with encouragement, or specific praise for doing something correctly), and then and only then should you ever give a learner an opportunity to do something completely on their own. There are times when we want learners simply to explore and discover things on their own—let me clarify—but not if we can make learning more efficient, by showing and supporting them practice the skill. Think of it like this: If you want to teach your daughter to shoot a basketball into a hoop you show her how to do it. You practice it with her, and then you give her the opportunity to practice it on her own. Then she makes the winning basket in a game. If you want your son to make a lasagna you would make it while he watches you do it, then prepare the lasagna with him, then give him the responsibility to feed the family on his own. Remember, we want to program for success, rather than wait and hope for success and try to fix problems after they've already been practiced.


Step 3: REINFORCE: Step 3 in the model simply addresses that reinforcement for engaging in the desired behavior must occur. Reinforcement occurs when a stimuli is added or removed immediately after a behavior and maintains or increases the future rate of that behavior. The stimuli that is added or removed is called a reinforcer. Reinforcers can be naturally occurring or conditioned (i.e. taught). An example of a natural occurring reinforcer is when we exercise, let’s say run, our body releases endorphins, and we feel a heightened sense of wellbeing (i.e. “runners high”). As a result, we run more often. Another example is when we are hungry and ingest food (i.e. eat) our hunger is removed, and therefore we are more likely to eat when hungry. Sometimes the naturally occurring reinforcers are there, but they are not powerful enough on their own to start to motivate a learner to practice the new behavior until it becomes a habit. For this reason, we add conditioned reinforcers to the mix. For example, when we teach a child to read the word, “cat” simply saying the word, “cat” out loud is not very reinforcing to most children. However, when we deliver enthusiastic praise statements when they correctly read the word ,“cat”, they are more likely to say, “cat” in the future. We can remove and should remove these conditioned reinforcers when the naturally occurring reinforcers are of sufficient rate as to maintain that behavior.

 

If we want kids to do things that we value it has to lead to outcomes that they value.

 

Reinforcement is not bribery and you will not damage a child's intrinsic motivation by delivering a praise statement. If you say to your kids, “If we all pick up our rooms [to the standard that you've defined for them] we will all earn an extra hour of Xbox© time.” This is an example of simply giving good contingent feedback for making the correct behavior. That's all reinforcement is . Knowing what is reinforcement for an individual is key because we are all different. You know what your kids like, so use those things as reinforcers. By following this new routine have them earn more time on Instagram© with their teenage friends, or maybe they earn more time shooting goals on your backyard hockey ring, or maybe they earn more time playing a game with you. What’s critical to understand is that people base their behavior on their outcomes and reinforcement is part of that. If we want kids to do things that we value it has to lead to outcomes that they value.

 

Once [a] new behavior has been reinforced enough times, then it will become a habit and a routine that is naturally reinforcing to the learner.

 

The key often, especially as humans get older is that there are not naturally occurring reinforcers for many of the things that we know are in our long-term best interest. This is compounded because often the “wrong” thing to do is easier than what we want them to do. For example, it is not intrinsically motivating for most teens, nor is there much naturally occurring reinforcement available for putting their clothes in a hamper, rather than simply throwing them on the floor. In those situations we can create the good habit of putting clothes in the hamper through a contrived reinforcement system where they access things they value, be it extra computer time or time with peers, if, when you check (and yes you have to do your part as parent) all of their clothes are in the hamper. Once that new behavior (i.e. clothes in hamper) has been reinforced (i.e. contingent access to computer time, or peers) enough times, then it will become a habit and a routine that is naturally reinforcing to the learner. The contrived reinforcement system can eventually be removed.

 

…be sure to deliver reinforcers for your children following the new schedule especially at the beginning.

 

To become a habit more reinforcement is needed for engaging in a new skill or behavior. So as you develop this new reality and schedule for your family, be sure to deliver reinforcers for your children following the new schedule. How much reinforcement is needed? Whatever is needed to be successful is the correct answer. Remember what science tells us. Accessing reinforcement is what results in a behavior being used in the future. Therefore, we have to ensure, especially at first, reinforcement is delivered for engaging in a new behavior before it becomes a habit. Know to, as the model suggests your children will more likely be able to access the reinforcers after we have done a good job of defining, teaching and prompting the desired behavior.

 

…have a more reinforcing activity following a less preferred task.

 

This new schedule is a new learned behavior and therefore we will have to ensure there is sufficient reinforcement available for following it. How might we do that? One thing we can do is always have a more reinforcing activity following a less preferred task. This might be, “schoolwork” first then a “walk around the neighborhood”, or “TV time”. For those who have teenagers, where the strength of peer attention is a powerful motivator for many, we may build in even more time with peers than we had already established in our schedule. We could do this by making social time with peers follow less preferred (or likely) activities) or as a conditioned reinforcer in the form of a contract. The contract might stipulate if they follow the schedule they get to stay up later for an hour to Snapchat© with friends.

 

Be sure to increase praise statements and use specifics.

 

What's good is that for most children your attention or praise statement is a powerful reinforcer. So use it often! Especially in this time of modified schedule we need to be sure to use our praise statements effectively. Be specific with what they did correctly (e.g. “thanks for remembering to take the garbage out and also replacing the bag during chore time”) and look for short periods of time where you can catch them doing the right thing. This is especially important to combat what we don’t want. So if you are concerned about your children teasing each other you may find a few minutes where they were NOT teasing and deliver a specific praise statement such as, “ Wow! I really like the way you two are being respectful of each other by only using kid words”.


Step 4: PREVENT: Step 4 in the Competing Schedule model is where we talk about preventing known triggers for problems. So this is where you, if you are parenting by yourself; or you and your partner ensure you are on the, “same page” on how new routines and schedules are to be followed. Step 4 is where we talk about avoiding things that trigger us being less than ideal parents. Strategies for scheduling the adults to maintain a low stress level should be had. Can you take turns being the primary “manager” while the other one works, take a nap, goes for a run? Consider what else you and/or partner may need to ensure you know and follow the schedule, maintain a low stress level, and get accomplished what needs to happen in the home.

 

…consider how to ensure that those known triggers are no longer present or teach your child a new way to respond to those triggers so that they don't get upset anymore…

 

If you know your children well, you know there are certain things that trigger them being upset. This Step is where you stop and carefully consider how to ensure that those known triggers are no longer present, or how you might teach your child a new way to respond to those triggers, so that they don't get upset anymore. For example, with increasing time together, peers may engage in teasing behaviors that may trigger escalations. So Step 4 of the model suggest we can either ensure siblings don’t tease, and/or we can teach your child to respond to teasing in ways that prevent them from being upset. This likely involves calmly walking away while engaging in some other behavior for the teased to distract themselves with. Now teasing is primarily motivated often by the reaction of the teased. So helping children minimize their response to such, over time will result in the teasing by the sibling to stop. But let’s not lose sight on we probably should engage in supervision and reduce the teasing in the first place. The 5-Step model suggests we have to go back to Step 1, and ensure all your children know what are and are not acceptable means of interacting with each other, give them ways to feel more in control as teasing often is motivated by a sense of control. Step 2 suggests we have to increase our prompting of no teasing, and supervision for such. Step 3 says we need to increase reinforcement for periods of time where there is no teasing.

 

A predictable schedule and choice are two ways of avoiding power struggles.

 

One common trigger for adults and kids is not knowing what comes next. Unpredictability and changes to one’s life that others make tends to trigger problems. That's why having a schedule and following it is so important. It also prevents unnecessary power struggles over what should be occurring. With a well-defined and taught schedule a parent simply needs to refer back to it. Children having increasing choice and ability to choose from two controlled choices is another way to avoid power struggles with your children, and to give your kids a burgeoning sense of control over their own life use that to your advantage. Be careful to offer choice proactively, not as a result of your child escalating.

 

[When] your child do[es] the wrong thing-purposely or not… we should think of these simply as errors. Take your value judgement, assumptions, and emotions out of it.

 

Step 5: RESPOND: Step 5 of the Competing Schedule model is where you plan how you want to respond to your child when they do the wrong thing-purposely or not. We know these will invariably occur and we should think of these simply as errors. Take your value judgement, assumptions, and emotions out of it. Why? When we perceive behavior of others as attacks we put up defense mechanisms to protect ourselves, and we often lose the ability to rationally choose our behavior. So when we take things personally we tend to lose our emotional grounding and that increases the likelihood we choose the wrong way to respond.


By demonstrating good emotional regulation (and the lack of good emotional regulation is often why children get in to trouble), we are more likely to provide a response that (1) keeps everyone safe, (2) provides the child an opportunity to know why it was an error, and (3) to practice doing it correctly so that there is an increased likelihood they do it correctly in the future. Everything should always be handled in a calm matter-of-fact fashion.

 

…focus more on children earning things by meeting clearly defined expectations…then coming up with negative consequences for doing the wrong thing.

 

It is best to be prepared knowing what your boundaries are, and following through with whatever response (consequences) you may have pre-established in your home. I would strongly urge all parents to focus more on children earning things by meeting clearly defined expectations (that's right Step 3 from above), then coming up with negative consequences for doing the wrong thing.

 

…“consequences” should be logical, match to the level offense, be short in duration, and be instructional…

 

A critical mindset shift for parents to understand and embrace is that “consequences” should be (1) logical, (2) matched to the level of offense, (3) be short in duration, and be (4)instructional. So rather than think about how to make a consequence so aversive, or what might get a child to feel so bad that they never do something again, you should be thinking about how do we deliver a logical consequence that shows your child that they made an error, why it's an error, and what they could do instead that is more acceptable to you than what they did incorrectly. For example, if they stayed up late to chat with friends; come up with a way for them to earn more social time rather than simply taking it away entirely. Teach them why it's important to get more sleep, and how staying up late and chatting, prevented them from doing that.


People do things for reasons and understanding what those reasons are so that you can try to teach your child a better way of getting that need met will help them become more independent and be an emotionally-regulated individual. After any moderate to major issue parents should consider what needs the child was trying to get met and carefully consider how going forward (and when things are calm) how they might teach and promote the child getting that need met in a better way.

 

…endeavor to create the reality we want rather than simply hope for it to occur, and commit to reacting to when it doesn’t…[When we] program for success there will be much reduced need to react to problems.

 

I hope readers picked up that the advice in this post heavily focused on Steps 1-3. That is not an accident. Good behavior support, grounded in the science of behavior, tells us to focus first on what we want more than what we don’t want. If done well, teaching, promoting and reinforcing what we want will go a long way to creating positive routines. That doesn’t mean we ignore when behavioral errors are made, or do not try to prevent known problems. It simply means we endeavor to create the reality we want rather than simply hope for it to occur, and commit to reacting to when it doesn’t . If we program for success there will be much reduced need to react to problems. When we are prepared we meet behavioral errors in a systematic, instructional and grounded manner.


If you would like to download (for your personal use only) a 1-page summary of all the strategies contained in this post click here


I do hope you all take this opportunity to create lasting positive memories during this time together with your family. This is a stressful time but one, if met with calmness, careful planning, and grounded in the science of behavior could create an opportunity for family memories that are lasting and positive. The current community health and economic challenges are great. Stress is high. The more we can calmly prepare, the better off we and especially our children will be. Do take care, reach out for support if needed, and do well.

I encourage all of you that are interested in learning more about the 5-Step model go over to the “Services” page on the website and sign themselves up for the 3-hour course we have as an introduction to this model. This is a fun class that is consistently rated as outstanding and many report that it fundamentally changes the way they think about their own behavior, their children's behavior, significant other’s behavior,…

 

Behavioral Big Ideas

(check out the Behavioral Primer Section for definitions and information about these key behavioral change concepts)

*Competing Schedule Model *Precorrection *Prompt *Reinforcement

*Reinforcer *Step 1 *Step 2 *Step 3

*Step 4 *Step 5 *Teaching