On both international and domestic flights one of my top tips is to have a range of activities, like books, puzzles or games for your child to engage in. When my children were very small I mixed in a few new items, like colouring books or small toys and wrapped them. Keep these in reserve. If your child is becoming fed up, the act of looking at something new, taking time to unwrap and then scrunch up the paper can be a calming respite for everyone. A favourite activity was a set of finger puppets which fit into a small pocket of a carry on bag and could be part of an action song or characters in a story. In moments of desperation airline sick bags make great hand puppets. If you have marker pens or crayons or even a ball-point pen you can decorate them and create characters. Card games are another great easy to pack and carry entertainment for children. Naughts and crosses and connect the dots can be set up in a moment on a spare piece of paper. Eye spy and animal, mineral, vegetable don’t require any resources other than some attention, perfect for standing in line waiting for customs.
These days most international carriers have ‘magical’ video screens with entertainment designed for young ones. Parents and children often travel with devices which can be pre-loaded with apps and content which can keep children occupied for long periods of time. It’s thinking about those moments when the digital devices aren’t available and you might need a way to keep your child entertained that will help to make the experience enjoyable for everyone.
On overnight flights it can be helpful to change babies and young children into their night attire. This helps to signal to them that the venue might be different but the routines are going to be the same. Keeping to an eating routine can be a little more tricky as airlines tend to offer meals at the beginning and ends of flights which do not always coincide with when you might expect to be eating under normal circumstances. Encourage your child to eat something if they are hungry if nothing else opening all the cute packets and sampling new things can be a good diversion while the adults are eating. Drinking is very important and fluids should be available to everyone throughout the flight. Little and often is a good guideline for children. They may not be thirsty but encourage them to take a few sips often throughout the flight.
Transit and connecting flights can often be very stressful for adults who are trying to figure out where the next gate is and what formalities need to be completed. It is very easy to become distracted. In these situations when my children were young I did on occasion use a leash with my youngest son who was a runner. I had a huge fear that when we were moving through Los Angeles Airport he would run away from me. For an interesting and somewhat light hearted look at this issue check out this video of my colleague and friend Michele Blick, registered educational psychologist and chairperson of the Institute of Educational and Developmental Psychology being interviewed on 7 Sharp on the topic of using a leash with young children. Another strategy I used was to dress my two boys in similar outfits with bright colours so it was easy for me to keep an eye on them. Letting children know in advance that there might be some times when they need to let mum and dad figure out what comes next and then giving the children praise if they manage to stick with you despite not giving them a lot of attention is the best way to manage the situation.
With a little forward planning, setting the right expectations and looking for the positives your next flight, short or long, international or domestic will be a fun experience for everyone.
At the start of the last school holidays I blogged about how to have a successful school holiday break. I mentioned that flying with children deserved its own blog post and here it is now. If you are flying internationally or domestically with your children this school holiday I have some ideas to make things go smoothly. With the school holidays less than two weeks away I suspect anyone planning on getting away is thinking about getting ready. This will be a two part blog. Today part one and next week part two.
In this area I have a bit of personal experience to back-up my psychological knowledge. For 10 years I lived in the Midwest of the United States. In other words a long, long way from New Zealand. Along with my husband and two children we made a lot of international and domestic flights to visit family and friends in New Zealand and within the USA. My husband’s brother lived at different times in Singapore and France and we were lucky enough to visit him too. I’ve experienced delays, rerouted flights involving overnight stops in unexpected places, a baby with ear problems, grumpy and fabulous flight attendants, and I still think flying with children is at worst bearable and at best great fun and entertainment.
To begin with it’s important to be realistic about what the experience of flying with children might be like. In the good old days you might have jumped aboard a plane, magazine or book in hand, enjoyed a quiet cup of tea or coffee/wine and then watched a few movies you had missed out on. Flying with children, more likely, means you board the plane with a bag full of baby/children’s gear, grab as much water as you can and watch bits and pieces of movies in between interruptions from children. Having said that I have some great memories of flying with my children. In our busy worlds having one to one time with our children without other distractions can feel like a real treat.
The key is preparation. As you plan your trip, involve your children as much as possible. This can be as simple as talking about the plans. Depending on the age of your children getting them involved in making some choices and researching activities is a great idea. Talk to your children in advance about what might be expected of them as they travel. Some things just can’t be avoided such as security checks, waits to board planes and customs and immigration procedures. Children cope best if they know in advance what might happen and are given the opportunity to ask questions.
If you are travelling domestically, having small snacks available with you is a great idea. A container of carrot or celery sticks, sliced fruit or easy peel mandarins make snacks that travel well and are easy to eat. Babies and small children who experience ear pain on take off and landing may find that sucking on a bottle or sippy cup can relieve the pain. You may want to board the plane equipped with these in your carry on bag. If you are travelling internationally you may not bring liquids through security screening but you can purchase them once you are through security and flight attendants can provide water on board.
If you are travelling internationally check out what food will be acceptable to bring into the destination country. Generally processed and packaged foods are OK and this might be the time to pop a few muesli bars and packets of crackers into your carry on for emergency snacks. Airlines will often provide particular meals for young children and babies if requested. It’s good to have some kind of back up though just in case the airline doesn’t load your requested food or your child doesn’t like the food offered.
More on this topic next week.
Psychology has a lovely, neat answer to that question. A powerful tool we can use to get our children to behave is to point out what they are doing right and to keep on pointing this out to them. Reinforcement is the technical name used by psychologists to describe a very effective method of increasing behaviour. There is even a magic ratio associated with this idea of reinforcement, 5:1. This ratio applies to all human behaviour not just children’s behaviour. It is necessary to deliver five reinforcing statement to one corrective. This means that if you tell someone to do something you will need to follow that up with five other reinforcing statements that increase their behaviour. In fact, this ratio has implications for research into successful marriages. In a 2003 paper, Is there a formula for marriage?, John Gottman and James Murray write about the 5:1 ratio being a way to identify a successful marriage. Looking for a way to get your spouse to do the dishes/put the rubbish out? The science tells us that reinforcing desired behaviour using a ratio of 1 telling them what to do followed by 5 incidents of reinforcement will get them onto it.
This idea of reinforcement is famous enough to have made it onto T.V. on The Big Bang Theory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA96Fba-WHk. Check out this link to a clip of Sheldon, ‘training’ Penny to perform particular behaviours. As funny as this is, it is a little unrealistic, this is T.V. after all. There are a few technical inaccuracies in the video. Let me know if you can spot them. When you are working with human behaviour it’s not a great idea to reinforce behaviour with food, especially with as much frequency as needed to get to the 5:1 ratio. Leonard’s outrage at Sheldon’s behaviour is pretty much how most of us would react to this kind of manipulation of someone’s behaviour.
If you would like someone to do more of a particular behaviour, step one is to make sure they know how to do that behaviour. If you aren’t sure, then step two is to show them how to do it. Then give them some opportunities to practice with a more skilled person who can guide them through the behaviour. All through this process make sure you are using reinforcement at each step. To reinforce well you must be specific about what someone is doing well.
An example of a narrative in a setting where a parent might be teaching their child to cut an apple might go like this. “Great work holding the knife in a safe grip - you are doing it just like I showed you”. “OK, now put the sharp point into the top of the apple, making sure you keep your fingers away from the blade”. “That’s excellent”. “You’ve put the knife exactly where I showed you”. Each statement has a component of describing the exact action taken and an element of praise linked with that. Add on comments to increase the reinforcement could be, “you did such great work cutting your own apple, I’m going to have to tell mum/grandad about how well you are managing”. Remember the goal is that 5:1 ratio. With your own child reinforcement can also be a hug, high five, arm around the shoulder or other non verbal methods of demonstrating your approval. Even pointing to their action, smiling and giving a thumbs up will work once you are sure they know what it is you are pointing to.
Being a child means that there is a lot of stuff you don’t know. Most of the time as adults instruct children they mix in reinforcement. Children are then happy to accept the instructions and learn a new skill and complete set tasks. However, when something goes wrong and you start to wonder how you are going to get your child to do any one of the myriad things we ask of them in a day or week think about how you could add a little reinforcement into the mix and see if you can make a difference with just this one small change (in your behaviour).
Our current understandings about why people behave the way they do come from a rich history of behavioural science. The thinking traces back to scientists such as Pavlov with his famous salivating dogs and the development of classical conditioning, through B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning, to Bandura and Thorndike who considered the impact of society and learning on an individual's behaviour. Most modern psychologists who describe themselves as behaviourists would agree that there are only two functions of behaviour. This is great for those of us in the thick of parenting because we only have to remember two things! Human beings behave because they either want something or they want to get away from something. Really, it’s that simple.
Until recently I was involved with training educators in a framework called Positive Behaviour for Learning. So I know what you may be doing as you read the above sentence. I know that in my audiences of teachers across the Auckland region most people looked a bit sideways at me when I made that pronouncement. Let’s work through the idea. To begin I have to clarify that I’m not talking about the inner emotional workings of the brain, I’m talking about what we can see and describe taking place in the physical domain.
When I start to work with a child who is struggling to behave in what is considered socially accepted manner the first question I ask myself is, why? Are they trying to get something or get away from something. They may be trying to get away from or get , attention, this could be peer or adult attention. They may be trying to get away from or get tangibles like a computer, or toy. They may be trying to get away from or get sensory stimulation, like a quality of light which is either very attractive or very upsetting, or a texture of clothing, or sounds.
Quite often people who refer children to me will tell me in the first few sentences of a conversation the why. I often hear xxx is attention seeking. That’s so helpful because immediately I know that I need to consider that xxx is in fact behaving in a way that those around them find difficult in order to get attention. A commonly raised example from the classroom is the child who calls out constantly and inappropriately during class. In this case a teacher might tell me that this individual is attention seeking. Whilst this is helpful I generally want to dig a bit further. I might assess the child to understand better what his/her learning level was at and talk to the class teacher to find out what level she/he is pitching the learning. Sometimes I find that the child in fact doesn’t understand the lesson and had found that by calling out inappropriately they distract the teacher and peers from the fact that they can’t do the work and they avoid doing the tasks. In the end the reason for the behaviour is to avoid the tasks. The solution is to provide work at the right level and perhaps to provide some extra opportunities for the student to learn.
A similar scenario can occur at home. Parents may tell me their child may be avoiding tidying their room and despite parental reminders to get this job done the child still doesn’t tidy the room. The best way forward is to think about the why of this behaviour. Is the child trying to get attention? Have they learned that when they avoid tasks they get a lot more of mum and dad’s attention? In this case the function of the behaviour is to get adult attention. Or, do they not know how to tidy their room, or are they very tired or pressed for time so they are avoiding the task. Thinking through behaviours that you as a parent are finding challenging in this way is a great way to find solutions that work.
Something that must be taken into account when thinking about behaviour is that the function of the behaviour must be met. The solution will never involve depriving the person of the function of their behaviour. If we go back to the school example, let’s agree that the function of the student’s behaviour was to avoid the task because he/she didn’t know how to do the work. If the adults in the situation attempt to stop the child meeting the function of their behaviour in the first instance it is likely that the challenging behaviour will get worse. If the teacher ignores the child’s calling out and continues to expect that they get this same piece of work done the child may then resort to something more dramatic like swearing at the teacher or hitting one of their peers or throwing a book. This kind of behaviour will most likely see them removed from the lesson (if not the school) and in the end the function of the behaviour will be met. A better approach is to allow the child to avoid at least the initial piece of work that has caused the difficulty. A different piece of work or part of the original work can be given until the child has had time to learn a new set of skills and can tackle the original work.
At home in the room tidying example if a parent continues to force the child to tidy their room and the function is to gain parent attention it is likely the child will continue to play the situation out until the parent becomes annoyed and perhaps a confrontation will follow. If this becomes an established pattern, children learn that the best way to get their parent’s attention is to be non compliant with their requests. If the child is avoiding because they don’t know how to tidy or they are too tired, persistence with telling and reminding can lead to children escalating their behaviour in order to avoid completing the task. In the home situation it is better, in the first instance, to help your child learn how to tidy their room. Some children may need photos of a tidy room so they know what they are working towards. If your child is seeking attention they will be getting this as you spend time with them teaching them how to complete the task. As they become more competent at this they can receive attention from parents for their good work and also find more time to spend with parents on fun activities. If they don’t know how to complete the task they can receive instruction. If they are too tired once you talk and figure out a good time to complete the task hopefully the task will be completed with minimal fuss.
On a personal note my sons hated tidying their rooms so we agreed on one time during the week, for us a Sunday night just before bed time, that they would tidy their rooms. Looking back the function of their behaviour was likely avoidance. They both had busy school schedules and by the time the end of the day came they were too tired to be bothered tidying their rooms. Their father and I would give a hand as needed but once they were done they would let me know and they would line up for inspection. We made this into a game and I (silly I know) would pretend that I was an inspector and they had to stand at attention for inspection while I checked under beds and in silly places to make sure everything was just so! Kisses and hugs and extra bedtime stories were the rewards for tidy bedrooms.
If you are wondering about your child’s behaviour start by thinking about the why. Ask yourself, are they trying to get, attention (peer or adult), a tangible or a sensory experience or are they trying to get away from attention (peer or adult), a tangible or a sensory experience?
Let me know how you go.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.