When addressing a behavior for the purpose of creating a change (e.g., increase, decrease, elimination), it’s important to understand that often “true” behavior change can be very slow. For our purposes, the phrase “true behavior change,” refers to adopting a behavior pattern that is no longer reliant on “unnatural” external motivation (e.g., prizes, punishment) and lasts for extended period of time.
As an example, if I want my student, Johnny, to stop interrupting in class, I can offer him a prize (e.g., candy) if he refrains from interrupting for one whole class session. Johnny may be successful that session, but the next day – or even in his next class with a different teacher – he is likely to repeat the unwanted behavior. The prize then serves as an immediate “fix;’ however, the behavior has changed only for that limited period of time (the one class period). This is not “true behavior change”.
We can feel more confident that Johnny has “learned” the behavior of not interrupting when we see him demonstrate this in a variety of settings, over an extended period of time – and in the absence of prizes or punishments.
No doubt, the vast majority of us have certain behaviors that we engage in frequently that we would like to change, decrease, and/or eliminate. Think of all the behaviors you may want to change about yourself. These may include overeating, not exercising enough, overreacting in anger, being judgmental of others, being more organized, and so forth. With the exception of very few of us, truly changing these behavior patterns for an extended period of time is very difficult.
One of the reasons this is so difficult is that we are trying change a behavioral pattern that has been established over a long period of time and has essentially become a personal “character trait.”
Because changing such behaviors is difficult, it is often best to make incremental changes, rather than radical ones that are more difficult to embrace instantly. For example, if one loved meat but wants to switch to vegetarianism, a gradual transition to a meatless diet, as opposed to an immediate switch, is more likely to be effective. Switching to vegetarianism is a significant change in a behavior pattern and as we all know, just wanting to change a behavior pattern is often not enough motivation to actually make a real, long-lasting change.
What's more, radically eliminating a staple such as meat from a diet altogether might result in "failure" and the individual then experiencing the subsequent negative feelings associated with failure. However, with a gradual shift over time, an individual is allowing time to adjust both psychologically and physically, thus increasing the likelihood of success.
Part of this process also relies upon one’s redefining what “success” means. Not expecting perfection and a total behavioral change immediately is key in producing true behavior changes. Behavior changes needed time and patience.
As a professional working with families that have children with problematic behaviors, I am faced with this dilemma of demonstrating both immediate (short-term) behavior change and true (long-term) behavior change. When we have a child who is aggressing, throwing tantrums, or engaging in very disruptive behavior, we employ contracts, routines, prizes, and punishments. We do this in order to demonstrate a “quick” change. That is a change that will likely only exist in the presence of that external motivation. It is through patience and consistent, day to day use of these systems, and learning how to handle problematic behavior in all forms each day, that we can begin see behavior change that is long-lasting and “true”.