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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

New Year's Resolutions? Making Habits Stick

The start of a new year is traditionally a time to focus on a “new start,” often in the form of making a “New Year’s Resolution.” You might pledge to eat healthier, exercise more frequently, or drink less coffee. The gym sees a huge spike in new customers and it is hard to find an open treadmill. At least for a month or so. And after that the gym collects monthly fees from people who had good intentions.

Why is it so hard to “stick with it” and what does that have to do with our kids? If you are like many people when you start at the gym, you set a goal and maybe a system to support it. You might even promise yourself a prize of some kind if you meet the goal. With determination, you may stick with it until you meet the goal. There will always be a handful of people for whom it becomes a new habit, but for many, the resolution will quickly fall by the wayside. If it is this hard for us to stick with something until it becomes a new habit, just imagine how hard it is for a kid who doesn’t see why cleaning up their toys is a good habit to have!

New Year’s resolutions have similarities to token systems and self-management systems in ABA therapy. Let’s say that you want your child to (1) make their bed, (2) pick up their toys, and (3) use their napkin during dinner. A “token chart” is set up and it includes something motivating - a “reward” for completing the tasks on the token chart. Beds will be made, toys picked up, and napkins used as long as the reward is something that they are motivated to earn. But is that enough to develop new habits? If the system in place is consistent and the reward remains motivating, we are going to see the behavior that we want. But what we really want is tidy beds, toy-free floors, and used napkins even when it doesn’t lead to a reward.

How can we turn these things into habits that last? There are several strategies that are used in ABA. The first is to slowly increase how much work leads to a reward. Usually that means the child has to earn more tokens to get the prize. In ABA, we call this “thinning.” Theoretically, “thinning” works. But to the child it can seem kind of, well, unfair. “I have been doing what you asked and now you want me to do even more of that for the same reward.” Outcome: unhappy child.

Another strategy is to make the reward less predictable. If your child originally earned the reward after 10 tokens, surprise your child with the reward after only 5 tokens. But then the next time, they need more than 10 tokens – maybe 12 or 13. By making it less predictable, it is easier to slowly increase the number of tokens needed. To your child, because sometimes only a few tokens are needed, the system seems pretty sweet.

But, to successfully remove the system entirely, what really needs to happens is for more natural rewards to take over. Going back to the gym example, the person most likely to continue going to the gym in February is the one who starts to feel healthier and enjoys their time on the treadmill. Help your child identify good things that come from having their toys picked up (is it easier to find a toy they are looking for?) and it will be more likely that they will eventually pick up their toys without a token system. Those kind of things, the natural outcomes of the habit, need to become important for the habit to stick.

Of course, creating new habits is complex business, and the tips here are simplified. But new routines can become habits. Goals help. Rewards help. Practice helps (the more often you do it, the more likely it will become a habit!). It might not be easy, but it will be worth it!

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