This article by Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA, was originally published at bSci21.org.
“Dear Behavior BFF, How do I get my child to be more independent? I want her to handle dressing herself- things like getting out clean clothes, putting them on as much as she can, putting her dirty clothes in the correct hamper, etc. I know she is capable but she just chooses not to take care of these things by herself!"
I am going to take your word for it that your daughter does not have any limitations that would make the tasks associated with independent dressing difficult. So- how do you get her to actually do it? And do it consistently?
One question I have for you is simply this: Where are her clothes and hamper? Are they easy for her to access? Let’s look at the physical environment and see if we can decrease the response effort for the desired behavior.
Response effort is what it sounds like: the amount of effort necessary to make a response. In other words, how easy it is to engage in the desired behavior. We all typically orient toward a low response effort over something that is tedious or difficult. We can find ways to lower the response effort for the desired behavior, making it easier for our children.
So- if her hamper is in the laundry room and you expect her to walk her dirty clothes down the hallway to put them there- is there an easy environmental manipulation you could try? How about moving her hamper to her bedroom or bathroom- wherever the dirty clothes are removed? Walking down the hall to put clothes away doesn’t seem like a big deal- but a simple hamper location switch could be a game changer for increasing your daughter’s independence.
What about accessing her clean clothes? Is it hard to open her closet door? Does it stick sometimes or is the handle difficult to turn? Is her closet floor a mess that she has to climb over to get to the clothes? (Pause writing this article to go assess my own child’s messy closet to decrease her response effort in getting to her own clothes.)
If a simple environmental manipulation will increase the desired behavior, there is no need for an involved intervention. Try the simple solution first!
Now- moving things around might not be enough to increase your daughter’s independent behaviors. Enter positive reinforcement. What does she get for doing these things listed above? What is the reward for independently dressing herself? The feeling of a job well done?
Whatever the current reward is, it’s not working. If it’s not increasing the frequency of the behavior, it’s not reinforcement. Find a way to increase your daughter’s independent dressing by offering positive reinforcement following every instance of the desired behaviors. This can be any range of things- a high five, verbal praise, access to a preferred item or activity, points toward a goal in a token economy, whatever works for your family!
No matter what behavior you are trying to increase, these are the go-to first steps we can always try as parents. These are powerful evidence-based tools of behavior analysis that are quick and easy to try and can lead to some pretty fantastic results!
Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA