This article was originally published at bSci21.org and was written by Leanne Page, BCBA. 

A parent writes to Behavior BFF:
“We just started doing The Elf on the Shelf this holiday season. So far it’s just given me a headache. Isn’t it supposed to help my kids be nice instead of naughty? It’s not working. All it does is create one more thing for me to take care of in my miniscule free time. What am I doing wrong here? This elf is making me crazy!”

In the extreme case anyone reading this doesn’t have a Facebook feed full of elf pictures, I’ll fill you in on The Elf on the Shelf.  It is a children’s book with a keepsake elf doll. The book tells children that the elf is magical and journeys to the North Pole every night to report to Santa. When the elf returns, it’ll be in a different spot in your house in the morning. Parents have taken this to the extreme with clever elf displays. One could spend hours on Pinterest finding elf ideas. Who has those hours? Not I.

So- is this ‘tradition’ actually able to improve children’s behavior? Anecdotally I’m sure tons of parents and even teachers will tell you that their kiddos were great for the elf.

But overall is this a behavioral strategy that parents can rely on? Ummm…no. The Elf on the Shelf in and of itself does not include sound behavioral principles steeped in decades of behavior analytic research.  It is a super cute and well-loved by the masses but does not inherently include positive behavior supports.

But that doesn’t help you moms, does it?  How about some ideas to use the elf to promote positive behaviors that ARE legit?
Use the elf’s new positions as a reinforcer that your child can earn by engaging in specific desired behaviors throughout the day.

  • If you(__insert no more than 3 specific target behavior(s) here__), then the elf will get to travel to the North Pole and will be silly for when you find him in the morning. If you don’t earn it, he’ll stay in the same spot until you do.
  • If you earn ____ number of marbles (tokens, points, etc) for having expected behavior today, then the elf will move and try to make you laugh in the morning.
  • If you get a good report from school, daycare, etc…..
  • I think you get the picture. Set up a clear contingency with expected behavior leading to the movement of the elf and a silly set up with said elf in the morning.
Have the elf give your child a note with specific behaviors to work on that day. Operationally define 1-3 behaviors with examples.

  • Throughout the day, use behavior specific praise. State exactly what they are doing well. Instead of ‘Good job’, say ‘Good job sharing toys with your brother’.
  • You can use this to set goals for the day or week and track if your child is reaching that goal. What will the reinforcer be for reaching the behavior goal? How about a silly elf placement overnight?
Use the elf as the reinforcer in a group contingency. If you have more than one child, this may be for you. Or if your spouse can be lumped in as one of your children…

  • The kids have to work together to earn the elf movement overnight. Together, set a behavior goal for the day. Monitor throughout the day and reinforce only if all members of the group earn it.
  • Sit back and watch positive peer pressure work it’s magic. OR intervene if this is causing a rift and teach how to encourage each other.
  • If you have enough children, you can even use the Good Behavior Game and let the kids decide what types of antics the elf will get up to each night. Read more about the Good Behavior Game in another bSci21 article here.

Overall takeaway here: the elf itself does not teach specifically reinforce desired behavior. But YOU can! Parents can take the Elf on the Shelf to the next level by combining it with evidence-based strategies that we know are effective.

Now get ready to spend some time researching fun elf ideas because your kiddos are going to EARN that positive reinforcement and your job is to make that elf super exciting to keep the momentum going all the way to Christmas! You totally win at parenting!

While I wish I came up with all this on my own, it’s all backed by research. Check it out in your miniscule spare time this holiday.
Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis1. Journal of applied behavior analysis1(1), 91-97.
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed.). Columbus: Pearson.
Hawkins, R. P., & Dobes, R. W. (1977). Behavioral definitions in applied behavior analysis: Explicit or implicit. New developments in behavioral research: Theory, method, and application, 167-188.
Hayes, L.A. (1976). The use of group contingencies for behavioral control: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 83(4), 628.
Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: MacMillan.
Stormont, M., & Reinke, W. (2009). The Importance of Precorrective Statements and Behavior-Specific Praise and Strategies to Increase Their Use.Beyond Behavior18(3), 26-32.