Changing your child’s environment: what does it mean?

If your child is behaving in a way you don’t like, it’s a good idea to look at what’s going on in your child’s environment. By changing your child’s environment, you might be able to change your child’s behaviour too.

Changing the environment can just mean making small, manageable changes to what’s happening around your child. It doesn’t mean moving house, changing the furniture, installing expensive play equipment and so on!

Your child’s ‘environment’: what is it?

When it comes to children’s behaviour, the environment just means the little things around your child. Your child’s ‘behaviour environment’ includes:

  • his location – for example, at the park, at home, at the supermarket
  • toys, books and play equipment, but also other things you might not want him to play with
  • other children and how they’re behaving
  • sensations like noise and light
  • the time of day
  • your requests and instructions.

These things can influence your child’s behaviour and even trigger unwanted behaviour sometimes. For example, it’s normal for your child to:

  • want to play with the things around her
  • explore her surroundings
  • feel tired if it’s nap time
  • feel overwhelmed if there’s a lot of noise or activity
  • not want to share her favourite toys
  • not follow your instructions if she doesn’t understand them.

Changing your child’s physical environment

Here are some ideas for changing the physical things in your child’s environment to help your child behave the way you want.

At home

  • Move fragile or expensive items out of sight and reach – this is important for safety as well as good behaviour.
  • Make a ‘quiet space’ for your child to use when he feels overwhelmed. This could just be a special cushion with some of your child’s favourite books nearby.
  • Make sure screens like tablets and TVs are off when you need your child to focus on something like getting ready for school in the morning.

Out and about

  • Choose a safe outside space if you can – for example, a courtyard, play area or backyard. You’ll be less stressed, and your child’s activities are less likely to upset others.
  • On car, train or bus journeys, change where you all sit. For example, have one parent sit between two children. Or let one child sit next to a window for a while, then change.
  • For a family day out, look for places that have things that both you and your child will enjoy – for example, a playground for your child and a coffee cart for you.
  • Use music to change the environment on a car trip. You can play upbeat music if your child is bored, or soothing music when you want her to settle.

Toys and belongings

  • Install a child gate on the door of an older sibling’s room. This will give the older child some time playing with toys, undisturbed by a younger sibling.
  • Put your child’s favourite toys in a place that he can reach. This way he won’t be tempted to climb or get into unsafe places when he’s looking for his toys.
  • Help your child choose and put away toys she might not want to share with visiting children.

Changing the timing of activities in your child’s environment

You can change your child’s environment by changing when things happen. Here are some ideas:

  • Encourage quiet, calming activities before bedtime.
  • Take your child grocery shopping after an afternoon nap.
  • Get up earlier to reduce pressure and stress in the morning rush for school.
  • Start bath time earlier to avoid tantrums about getting out of the bath.
  • Plan frequent breaks on a long car drive.

Changing your requests and instructions

You might be able to change your child’s behaviour by changing the way you tell or ask your child to do things.

An instruction is when you tell your child to do something. If you give clear, short and simple instructions, your child will know what’s expected of him – for example, ‘Please hold my hand when we cross the road’. But children can feel overwhelmed or rebellious if there are too many instructions.

A request is when you ask your child to do something. For example, ‘Could you set the table, please?’ Your child can choose to say yes or no to a request. Requests give your child choices and a sense of control, which might make your child more likely to cooperate.

It’s a good idea to aim for a mix of instructions and requests. And try to use requests more often than instructions.

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