Using the iPad (and other screen time) for Behavior Management

The iPad, computer and other electronic goodies are some of the very best reinforcers for behavior management from toddlers to teens. Of course, my very favorite reinforcers are social reinforcers – earning engaged social time with a parent (playing a game, watching a movie, helping in the kitchen – anything that equals special time together!). Combine the two – special time using the iPad with Mom or Dad and you have hit a home run!

Here are some guidelines:

  • YOU (parent or caregiver) must be in charge of the iPad (computer access, etc).  If the child has constant and unrestricted access to the iPad, offering the child the iPad as a reward is no longer reinforcing.
  • BE SPECIFIC about the conditions and the reward you are offering.  “If you get your room cleaned up in the next 15 minutes, you can play Angry Birds”  or “Share your toys with your sister and we will play Bugs and Bubbles when your sister takes her nap” or “Sit quietly in the cart while we are in the grocery store and we will play Splingo when we get home!”
  • VARY the reinforcer/apps! The same thing over and over gets tiresome (if your significant other brought you flowers everyday, after a while you would think, “hmmm, flowers” instead of “Wow!  FLOWERS!”).  Switch up the apps you are using to keep it fresh!
  • FOLLOW challenging work with a reinforcer! If you are using apps to work on language (or other cognitive and academic) skills, follow a “skill app” with a “play app.” What constitutes a “play app” will depend on the apps your child enjoys using the most.  Sometimes the “play app” fits both categories!  My clients love playing Go Go Mongo and think of it as a reward – but it also teaches fine motor skills, impulse control, vocabulary, visual processing skills AND healthy eating habits!  (I’m a little sneaky like that!)  A new favorite app to use reinforcement for older children is Isopod. Learn about insects, problem-solving and develop hand-eye coordination skills while you are being rewarded! (Nice curriculum guide offered on their website as well!)
  • BE INVOLVED!  If you are using the iPad in any educational capacity, your feedback is essential! Most children can enjoy and use apps independently (and may arrive at the correct response through random touching), but they will not learn the concepts unless you are providing feedback.  Why was that response correct or incorrect?  “Oooops, you missed that one. You touched little.  It said touch big *pointing to big*.  I guarantee that your involvement, praise and presence while your child uses the iPad will make it more fun and therefore more reinforcing!
  • BE CONSISTENT!  This is the most important concept in behavior management. If you say, “pick up your legos and put them all in the box ” and your child does not follow through within your specified conditions – then do not let them play on the iPad!!!  Yes, this will likely result in an epic meltdown, but you will only have to endure this a few times before your child takes you seriously.  And no, offering 2..3..20 more chances does not count as being consistent!
  • LIMIT ACCESS!  If your child has unlimited access to the computer, iPad or other device it will no longer be a reinforcement.  The idea is to make electronic time SPECIAL!!! If your child has been playing with the iPad or on the computer all day long, offering to use the iPad is no longer an incentive.

A final thought. Consider the difference between distraction and reinforcement. If you are using the iPad or other “screen time” (tv, video, computer, smart phone, tablet, internet, video or handheld game, etc) to reinforce desired behaviors then the message is, “If you do _______(desired behavior) you will get __________ (screen time).  If you are also using “screen time” to distract your child when he is bored or acting out, then the message is, “When you act like a crazy person, I will let you use the iPad!”  ACK!!!  These are two very different messages and probably require a whole other blog post to address.  Every day electronic devices offers a VERY POWERFUL TOOL to shape behavior – use them wisely!

Tell us how you are using technology as a reinforcer.  Do you have apps you recommend? Are you encountering any challenges? Let’s brainstorm!

~Elizabeth

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4 thoughts on “Using the iPad (and other screen time) for Behavior Management

  1. This is a fantastic post! Could you possibly put it together as a PDF? I would LOVE to be able to give this to many of my students’ parents. For many people, this is just “common sense” , but I’m always amazed that so many parents just don’t think this way about their kids.

  2. Great stuff E. how do kids’ ages play into this stuff? I’m forwarding this to my significant other who has a 14 year old addicted to the iPad and video games. Thank you!

    • Thank you KAB! I strongly believe that structure, expectations and reinforcement are important for toddlers through teens. Setting expectations with appropriate reinforcement/consequences for teens is tricky but necessary. The teen years are all about struggling for independence while still needing guidance. Having raised 5 children through their teens (my son and four full-time step daughters) I know these are trying times (I have the grey hairs to prove it!). Interaction with parents is no longer a big motivator! However, access to technology (their own cell phone, time on the computer, video games, iPad) remains a powerful incentive. It is important not turn this into a power struggle. I highly encourage parents to engage their teens in conversations about expectations (I like this term better than “rules”). What are the expected behaviors with regard to completing homework, helping around the house, interactions with siblings, bedtime, curfew, etc. What are the outcomes (reinforcements, rewards) for meeting these expectations? What are the consequences? When teens are involved in this process they are more apt to cooperate and meet the expectations. (They will still find it ridiculously unfair when they are faced with a consequence – even knowing exactly what that consequence would be!). CONSISTENT follow through is essential. Kids (of all ages) know when you are not serious. Recently, a four year old client was starting to get ramped up for a power struggle. I said, “You remember what we have to do to play a game during speech, right?” With a sigh, he settled back into his chair and said, “ok. I will listen because you won’t give me 10 more chances like Mommy does.” Out of the mouth of babes!

      Don’t get me wrong. I did none of this perfectly. My, now adult, kids are more than happy to recount my many lapses in great parenting (which oddly, I seem to have forgotten!). I have endless patience with my clients while my kids could push my buttons with ease turning me into some kind of head-spinning cast-off from the Exorcist! With a lot of trial and error, repetition, frustration (some behind closed doors tears) and sticking the structure – we all lived through it with relatively few scars!
      Elizabeth

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