Tips for Teaching your Kids Manners

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By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

“Dear Behavior BFF: I really want my child to have good manners and be respectful. But whenever I remind him to use his manners, it doesn’t seem to help at all! What can I do to get my son to be polite and have good manners?”

I just looked up the word “manners”. One of the definitions is “a person’s outward bearing or way of behaving toward others”. Another definition that I think you are speaking to is “polite or well-bred social behavior”. 

So then I looked up the definition of polite. One definition is “having or showing behavior that is respectful and considerate of other people”.

So then I looked up the definition of respectful. The definition is “feeling or showing deference or respect”.

So I can use a dictionary (or Google)- yay! What’s the point of all this? What on earth does “use your manners” actually mean? What does “showing deference” mean? Especially to a child? These are some big words with confusing definitions.

How do you teach your child to use his manners when the phrase itself is too difficult to understand? In the ABA world, we’d call it defining your target behavior. For your son, that means spelling out exactly the behavior you are looking for. You need to create an operational definition for “using your manners”. Let’s break it down.

We have a big picture phrase “use your manners”. We can break that down into a TON of observable, measurable behaviors. You need to identify which one(s) to teach your son and focus on one at a time. These include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Follow directions with only one reminder.
  • Look at the person who is speaking.
  • Say “thank you”.
  • Say “please”.
  • Use a quiet voice.
  • Keep your feet to yourself.
  • Stay near mom or dad.
  • Say ‘hello’ when someone says ‘hello’ to you.
  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.
  • Say “excuse me” when you burp.
  • Ask to be excused from the table after a meal.
  • Use a napkin.

The list could go on and on.  Just reach for the nearest etiquette book.

For you with your son, right now- what is the target behavior?  What are you really needing him to do more often? Identify the one-step behavior. Describe it simply and at his level. Teach it to him with examples and non-examples. Praise and provide positive reinforcement for engaging in that target behavior.

You must specifically define your target behavior before you can intervene on it. Make sure your son understands exactly what you are looking for. When he engages in the desired behavior, just ask him, “Did you remember to follow directions?” Then celebrate both the fact that he DID follow directions and that he can identify the desired behavior!

But what if he doesn’t use nice manners? Have a plan and be consistent with your response. For example, “That wasn’t nice manners. Try it like this ____” and model the correct response. You can prompt him to use the skill you are working on and praise and provide reinforcement every time he does it.
But what if he still won’t use the manners you’ve taught him? He won’t be able to access that reinforcement that was offered for engaging in the target behavior. Make the reinforcement powerful enough such that receiving reinforcement after a correct response and withholding reinforcement after an incorrect response will make a difference for the future.

Make things more understandable, manageable, and easier to implement by breaking down confusing phrases into small chunks of clearly defined, easy to explain simple behaviors.

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at lpagebcba@gmail.com.

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