Wednesday 21 August 2019

Dear David Coleman: 'My three-year-old keeps running away! Please help'

A positively-based reward system works well to teach children to behave
A positively-based reward system works well to teach children to behave
David Coleman

David Coleman

Q My son, who is three, is always running off on me. Yesterday I had his baby brother in the buggy, going to the playground, and my older boy ran away and crossed a road, despite me screaming at him to stop. I wasn't quick enough with the buggy to be able to catch up with him. I'm so incredibly frustrated by this, to the point where I don't want to bring him out anywhere as it's so stressful. I just can't manage him now when I have the baby with me as well. Can you please advise me?

David replies: Juggling an energetic pre-schooler, alongside a baby is always hard work. But having the added layer of the potential danger of your older boy running off is probably terrifying. No wonder you are stressed.

If your older boy is going to be allowed to come with you, and not be strapped into a buggy himself, then he does need to learn to stop when you tell him. The best way to teach him is to use a positively-based behavioural reward system.

You may not be able to do this safely while you also have your baby with you, so hopefully you can get someone to mind the baby while you are training the older boy. Training involves bringing him out to the park or playground and explaining to him that you are going to play a game with him. In the game, he must stop moving and be like a statue, when you say something like "[his name] freeze!"

When he does freeze, you have to give him lots of praise and you might also give him a little reward, like a chocolate button or a sticker.

You can also let him get you to freeze, and so, make the game fun and something you are doing together. The fact that you are playing this game on your own with him may be exciting for him too.

You can play the game several times in the one outing, and repeat the outings several times in a week, if at all possible.

When he gets in the habit of stopping at your request, then you can try it out with the baby in tow. Again, try to arrange, perhaps, to have someone else with you who can stay with the baby, in case you do have to go after him for the first few times that you are trialling this. The goal is that it is more rewarding for him to stop because he gets lots of your warm attention when he does, rather than trying to frighten him into not running away by having lots of consequences.

That said, if he can't play the game properly when the three of you are out, then it is fine to just curtail the trip or make him sit into the buggy, until he remembers that he must stop when you say.

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