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The Behavior Tree

Brother-Bug has many of the behavior issues of his age-set – the boundary pushing, power playing, individuality experimenting that delights all parents. He’s bright and sensitive and deeply feeling. What Papa-Bug and I want most for him is that he learns how to have these big feelings within the context of kind behavior. We don’t want to have to get him in trouble as much as we want him to think about his actions and make good decisions for himself.
Ages ago, somewhere, I read about “Table Manner Tree”, designed to help children learn their table manners. While I don’t remember the specifics, I re-created the general idea for our household and expanded it to include the general beahvior stuff that we want Brother-Bug to be working on.
Our tree – day one. Fifty-seven leaves and flowers in place.

The tree is simple. Brown construction paper for the trunk and branches and colored post-its for the leaves and flowers. On the left there is a calendar for the month. On the right is a list of the specific tasks that Brother-Bug is working on with the tree.

The List:
There are about a dozen behavior tasks on the list. They range in scope from not picking his nose, to being patient with his sister, to using his utensils and napkin. Easier behaviors are green. More difficult behaviors are yellow. There is one pink task – accepting a consequence without fussing. The colors correspond to leaves and flowers. If you are making your own tree, obviously you would craft the list to your child’s specific needs and challenges. I tried to keep the list in the positive, using “Yes” language. “Keeping fingers out of the nose” instead of “Not picking the nose”.

How The List and Leaves Work:
When Brother-Bug ignores or forgets a rule of good behavior from the list, a leaf (or flower, depending on the color) falls to the ground. When he remembers to use his good behavior he can get the leaves and flowers back on the tree. Very simple. I made lots of leaves, so that even on a very bad day the tree is still beautiful and rewarding to look at. The pink flowers, as I mentioned, are about calmly accepting consequences – whether the consequence is the falling leaf or something more drastic like losing dessert…

The Calendar:
The calendar has each day divided into two sections. At the end of each day we count how many leaves are down and how many are on the tree. We write the “up” number and “down” number in the two spaces. We wanted someway to help Brother-Bug think about the fits he throws, but couldn’t think of a good and specific way to write it on The List, since fits can be all-encompassing and apply to many behaviors. We added the concept of the gold star to the calendar component. If Brother-Bug has no temper fits, he gets a gold star on that day.


How I Think This Works:

Our tree (and garden) today!

The stars and leaves and flowers give Brother-Bug (and his parents) a neutral place to look objectively at his behavior. There is no loss or shame in a leaf falling, it simply does so. Several times I have shown Brother-Bug that a lot of leaves have fallen of a day, and been delighted to see him (usually) turn his behavior around and try to get the leaves back up. He can look at the calendar and see his good days and bad days. He can control how many leaves are on the tree. He can make choices.

Sister-Bug is really into it. So much so that Papa-Bug made her a small “Garden” with five flowers in it. Each flower is a post-it. When she is good and sweet and doesn’t shriek, her flowers bloom in her garden. When she is shrieking and whining, her flowers fall “just like brother”. Her’s is more arbitrary, or course, but I am happy to see that she is interested, and often responsive, to the idea of behavior moderation and self-control in these ways.

All-in-all, I am very pleased at how well this is working so far. And if you want to give it a try, let me know how it works for you! I imagine you could make any thing that you could “take” from – an aquarium with fish, a larger garden, a cake with candles, a pizza with toppings…

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