Using Games to Help Improve Behavior

Written by Janet Burr, MS, LPC  Family playing boardgameGame playing is one of the most effective (and fun!) ways to help children develop important skills and positive behavior. Some of the many skills practiced and developed during game playing include: taking turns, listening, following directions, impulse control, frustration management, emotional control, perspective taking, forethought, forward thinking, strategic planning, problem solving, behavioral flexibility, communication, team work, and sportsmanship. In addition, game playing promotes face-to-face interactions and connectedness that can boost a child’s self-esteem and self-worth. Game playing can also help teach children appropriate emotional expression. Who knew sitting down for some fun could be so valuable?

Here are 4 simple steps you can use when playing games to teach and develop these important skills:
(1) Verbalize
(2) Be flexible
(3) Use encouragement
(4) Be a good sport

These sound a lot like the positive behaviors we want the child to demonstrate, right? We need to model this for them to teach them how! Let’s break it down.

Verbalize
Verbalize everything, and I mean everything. For example, “First, I’m going to deal our cards. How many cards do we each get? [Wait for response or help them with the answer.] Ok. Help me count out loud….” and so on. Or, “Man, I just got skipped twice! That stinks because I really wanted a turn. But that’s okay because I know I’ll get another turn soon.”
By modeling verbalization for the child, we are teaching them to say what is going on in their head. Imagine if a child said to you, “I am feeling frustrated because I really wanted a turn” versus throwing their cards, kicking the game board, and throwing themselves on the floor? As a child develops the skill of verbalization, they can more effectively tell you what they need, want, or how they feel. This is a foundational skill for effective emotional expression.

Be Flexible
In order for a child to learn to “go with the flow” we have to be willing to show them what that means. So, you must be willing to lose. You may have to overlook that double jump you can make with your king in a Checkers game. Or, you may have to hold back on using your draw two card in Uno to allow the child to win. Additionally, if the child’s answer does not fit exactly but is pretty close when describing who they are in Hedbanz, just go with it. Then, follow it up with (in the Checkers example), “Oh man, I really thought I was going to get to jump you. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get a jump soon.” Or (in the Uno example), “Wow, you totally beat me! Great game! You worked really hard.”
By modeling behavioral flexibility, we are teaching the child that even if things do not go their way, they can still have fun and be okay. This decreases emotional outbursts and increases positive social interactions. This also helps the child develop perspective taking skills (e.g., I feel good when I win, so Sam probably feels good when he wins) and good sportsmanship.

Use Encouragement
Encouragement is one of the most effective tools you can use with a child. Encouragement emphasizes the process. In contrast, praise emphasizes the product. We are used to using praise. For example, “Great job, you got an A!” focuses on the end result (the good grade), which is certainly worth rewarding; however, it infers an external control (e.g., “You are worthwhile when you do what I/the teacher/your coach wants”).

Encouragement builds self-efficacy and confidence by teaching the child that they can control themselves. For example, “You worked really hard to get this grade” sends the message that they are a responsible and capable person. Helping a child believe in themselves can tremendously impact their behavior. They quickly strive to make you proud, in turn boosting their own self-esteem and self-worth. Soon they want to prove that they can control their behaviors, act appropriately, be a leader, etc.

Here are some examples of encouraging phrases to use during game playing:
“Wow, you really thought hard about that move.”
“Waiting for your next turn took a lot of patience.”
“That was a tough one but you figured it out!”
“How did you know that? That was great!”

Be a Good Sport
Practice good sportsmanship. At the end of every game I play with even my littlest of clients, we shake hands, make eye contact, and say something positive (e.g., “Great work,” “It was fun playing with you,” “You did great”). Because they love to hear it said to them, they begin to enjoying saying it to others. This develops respect for others and the game. Practicing sportsmanship also helps build perspective taking skills, emotional regulation, and empathy.

Any game can help teach and improve individual behaviors and social interactions. Below is a list of some of the most effective games for developing the positive behaviors listed above.

Uno Attack
Connect 4 Launchers
Spot It
Hedbanz
Checkers
Sorry
Count Your Chickens
Pop the Pig
Jenga
Kerplunk
Apples to Apples

Positive behavior skills can even be taught by making up games, playing cars, or having a dance party. The options are endless!

HAVE FUN!

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