I have always thought that dogs and people are not that different from one another. I never say this out loud because people do not enjoy being compared to dogs. As I have learned more about both, I confidently stand by my original assessment. Dogs and people: they are so alike!
Dogs and people learn the same way, through reinforcement of behaviours. Both find it easier to learn and retain more information when they feel happy or relaxed. When people and dogs are stressed or worried, their brains release chemicals like cortisol and adrenalin. These chemicals can make it harder to learn and retain new information. Our neurons work to create pathways in our brains that help us to do certain behaviours better, more quickly, and with less conscious thought. The more we practice behaviours, the stronger these pathways become. It works the same in people and dogs.
With this in mind, I do many things with my son the same way I do them with my dog. I manage the environment to make sure it is safe and that there are options for engaging in desirable behaviours. I strongly reinforce behaviours that I would like to see more. Oh, and there are lots of tummy rubs and affection! Kirsten knows how much I love using a target behaviour with dogs and one day she suggested I try the same thing with my son. So, I did!
When my son was a toddler, I started by teaching him to target different body parts. You’ve played this game with a baby a million times and I bet you didn’t realize you were teaching them to target. Touch your nose! Touch your tummy! Touch your shoulder! I also taught him to target things in the house and out in the real world. Touch the door! Touch the couch! Touch Mom’s knee! It was a great game no matter where we played it and it has countless applications and benefits. Here are some of the ways I used it:
- When I needed to keep slimy toddler hands out of his gorgeous blond locks, I asked him to touch his nose or chin while I cleaned off his hands.
- Target was a great default behaviour for me to ask for when I found myself saying “no!” to everything.
- When he was overwhelmed or terribly upset, I would quietly ask him to touch his nose, or his knees, or his ears.
Like I mentioned, I also used target in the environment. This was a lifesaver in so many ways! Here are some of the ways I used target:
- When I needed to get something out of the oven, I would ask my son to run and touch the front door. This kept him away from the oven for the few seconds I needed to safely remove food and close the door.
- I used target to get my son moving in the general direction we needed to go. Touch the bottom stair! Touch the railing! Touch the top stair! Touch the bathroom door!
- My son would always play in the snow while I shoveled but as soon as he started drifting towards the end of the driveway, I would ask him to touch the garage door or our front door.
Asking for a target has many benefits.
- It is a way to foster connection.
- It can be a super fun game to play instead of engaging in a power struggle.
- It can help to calm a child down.
- It gives a child a chance to experience a feeling of mastery.
- It can be used to keep a child safe.
- It helps a child to learn new words and understand directions.
- It gives YOU something to default to when you’re tired, annoyed, or unsure of what else to do!
Another great way to use a target with your child is in parking lots. You can put a sticker or magnet on the side of your car and teach your kiddo to target it while you are getting in and out of the car. It is not a replacement for 100% parental supervision but it sure helps to increase the likelihood that your child will stay close to the car when you are loading bags or locking up.
One of my favorite ways to use target with my son was exactly the same way I use it with my dog: in new situations. New places and people can be really exciting and overwhelming for toddlers. They might not always understand what is expected of them so they’ll throw out all kinds of behaviours while they try to figure it out. Sometimes they’ll get it right but often they won’t. I used target to help my son stay calm in new situations and give him a familiar behaviour to engage in while he got the lay of the land. This helped him to have more confidence and be more willing to dive into the action instead of hanging back.
Think about your own household and let me know some more ways to use target with your kids. For older children, you can use targeting to help them learn how to put away their boots properly or get their laundry in the basket every night. Get creative and report back!