WVU psychologist shares strategy for parents struggling with child behavior


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For a lot of parents and caregivers, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard because they have been stuck indoors, which can prove challenging when caring for young children.

West Virginia University Professor of Psychology Dr. Cheryl McNeil has developed a tool for parents and caregivers to help them better communicate with children about their behaviors, using praises and warnings to identify positive and negative actions. McNeil uses what is called a Cooperation Chart, which rewards children with a happy face sticker if they behave well and a sad face sticker if they do not. The chart is derived from what is known as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) and is meant to help children ages 2-7.

Dr. Cheryl McNeil

Research shows that if you give a specific praise to children it will increase the behavior that you praise. When the children are misbehaving the parents will give a two-choices warning system. The two choices will be ‘you have two choices, to pick up the Legos or you’ll get a sad face on your chart’. And then if the child continues to misbehave then the parent will follow through with the sad face.

Dr. Cheryl McNeil – WVU Psychology Professor

McNeil said the two-choices system has been empirically proven to be effective because it has shown to help children correct their behavior. However, she added, it’s only been shown as effective if parents and caregivers are consistent and predictable when using it.

As part of remaining consistent with the chart’s use, McNeil recommends tallying happy and sad faces three times a day, preferably after breakfast, lunch and dinner. She said dividing the day into three segments allows children to work on improving and maintaining positive behavior as a result of having opportunities to earn rewards multiples times per day.

According to a WVU press release, McNeil suggests placing the chart where both caregivers and children can easily see and interact with it throughout the day. McNeil said this can serve as a form of motivation.

When it is time to tally the results, children should be rewarded for having more happy than sad faces and not if there are more sad than happy ones. The reward for having more positive than negative behavior is a reward that is not intended to be elaborate or expensive, rather something simple, McNeil said. She suggests a free activity or game and there are 100 examples on the Cooperation Chart’s website.

Cheryl McNeil provides feedback to therapists to help them reach mastery in PCIT.

McNeil said the keys to making the reward aspect work are the element of surprise and parents being enthusiastic when they’re playing games or doing activities. She added that the Cooperation Chart can be successful if implemented properly and that she knows from personal experience because she used it on her own children when they were growing up.

“I used it on long car rides, I used it when we were waiting on doctor visits, I used it on rainy summer days,” McNeil said. “It’s a kind of program that you can put in when you’re feeling kind of stressed and like you’re being very critical or yelling a lot, you can say ‘I’m just going to put in a positive system for a couple of days.”

McNeil said even though she wanted to create the Cooperation Chart for parents during the pandemic, it has many uses beyond COVID-19. She said she knows this not only from personal experience but from research she has been doing for a few decades.

“The Cooperation Chart is based on about 30 years of research that I have done with young children who are having severe behavior problems,” McNeil said. “It’s based on good solid science and it will work for parents if they simply follow the directions, do it according to the way the directions were written. The parents should see some really nice changes in the children’s behavior.”

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