The 4 'Whats' of Negative Behavior

Teaching children self-awareness and accountability

Woman talking to her son
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If you ask a young child after he or she has engaged in an inappropriate or negative behavior, “Why did you do that?” you’ll probably get an “I don’t know” response back. The truth is, many children may not know why they did something, so really children are being quite honest. Adults proverbially ask a child to give a reason why they behaved in a particular way because they think: “Oh, if I just get them to give me the reason, then they won’t do that behavior again.” The majority of parents are guilty of repeatedly asking this question even though they might observe that it has almost never prevented the occurrence of the behavior in the future. Asking our children why does not consistently change behavior, but as parents, we continue to do it anyway.

Shift to adulthood. You’re in a meeting and a person comes in late and you ask, “Why are you late?” What does this adult tell you? He or she may make up all kinds of stories or excuses about why he or she is late. In adulthood, we accept these excuses that justify being late and we make it okay even though lateness brings about many inconveniences.

Unfortunately, when we get into the habit of continually asking “why” around negative behaviors, we may inadvertently train our children to make up excuses for their behavior. Pretty soon, usually in adolescence, children may assume; “Well, if I just give some really good reasons why I did something, then they’ll leave me alone.” The problem is this doesn’t change the behavior. What the child learns is that I can do what I want to do as long as I make up a good story about it. It also gives me an opportunity to argue about it so my parents will be less likely to bring it up again.

Michael Manos, Ph.D. is head of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital and founding Clinical and Program Director of the pediatric and adult ADHD Center for Evaluation and Treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. He has worked for more than 25 years in pediatric psychology, special education, and child and adolescent psychology. Dr. Manos suggests we stop asking our children why and we start asking the 4 WHATS.

Asking the 4 WHATS

The first of the 4 WHATS is simply asking the child to identify the behavior.

  • 1. What Did You Do?

The second WHAT deals with the consequences of the child’s behavior.

  • 2. What Happened When You Did That?

These two questions identify a behavior and a consequence. Through this process, explains Dr. Manos, you are helping a child to learn to self-monitor — to look at their behavior and see what effect their behavior has on the environment and people around them. This is especially powerful for children with ADHD who tend to have difficulty connecting the dots between their behavior and the consequences the behavior produces.

Dr. Manos describes a few caveats about implementing the 4 WHATS. “Most children will not tell you what they did; they will blame someone else – the other child or you – if they have a long history of you asking them why. So they end up deflecting accountability.” He suggests beginning with the first two WHATS initially. “The whole point here is to teach a child to monitor and to describe their own behavior, to observe themselves, and to observe the effect their actions have on the world around them,” he explains.

Once a child begins to make gains in this understanding and awareness of his or her behaviors, parents can then add the next two WHATS which are related to future behavior.

  • 3. What Could You Have Done Instead?
  • 4. What Would Have Happened If You’d Have Done That?

“So future behavior, future consequences,” explains Dr. Manos. “The 4 WHATS is a highly potent strategy, since many people aren’t self-aware, aren’t self-observant, and grow up to deflect blame, give excuses, and not be accountable.” The 4 WHATS addresses this and helps a child learn and practice appropriate behavior to replace the inappropriate behavior.

As with all behavior management strategies, it is important to remember not to use the 4 WHATS when you are upset or when your child is upset. A calm and neutral, non-blaming approach will be more productive and conducive to learning — and the experience will be much more satisfying for both parents and children.

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  • Michael Manos, PhD. Phone interview/email correspondence. December 8, 2009 and January 18, 2010