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Child Development - Behavior Therapy 101


By Maura Rouse, PsyD
Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development

If you’re a parent, you can likely think of several “proud parenting moments.” Those times when your child is screaming in the grocery store because you decided you were going to stay strong and say “No, not today” when he demanded a favorite snack. Or that one (or many) day she threw herself on the floor in the middle of the department store because she wanted to walk instead of ride in her stroller. Or how about the time he asked for a popsicle, then threw it at you because he didn’t actually want a popsicle after all?

Yes, parenting is hard. Full of trials and tribulations, along with giggles and kisses. Many families weather the difficult times without too many scars (physical or emotional). But many others need help in dealing with a child’s difficult behaviors. This is where a behavior therapist can offer support.

What is behavior therapy?

Behavior therapy is a form of treatment that focuses on modifying or changing behavior. The behavioral approach to therapy focuses on increasing adaptive (positive) behaviors and decreasing maladaptive (negative) behaviors. Positive (e.g. parent attention, special time with mom or dad, special treat) and negative (e.g. taking a toy away) consequences are used to increase or decrease positive and negative behaviors. Although this type of therapy can be an effective form of treatment for most behaviors, you should have discussions with your child’s therapist about experiences or other factors that may impact behaviors, including traumatic events and worries, anxieties, or fears. 

What should I know before starting behavior therapy?

When working with children, a key component of behavior therapy is the involvement of parents. Young children are not motivated to make changes to their behavior on their own. Therefore, it is extremely important for their parents, or other caregivers, to be involved in their therapy throughout the course of counseling. You might think of not only your child being in behavior therapy, but as yourself being in behavior therapy as well. 

Changing behavior takes time. People learn behaviors over time, and therefore, it takes time to learn a new pattern of behaviors. Children quickly learn what works and what does not work in getting what they want. If having a tantrum to get their favorite toy works for them (their parent gives it to them), they are going to continue to do this until they are motivated to change this behavior. 

What should I expect during behavior therapy?

You should expect to be involved in every therapy session. You will likely be asked to complete behavioral “homework assignments” with your child with the goal of changing behaviors. Behavior will not change if the only time the focus on behavior is during therapy sessions. As you use these skills consistently and your child responds to you more positively, you will become more confident in your new behavior management skills. You will soon become a behavior therapist yourself, knowledgeable in methods to increase positive and decrease negative behaviors. 

To learn more about behavior modification before beginning therapy: 

  • Parenting that Works: Building Skills that Last a Lifetime, by Edward R. Christophersen & Susan L. Mortweet. Provides practical techniques for preventing and addressing behavior problems. It also provides information about encouraging prosocial behavior in children.
  • The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children 3-8, by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. This book provides information about various parenting strategies for addressing common child-rearing difficulties.
  • S.O.S. Help for Parents, by Lynn Clarke. This parent-friendly book talks about practical strategies that your family can use to improve your child’s behavior.
  • Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, Revised and Updated Edition, by Rex L. Forehand and Nicholas Long. This user-friend book provides a description of an empirically proven six-week program for improving the behavior of children ages 2 to 6.
  • Your Defiant Child, by Russell Barkley and Christine Benton. Provides concrete advice with step-by-step instructions on strategies to use with young children.


Dr. Maura Rouse is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Child Development Center at Riley Hospital for Children and Indiana University School of Medicine. Dr. Rouse provides diagnostic consultation and psychological evaluation to children. Clinical interests include the evaluation and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), behavior disorders, school/learning problems, anxiety, and developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Cristy James

Cristina James is the Data Coordinator, Associate Training Director, and Family Discipline Coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development at Indiana University School of Medicine. She has over 10 years of professional experience and a life-long lived experience in neurodevelopmental disorders which, combined with her analytical skills, allow her to effectively span across functions to help provide and improve many LEND outcomes.