6 Steps to Helping Children Self-Monitor Their Behavior

Self-monitoring—teaching a child to observe their own actions—can improve many important aspects of behavior and academic performance. With a little know-how, you can explicitly teach children self-monitoring skills, and that’s what today’s blog post is all about.

The strategies in this post are part of the “Teach” component of Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families (PTR-F), a highly effective intervention model that helps families prevent behavior problems in children, teach proactive communication and social skills, and reinforce positive behavior. Excerpted and adapted from the book Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families by Glen Dunlap, et al., these steps will help you teach a child to notice when a behavior occurs, and then provide the child with appropriate rewards for changes in the behavior and successful self-monitoring.


When adults are expected to monitor and change their own behavior, it’s important that they be able to identify when the behavior is occurring and document what’s happening. This strategy is often a part of plans for dieting, staying on a budget, and so forth. When children can observe their own behavior, talk about it, and record whether the behavior occurs or not, they are showing awareness of their behavior. This awareness can be an important step toward behavior change and self-control. Research has shown that self-monitoring can lead to improvements in language, completing tasks, and academic and preacademic performance.

Self-monitoring is an especially good strategy to use when:

  • There is a need to increase specific desirable behaviors.
  • The child is capable of demonstrating awareness of their behaviors.
  • Self-control or self-regulation is an important objective.

6 Steps to Teach Children

The best methods for teaching a child to use self-monitoring will vary depending on the child’s level of functioning and the nature of the behavior. Here are some general steps for teaching a child to use self-monitoring:

  1. Define the target behavior carefully. The target behavior can be almost any behavior that is important for the child and clearly observable. The behavior should always be a desirable behavior that you want to increase, such as wearing glasses, staying in a chair, and using an “indoor voice.” It’s important to define the behavior in terms that cause no misunderstandings for either you or the child.
  2. Identify effective rewards. For self-monitoring to work, the child will have to receive some kind of effective reward for engaging in accurate self-monitoring and for desired changes in the target behavior. Rewards can be almost anything the child desires (e.g., praise, stickers, special privileges), but they must be effective for the individual child. Reinforcement will need to occur frequently in the initial stages, but it can be reduced as the behavior demonstrates improvement.
  3. Determine when the child will use the self-monitoring strategy. This will depend on the target behavior and when that behavior is expected to occur. For instance, wearing glasses is a target behavior that may be important for the full day, but staying in the child’s seat may be important for only 5 or 10 minutes at a time.
  4. Determine how the child will observe and monitor the behavior. A first consideration is how the child will indicate whether the behavior occurred or not. At first, this indication may be a response to a question such as, “Are you wearing your glasses?” or “Are you sitting in your chair?” When the child can respond accurately, they should record the correct answer with a simple device, such as a yes/no checklist or sticker chart. (This will depend on the child’s level and preference.)
  5. Teach the child to self-monitor and to use a self-monitoring device. At first, instruction will require a good amount of involvement from you. The child will need to be prompted to answer correctly, and it may be important to demonstrate good and poor examples of the target behavior. When the child answers correctly almost all the time, then it’s time to introduce the checklist, chart, or other device and teach the child to record their answers on the device. The child should be rewarded for doing this successfully.
  6. Gradually reduce the amount of assistance. The goal is for the child to use the self-monitoring device successfully and independently. Eventually, the amount of assistance should be faded, but this shouldn’t happen too quickly. Continue to provide reinforcement for both accurate self-monitoring and for desired improvements in the target behavior.

Special Considerations

Here are a few points to consider when teaching self-management skills to children who may have differing needs or when special circumstances are present:

  • When a child has cognitive delays or has difficulty learning new skills, self-monitoring instruction may need to be broken into smaller steps, practiced more often, and reinforced more frequently.
  • Teaching periods should be as frequent as possible (and reasonable).
  • Materials should be customized to the child’s level and should incorporate the child’s abilities and interests.
  • Celebrate all efforts the child makes toward success at self-monitoring.

When children observe their own behavior, the behavior tends to improve. Use the steps above to teach essential self-monitoring skills to children—and for a guide to using the complete Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families (PTR-F) behavior intervention model, pick up the book behind today’s blog post.

Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families
A Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support for Home and Community
By Glen Dunlap, Ph.D., Phillip S. Strain, Ph.D., Janice K. Lee, M.Ed., BCBA, Jaclyn D. Joseph, M.S.W., BCBA, Christopher Vatland, Ph.D., & Lise Fox, Ph.D.

With the Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families (PTR-F) model in this accessible guide, you can use this proven approach with families to help them resolve their child’s behavior problems. You’ll get a clear 5-step process for guiding families as they promote positive behavior, plus printable forms and case examples that walk you through the PTR-F steps.


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