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Using Role Play to Train Children

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

It seems that some people have come to think of parenting as a battle of “us” against “them”. Good versus evil. While it may FEEL like our children are against us at times, the reality is that we are on the same team. We are the coaches and our kids are our star players.  As the coach, we have a vested interest in our children doing well.

Now if a coach has a talented player who starts to struggle in a particular area, what does he do?  Does he bench him? Does he send him home from practice?  No!  He would never get better that way.  Instead, the coach gives the player more opportunities to practice. Practice, practice, practice is the name of the game in team sports.  Role-play in the family context has the same purpose.

Role play is one of those words that makes many people squirm in their seats.  It reminds them of meet and greet activities at conferences.  Get all of those negative images out of your mind.  Think of it more as training and you will see how well it fits into your parenting repertoire.  Here we will explore how to use role play to change behavior and build skills in your child.

  • First, determine the problem areas.  Identify one area in which your child could use some improvement (I know, there are likely more than one – but just focus on one at a time).  Some examples are:  having a hard time with the bedtime routine, difficultly sharing, poor hygiene, not coming to dinner when called, or not picking up after himself.  All of these behaviors are great candidates for role play.
  • Give your kid a heads up.  At a time of peace, talk about the fact that you have noticed that your child is struggling in a certain area.  Tell him that you want to help him get better and that after dinner (or another preferred time) you are going to help him practice.
  • Role-play.  You will want to identify what the desired behavior looks like.  You can make a list if your child needs one or you can just talk about what improvements you would like to see.  Tell your child that first you will play him and he will pretend he is you.  Feel free to make it fun, but make sure he doesn’t get carried away.  It is not a game.  Practice is serious business.  Run through a scenario leading up to and including the behavior or the routine as you would like it to go.  Then give your child a chance to practice, playing himself, several times.
  • Talk about it.  Discuss when and where you think he would get to try out this new set of behaviors in real life.  You can say something like, “At bedtime tonight, I want to see you do it just the way we practiced.  I know you can do it!”
  • Reference back to the role play BEFORE the situation can arise.  As you are approaching the bedtime hour, you can say, “Bedtime is coming.  I wonder if you can do it as well in real life as you did in practice!”  You can review the skills he learned but avoid nagging or reminding during the “real life” routine.
  • If it doesn’t work.  Your child may not develop this new skill right away.  Remember, he has been in the habit of doing it the wrong way for a long time.  He is going to need many new experiences of the behavior done correctly in order for change to occur.  Don’t get exasperated with slow progress.  Simply say, “Well, that wasn’t quite right.  We can practice more later.”
  • Be very positive and supporting of any progress he has made no matter how small.  You want to encourage the positive replacement behaviors as much as possible.  You can say things like, “You put your lunch box on the counter when you got home from school (even if the rest of the backpack is in the middle of the hallway).  Your practice is paying off!”
Role play is not just for party games.  Try it with your family and see how well it can help your child develop the positive behaviors you desire.

About the author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God’s word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.

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