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WVU psychologist shares quick relief for parents struggling with child behavior during COVID-19 pandemic

Nonstop family time during the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified challenges for parents caring for young children around the clock.   

Cheryl McNeil
Cheryl McNeil

Using research-backed therapies that she helped pioneer, a West Virginia University psychology professor has quick relief strategies for parents struggling with child misbehavior during the lockdown.

Cheryl McNeil’s Cooperation Chart is a tool parents and caregivers can use to help communicate with their children about their behaviors, using praises and warnings to identify positive and negative actions, respectively.

“The demands of parents have grown exponentially because of COVID-19. Social distancing has challenged families with managing a healthy work-life balance. Parents are struggling with disruptive behaviors from their children more so now than ever,” McNeil said. “When families are under stress, as is the case during a pandemic, extra motivation may be needed to make positive sibling interactions​, household chores and cooperation with parent requests a priority. The chart is a helpful tool for encouraging that motivation.”

The chart can be printed from the Cooperation Chart website or drawn by families as an engaging art project. It features two columns per child, one for happy faces and one for sad faces.  

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to acknowledge behavior with their children throughout the day by identifying both positive and negative actions and tallying them on the chart. If a child receives mostly happy faces at the end of the time period, they receive a surprise reward.

McNeil says it is important to place the chart where both the caregivers and children can easily see it and interact with it throughout the day.  

The key to using the chart is consistency, so caregivers should review behaviors after each meal, McNeil explains.

“We want to tally the happy and sad faces at three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. By providing rewards after each meal, it helps us to remember to reinforce our children's positive behavior throughout the day,” McNeil said. “Dividing the day into three segments also allows our children to work on improving and maintaining positive behavior since they'll have opportunities to earn rewards multiple times each day. By being consistent in your responses to your child's positive and negative behaviors and introducing brief, free and fun mystery rewards, children will become motivated to behave appropriately.”  

While some parents and caregivers may have concerns about the frequency of the rewards, McNeil stresses that they are not intended to be elaborate, expensive or require an extensive amount of time. Instead, free activity awards like a game of tic-tac-toe or follow-the-leader are encouraged. The mystery component of the rewards is also engaging because children look forward to the element of surprise.   

McNeil even used the Cooperation Chart with her own children when they were young.  

“I used it during challenging parenting times, like long car rides or when my boys were stuck indoors because of bad weather. When the boys were getting wild, being disrespectful or fighting, and my husband and I were just at our wits’ ends, I would pull out the Cooperation Chart,” McNeil said. “It always helped to motivate all of us to focus on being more positive and more cooperative as a family.”  

The chart is derived from Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. Developed in the 1980s, its goal is to treat children ages 2 to 7 who have disruptive behavioral disorders. The treatment focuses on improving the relationship between the caregiver and child with guidance and coaching from a specially trained therapist.  

McNeil is one of the world’s leading PCIT scholars, authoring several books and more than 100 research articles on PCIT. She is one of only 21 certified PCIT master trainers in the world, as designated by PCIT International. Her research focuses on toddlers with autism and children with severe defiance and aggression – the kids most likely to be expelled from daycare.  

Since trauma can cause behavioral issues in children, those from homes affected by substance abuse can also benefit greatly from PCIT. These children are more likely to experience neglect and displacement and/or be diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

McNeil is active with the West Virginia Opioid Response Plan, coordinated by the state Department of Health and Human Resources. With support from a State Opioid Response grant through WVU, she will train approximately 80 therapists in PCIT over the next two years.

These therapists are making a difference for hundreds of families across West Virginia who are affected by the opioid epidemic. Before the grant, West Virginia only had about eight certified therapists who offered PCIT, resulting in long waiting lists for families in need. After only one year of the trainings, the number of PCIT providers in the Mountain State has increased approximately ten-fold.

McNeil is also a consultant and therapist trainer on the Resiliency for Appalachian Youth – Overcoming Trauma Program, a project of FMRS Health Systems in approximately 19 counties in southern West Virginia. The program is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  

“Families and the foster care system have been under tremendous stress in West Virginia related to the opioid epidemic. Now, we have been hit with another crisis – a global pandemic,” McNeil said. “Because of school and camp closures due to COVID-19, caregivers are reaching their limits with regard to managing child behavior while working from home and facing financial insecurity. I made the Cooperation Chart freely available to families in hopes of providing some relief during this national emergency.”    

For more information, including an instructional video, reward ideas and printable charts, visit