Positive Discipline Language: It’s Easier Than You Think

Kids playing with toy trains

Many parents assume that learning the language of positive discipline is a difficult task. When really, it’s not that hard. Good preschool and elementary school teachers are in and out of this language all day long. It’s like learning any new set of language rules; take a new job and you are likely learning new language. It just takes your attention and practice.

For this introduction to the language we’ll use the example, “Your child wants a toy that another child is playing with. Your child grabs the toy and runs away screaming.”

Proactive techniques – These are ways to encourage the wanted behaviors to happen more often.

  • Descriptive praise – When it goes well, this is describing the behavior and giving it a label. “You waited for a turn. That was so patient.”
  • Positive directions – This is avoiding directions that start with “no,” “don’t” and “stop.” It means telling children what to do rather than what not to do. For this example, it’s avoiding “no grabbing,” and “don’t grab.” It would be saying “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn.”

Foundation steps – These are techniques to use on the way into a discipline exchange. They are not meant to change behavior, rather to allow emotions, keep communication open and lessen the defensiveness of the listener.

  • I messages – I messages give parents a productive way to share their emotion and lay blame. This would be, I’m frustrated, people are grabbing, or, “he’s upset, he wants that back.” I messages are your emotion or the victim child’s emotion and then either global, “people are grabbing” or passive, “he wants that back” blame.
  • Empathy – This is acknowledging your child’s emotion. Even when it is big for the situation or seems unreasonable. This might be, “I know you are frustrated, it can be hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent – This is the good or just valid reason behind the behavior. For grabbing a toy, it’s as simple as, “I know you really wanted that.” This is not to excuse the behavior away, it’s more a starting point for dealing with the behavior. It’s a way better starting point than the negative intent, “you are such a rude, mean kid.”

Active steps – These are techniques to change or start behavior. They are often a distraction from the behavior.

  • Choices – In general, you give a child two choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. In this case, it might be, “do you want to give that back, or would you like me to give that back?” or, “would you like to play with this or this while you wait?” If they didn’t take it yet, “do you want to ask for a turn, or do you want my help?”
  • Challenges – This is making it a race or a game in some way, “can you give it back before I count to 3?” For this example, it’s not so attractive, but for others this is often helpful.
  • Contribution – A contribution means giving them a related job title or a responsibility. It might be offering the child to be the time keeper or list maker (if there are others waiting for a turn).

End Steps – These techniques are meant to curb behavior. There are a lot of variables to consider between each of these including the age of the child, the level and history of the behavior and fit of each consequence.

  • Natural consequences – This is what just might happen in life. In this case, “if you are grabbing toys, he might not want to play with you.”
  • Logical positive consequences – This is the good related outcome for the wanted behavior. It is best if this is matched in time, intensity and topic. “If you can give the toy back, I will help you to get the next turn.”
  • Logical negative consequences – This is the bad related outcome for the unwanted behavior. It is best if this is matched in time, intensity and topic. “If you grab the toy again, you may not play with it today.”

The foundation, active and end steps combine to make what are called the Steps of Positive Discipline. This gives parents a framework for moving through any discipline exchange. It starts with techniques to calm emotions and open communication, moves to ways to guide behaviors and ends with ways to curb. The steps are a flexible process meant to address everything from running in the house to hitting a friend.

This language came out of the work of Alfred Adler in the early 1900s, Rudolf Dreikurs in the 1930s and Haim Ginott in the 1960s. STEP classes (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) became popular in the 1970s and 1980s and continue to be attended today. Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline books have been popular and revised since the 1980s.

Join me for workshops in Northern Virginia. I also have online workshops, and I answer questions on facebook (Tuesdays at 10:00pm). I also post related videos on youtube.

How Charting Behaviors Helps: Tantrums and Aggression

Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother

Charting behaviors like tantrums or aggression is often done by teachers in the classroom, so they can quickly gain a better understanding of what is happening. It is something parents can easily do at home. Charting means keeping detailed and consistent notes about the behavior. If a child were tantruming often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every tantrum I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs child was about to tantrum (cues)
  • How long it lasted
  • What they did during
  • How they calmed down
  • What happened after

Once you’ve taken notes for several tantrums, you can look across the notes for patterns. If it’s always the same time of day, maybe move snack earlier or rearrange that time of the day. If it’s the same place or happening when interacting with the same children, look at how you can change the space or separate the children. Coach the triggers directly. If turn taking triggered your child’s tantrums, make a plan to coach turn taking later in the day by reading a story about taking turns, role play taking turns or give a puppet show about taking turns. The idea is to teach them how to better manage when the trigger happens. Use the cues to better intervene before future tantrums. For some children, a cue would be their voice going up a notch or getting really whiney before the tantrum starts. If you know the cue and know the tantrum is about to start, you can intervene just before with empathy, positive intent or choices to calm and distract away from the tantrum.

Here’s a helpful post about using triggers and cues to lessen tantrums.

By charting the behavior and reviewing your notes, you are in a much better place to address the tantrums.

Likewise, if a child were being aggressive often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every aggressive behavior I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs the child was about to be aggressive (cues)
  • What actually happened
  • What happened after
  • Any discipline given

Again, this information is meant to show patterns and give you a better chance to intervene and in the long run curb the aggression. If it’s a particular time, place or person, make changes accordingly. Triggers are what sets off the behavior, and cues are signs it’s about to happen. Children who are aggressive often tend to have fairly consistent triggers and cues. You can coach the triggers, and intervene on the cues.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from a preschool. They had a two-year-old girl who was biting people often. My first questions included, “who is she biting? Where is she biting? And, when is she biting?” and, “did you notice any triggers or cues?” The answers were all, “good question.” So they took notes for a week. When we spoke again they said, “We can see it coming. She only bites people if they approach her, and she is holding stuff.” It’s a don’t touch my stuff bite. Knowing that, the teachers can focus on teaching her to say “stop,” or “mine,” when others approach. They can have her sit down, or just stay within arms reach when they see her holding stuff. They also noticed consistent cues. They said, “she gets this wild look in her eye, her mouth flies open, and then she lunges.” Scary as that is, the wild look gives them a few second to remind her to say “mine,” or hold her or say “freeze,” or say “run,” to the other child.

Here is a helpful post about discipline for aggression.

How Discipline Works Backwards for Aggression

Two kids, boy brothers, fighting in garden, summertime rainy day

The steps of positive discipline provide parents with a framework for moving through any discipline exchange. For most all behaviors, the idea is to work forward through the steps and consider which are needed or are the best fit. I tend to get through most discipline exchanges with empathy and choices or positive intent and choices, but that may not be what fits best for you. It is good to stay flexible.

It is also helpful to note that there are several ways to stay in front of this discipline including: considering logistics for ways to solve behaviors, checking your routines and schedules to avoid struggles, and giving clear and consistent warnings to help children prepare themselves. There are also proactive discipline techniques such as giving positive directions and descriptive praise to encourage wanted behaviors and lessen the need for the steps of discipline. That said, sometimes the behaviors still happen.

Here are the steps with definitions of each. For each step, I am providing an example for this scenario: Your child wants to walk at the grocery store but keeps pulling things off the shelf onto the floor.

  • I message – I messages are a way to express your negative emotion and blame the behavior or the situation rather than blaming the child. This is either passive blame, “I am frustrated, this is a mess,” or, “I am worried, something might break,” or global blame, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The point is to diffuse the blame rather than blame the child directly which leads to defensiveness and arguing.
  • Empathy – This is acknowledging the child’s emotions in the situation, and understanding their upset before you move towards discipline. In the grocery store example, this might be, “I know you are bored. It is so boring to shop,” or, “I see you are excited, you love being here. There is so much to see.”
  • Positive Intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good reason behind the negative behavior. This may be, “I know you want to help,” or, “I know you are having fun.”
  • I messages, empathy and positive intent are all foundation steps in the framework. You don’t tend to see a lot of behavior change from these steps, but they help to keep communication open and encourage the child to be a listener to what comes next. The next steps, including choices and consequences, are viewed as the active steps of the framework which lead more towards changes in behavior.
  • Choices, Challenges or Contribution – These are ways to encourage the good behavior while avoiding consequence language. These techniques are more open and flexible than consequences. Choices would be, “do you want to hold my hand or help push the cart,” or, “leaving everything else on the shelf, do you want to choose the cereal or the cookies next?” Challenges would be making up a game or making it fun, “can you duck walk on the center tiles all the way to the other end of the aisle,” or, “can you count how many characters you see on the cereal boxes?” Either way, they aren’t focused on pulling things off the shelves. Contribution is giving the child a job to get them through the behavior this might be making the child the ‘list checker’ or the ‘cart organizer,’ rather than just walking.
  • Natural Consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen if the child chooses or continues the behavior. “If you keep pulling things off the shelf, something might break,” or, “you might get hurt.”
  • Logical Positive or Logical Negative Consequences – Positive logical consequences are the good related outcomes; such as, “if you can leave things on the shelf, you can pick the cereal,” or, “you can use the scanner,” or, “you can walk the whole time.” Negative logical consequences are the bad related outcome; such as, “if you are pulling things off the shelf, you will have to ride in the cart,” or, “you will have to hold my hand.”

As a parent, when one child hurts another, I tend to work through the steps backwards and start with a logical negative consequence. This is mostly because I want it to register differently to my child. I want them to realize, “oh, when I hurt someone this all works differently.” The only way for it to register this way is to work forward for all other behaviors and avoid starting with negative consequences unless there is aggression.

  • Attention to victim first – As hard as it is, avoid initially looking at or speaking to the child who was just aggressive. Turn your initial attention to the victim child saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” This avoids giving that initial attention to the aggressive behavior and accidentally reinforcing it. I am not saying comfort, snuggle and go overboard, just avoid initial attention to the aggressive behavior.
  • Logical Negative Consequence – Again, as best you can, it’s good to give a consequence related to the scenario. If they were pushing over a toy, the other child gets the toy. If they were hitting over a spot on the couch, the other child gets the couch. It can also be fine to end the activity or leave the situation, just be sure to tie it to the behavior as best you can.
  • Empathy or Positive Intent then Choices – The consequence is where many parents end the exchange. I think it’s best to go back through empathy or positive intent and better choices for the exchange. It is going to be good to redirect the child to better behaviors following a consequence for aggression.

If aggression is happening often, it can be helpful to also coach being gentle or other related skills out of the moment. Coaching might include reading stories like Hands Are Not for Hitting by Aggasi and No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford. This might be brainstorming ways to be gentle, practicing gentle touches and making lists about how to treat people. It’s good to also coach any known triggers. If you child is hitting over taking turns, coach how to take turns by role playing, giving puppet shows, drawing pictures of it going well and drawing comics that teach the point. There is a free audio workshop on coaching wanted behaviors available at parentingbydrrene.com.

To learn more about this and other discipline techniques you can join me for a workshop in Northern VA.

Listen to my audio workshops online.

Or read my workbook: 8 Weeks to Positive Discipline.

Steps of Positive Discipline : A Grocery Store Example

Mother and daughter shopping in supermarket

Before the discipline, here’s a link to a previous post about ways to enjoy grocery shopping with your kids by age: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2013/06/02/successful-grocery-shopping-with-children/

Discipline Scenario: Your three-year-old wants to walk at the grocery store, but repeatedly pulls things off the shelf onto the floor.

Proactive discipline techniques:

  • Positive directions – This is a reminder to tell your children what you want them to do rather than telling them what you want them to stop doing. In other words, avoid giving directions that start with “no,” “don’t,” and “stop.” Instead of saying, “don’t take that off the shelf,” or, “stop taking food off the shelves,” you should say, “leave that on the shelf,” or, “the food stays on the shelf.” Even, “keep your hands down by your sides,” would work better than, “don’t do that.”
  • Descriptive praise – When the child follows your directions even down the length of one aisle, say something like, “you left everything on the shelf, that was helpful,” or, “you are really listening to directions, that can be tough to do.”

Steps of positive discipline

  • I messages – I messages are for sharing your emotions as needed, and then lay blame on the situation or the behavior, not the child. In this case it might sound like, “I am upset, this is a mess,” or, “I am worried something, might break,” or, “I am frustrated, this is taking too long.”
  • Empathy – Empathy is validating the child’s emotions in the moment, even if you disagree with the emotion itself. This might sound like, “I know you’re bored being at the store,” or, “I know you’re excited to be at the store!”
  • Positive Intent – Positive Intent is recognizing the good reason behind the behavior. For the grocery store, this could be, “I know you want to help with the shopping.”
  • Choices – Choices offer the child two positive ways to do the thing you want them to do. If you want your child to leave things on the shelf at the grocery store, this might sound like, “do you want to ride on the cart or help push the cart?” or, “do you want to carry the cereal or the crackers while we walk?”  **Choices, challenges and contribution are interchangeable at this step of the discipline process.
  • Challenges – Challenges attempt to change behaviors by making it a game, a race or  just by making it fun. On one aisle this might be, “can you walk heel-toe, heel-toe all the ways to the end?” and on the next aisle, “can you find three cereals that start with the letter C?”
  • Contribution – Contribution is giving children jobs to engage them in a positive way. In the grocery store this might be, “I need a cart pusher,” or, “would you be in charge of crossing things off the list?”
  • Natural Consequence – Natural consequences are what might happen if the child continues the behavior. In this case, “if you are pulling things off the shelf, something might break,” or, “you might get hurt.”
  • Logical Positive Consequence – Logical positive consequences are the good related outcome for finding the good behavior. In the grocery store, “if you can leave things on the shelf while we walk, you can pick the cereal,” or, “you can help with the scanner.”
  • Logical Negative Consequence – Logical negative consequences are the bad related outcome for continuing the bad behavior. In the grocery store, “if you pull things off the shelf, you will have to hold my hand,” or, “you will have to ride in the cart.”

For more examples of the steps of positive discipline, here’s a link to similar previous posts: https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps

 

Discipline Language for Grabbing Toys

Two young boys fighting over a scooter

Young children grabbing toys from each other is a common exchange. If your child grabs toys often, it’s good to be prepared. There are ways to best address this behavior before, during and after it happens. While I wouldn’t expect a parent to use all of the ideas below at once, some combination of several should be helpful.

Be proactive – Proactive techniques are to encourage wanted behaviors and stay ahead of unwanted behaviors.

  • Setting Clear Boundaries – This is a pep talk that you might have before your next playdate arrives. The language here starts with setting one goal, “today on our playdate, I need you to take turns with the toys.” Next provide ways your child can be successful, “you may ask for a turn, you may wait for a turn, find toys to trade or ask for help.” Then you might remind them of the logical negative consequence (explanation below), “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 10 minutes.” Finally, you might prompt them to participate, “so how do you ask for a turn?”
  • Catch the Good Behaviors – Once the playdate starts, the idea is to catch and encourage the good behavior as it happens. This is saying, “you asked for a turn, that was nice!” and, “you waited for a turn, you were patient!” Describe the behavior and label.
  • Positive Directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive.  Negative directions start with “no,” “don’t,” and “stop.” Positive directions tell children what to do and are far easier for children to follow. This is saying, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” rather than, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab.”

Discipline in the moment – The steps of positive discipline are meant to provide a framework for moving through a discipline exchange. Once the grabbing happens, some combination of the skills below should help you move through in an effective way.

  • I messages – I messages allow you to voice your or the victim child’s emotions and lay blame on the behavior. This might be, “I am frustrated, people are grabbing,” or, “he is upset. He wasn’t finished with that.” I messages are also to avoid you messages which blame the child. A you message, which you want to avoid, are, “I am upset with you, you are always grabbing.” You messages make the listener defensive.
  • Empathy – This validates the child’s emotions and why they are feeling that way.  It lets the child that you are about to discipline know that you are still understanding how they feel as you move forward. Empathy might be, “I know you are frustrated, it is hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good intention behind the behavior. It’s shifting how you view the behavior. Positive intent might be, “I know you really want a turn,” rather than, “you are so rude.” In this case, positive intent might be reminding yourself you are talking to a three-year-old.
  • Choices – When offering a child choices, remember to offer to positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. This might be asking, “do you want to give it back to me or to him?” or, “do you want to play with this or this while you wait for a turn?”
  • Natural consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen in life if the child does or continues the behaviors. This would be, “if you are grabbing toys, he might not want to play with you.” These start to be more effective closer to four-years-old.
  • Logical positive consequences – Logical positives are if the good behavior happens, then there’s a good related outcome. This might be, “if you can give that back nicely, I will be sure you get the next turn,” or, “I will play with you while you wait.”
  • Logical negative consequences – Logical negatives are if the bad behavior happens, then there’s a bad related outcome. This might be, “if you are grabbing toys, you will have to play separately,” or, “you may not play with the toy for 10 minutes.”

To read more about the steps of positive discipline, read my related blog posts at https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.

Coach out of the moment – If you are repeatedly disciplining a behavior, it is time to start coaching. Coaching is more actively teaching about and encouraging the good behaviors.

  • Avoid lectures – Most children are either too young to listen long, or old enough to tune you out. Be more engaging.
  • Tell stories – If you are at all creative you can make up stories related to turn taking and sharing. When our girls were little, I told Amy and Catie stories. If the girls had a big upset at the swing set, that night Amy and Catie would have a remarkably similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should model good problem solving and emotion management.
  • Role play – Go back through the scenario to find better ways to manage. The child can be themselves or the other child as you go back through.
  • Puppet shows –  This is often an engaging way to teach children about behavior.  You can use puppets, doll babies or action figures to model better behaviors.
  • Hypotheticals – This is asking “what ifs…” when all is well. Plan to do this over lunch or driving to preschool. In this case, it would be asking something like, “what would you do if you got to the sand box, and you really wanted to use a shovel, but there were only two and other children already had them?”
  • Draw pictures – This is drawing pictures of it going well. You or they can draw pictures of them asking for a turn or finding something to trade.
  • Play games – In this case, you might introduce easy board games and talk a lot about waiting for a turn and taking turns.
  • Art projects – In our preschool, we practice turn taking by sitting six children down to a glue and mosaic art project with only two bottles of glue. We prepare them by explaining they will have to share and talk about how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait before we start. We coach them through and add a third glue bottle a few minutes in.
  • Read stories – Good related storybooks include:
  1. The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  2. Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  3. Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  4. Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  5. Sharing is Fun by Cole
  6. The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  7. I am Sharing by Mayer
  8. It’s Mine by Lionni
  9. One for You, One for Me by Albee
  10. Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

Guidelines for Using the Steps of Discipline

In my Positive Discipline workshop series, we spend three hours on the steps of positive discipline. This language provides a framework for effectively working through a discipline exchange from managing emotions with I messages and empathy to using choices and consequences. I have written about the steps and given examples of each in several previous blog posts which you can read: https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps+of+positive+discipline

Once you’ve learned the steps of positive discipline, there are a few guidelines for using each.

I messages are for when you are expressing negative emotions and laying blame. Be sure you lay blame on the behavior or situation, not the child. Sometimes there isn’t an emotion, if you are laying blame it is fine to use just the second part of the sentence. If there’s emotion, this might sound like, “I am upset, this is a mess.” and no emotion, “wow, this is a mess.”

Empathy is for when the children are expressing negative emotions. The empathy, as needed, comes before the discipline or the fix of the situation.

The general idea for emotions is to consider on the way into a discipline exchange if either of these techniques are needed.

Positive intent is helpful in every exchange. While you don’t have to always say it out loud, the rule is at least think it every time.

Choices come before consequences for all behaviors except aggression. Aggression may work backwards. If choices aren’t working, you can substitute challenges or jobs here.

Natural consequences become fair game at three-and-a-half or four years old.  Remember you aren’t stopping behavior, you are allowing the child to think through this and make a decision about the behavior. Occasionally, it may be that you state a natural and then follow up with a logical consequence.

Logical consequences are meant as an endpoint in discipline. Positive logicals work more like choices, often with a more agreeable outcome. Negative logicals may be met with upset, but that likely means your consequence is meaningful (provided you didn’t go too big with intensity).

In real life, you wouldn’t use all of these steps at one time. Most often, parents use a few of the steps in combination to work through an exchange. The best plan is to spend time focused on using each step, get comfortable with it and figure out which steps are most comfortable for you and work well with your child.

These steps are meant to be used in conjunction with proactive techniques and coaching good behaviors.

Natural vs. Logical Consequences

Natural and logical consequences are meant to be the end of a discipline exchange. In the moment and over time, they are meant to curb behaviors.

It is important to note consequences are very rarely meant to be a starting point in the discipline process. There are so many other better places to start. You might think first of being proactive with positive directions and descriptive praise. You might address behaviors with empathy, positive intent, choices, contribution or challenges prior to using consequences. That said, sometimes consequences are a necessary piece.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are what just might happen if the child continues the behavior.  This sounds like, “if you don’t finish your homework, you might get a bad grade,” and, “if you don’t wear a coat, you might be cold.” These are things that naturally happen in life and without our intervention. While you can state natural consequences to younger children, these start to make sense and work better to curb behaviors somewhere between three-and-a-half to four years old for many children.

The first part of using natural consequences is to state this to your child. The next is to allow them to make a decision and avoid rescuing them if they continue the behavior. Let’s say you are arguing with your five-year-old about wearing their coat outside, and it is cold. You say, “if you go outside like that, you might be really cold.” Child says, “fine,” and opens the door. If you throw their coat on them the second the cold air hits, you will have this battle again tomorrow. Yes, take the coat with you but let the child feel a bit of the consequence. The natural consequence of feeling cold will help to curb the next debate. I am not saying be stubborn and leave the coat home, take it with you, but let the child feel the cold before giving it to them.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences can be stated in the negative or the positive. A logical negative consequence is stated if there is bad behavior then there’s a bad related consequence such as, “if you leave the toys all over the floor, we are closing the playroom for the afternoon.” A logical positive consequence is stated if there’s good behavior then there’s good related consequence, such as “if you get the toys cleaned up we can have 5 more minutes to play.”

To be fair, your consequence should match your child’s behavior in time, intensity and content. Matching in time means as immediate as possible. For children three-and-a-half years old and younger, it means immediate. Matching in intensity means the level of consequence matches the level of their behavior (not bigger, you are just being punitive). Matching in content means it is on topic with the behavior. If a child is saying mean things to their sibling, a matched-content consequence would be having to play in separate rooms or finding five nice things to say about their sibling. A non-matched consequence would be taking away a TV time or no dessert. The idea is to keep them thinking on topic.

Examples

Your child grabs a toy from a friend.

Natural: If you grab toys, he might not want to play with you.

Logical Negative: If you grab a toy, you may not have a turn with it.

Logical Positive: If you can give it back nicely, I will be sure you have the next turn.

Your child is fighting getting into the car seat in the morning.

Natural: If this takes too long, we might be late, and you might miss centers.

Logical Negative: If you are out of your seat, we aren’t going (only use this one if not going would be a negative to your child, AND you mean it). Smaller ones would be no music or toys in the car if you usually have them.

Logical Positive: If you get in your seat quickly, you can pick the music.

Got a behavior of concern, and you’d like answers? Post them here.

What to Do When a Child is Aggressive

Four-year-old Johnny and Eric are building together. Eric moves one of Johnny’s blocks when Johny had it in the perfect place, and Johnney gets mad. Johnny yells, “no!” and hits Eric.

This is a common scenario that plays out on playdates, between siblings and in preschools every day. As a parent or teacher, it can be hard to know the best ways to follow up in the moment and encourage better behaviors moving forward.

Part One: Discipline In the Moment
I tend to start with a little attention to the victim first. In this case, I would turn to Eric and say something along the lines of, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” I am not saying gush and comfort in a big way. You don’t want to encourage the victim role. Just give momentary attention to check in, and be sure they are okay. The point is to avoid giving intial attention to the child being aggressive.

As a teacher entering into the discipline process, you might start with brief empathy to Johnny, “I know you are angry, you were building that,” or positive intent, “you really wanted the blocks the way you had them.” When it seems appropriate, and in this case it would, you can help the child find better words to express himself. Again briefly, you might say, “Johnny, next time you can say, ‘Eric, don’t move that,’ or you can ask me for help.” The next step is a logical consequence for the aggressive behavior. This might be having Johnny leave the block area for the morning for hitting his friend. A logical consequence is meant to curb the behavior moving forward.

As a parent, I tend to think the discipline process works in the reverse when there is a aggressive behavior. When a child hits their sibling or a friend on a playdate, I would start the discipline with that logical negative consequence. Once served, I’d work my way back through the empathy or positive intent, and back through a conversation about choices. The reason is, I want this to register differently to the child than discipline for other behaviors. If in response to other behaviors, you work in order from I messages and empathy to ending with consequence language, it may help to limit the aggressive behavior by starting with the consequence.

Here is a link to previous blog posts that goes into more detail about the Steps of Positive Discipline: https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.

In addition to the steps, it can also be helpful to include other-oriented consequences. This would be saying things like, “look how sad your friend is. He doesn’t like getting hit.” This is meant to help your child realize the impact their behavior has on other people.

Part Two: Coaching Out of the Moment
When you have to discipline a behavior often, part of the answer is in coaching the wanted behavior. This can be done a bit in the moment, but is more effective to coach when all is well. Coaching includes:

  • Reading Children’s Storybooks – This includes No More Hitting for Little Hamster by and Hands are Not for Hitting by Agassi.
  • Telling Your Own Stories – If you’re creative, make up your own stories about how to be gentle and why.
  • Asking Hypotheticals – This is asking your child “what if” questions related to the behavior of concern. In this case, that might be asking, “what if you and a friend were playing cars, and your friend took a car you were playing with, what would you do?” Follow that with a conversation about their answers and best ways to react.
  • Role Playing – When things go poorly, go back and role play the situation with your child striving for better outcomes.
  • Puppet Shows – This is a lot like role playing, but it may capture the child’s attention in a bigger way. Again, focus on positive behaviors and outcomes.
  • Drawing Pictures of It Going Well – If your child likes art, this may be another way to coach behaviors. Draw pictures of it going well or make cartoons of their scenarios.

Yes, all of this takes time and effort, and this tends to be more helpful than discipline alone.

Steps of Positive Discipline Defined

The steps of positive discipline are designed to give parents a framework for moving through a discipline exchange. The idea is to learn each and be flexible in the moment.

I messages label your or another person’s emotions and explains why you are feeling this way. This avoids you messages which blame the child. Rather, blame the behavior or the situation. This blame can be global (“no one is listening”) or passive (“this is a mess”).  Rule: When you are the angriest person in the room or laying blame.

Empathy labels your child’s emotions and validates why they feel that way. This can also be given through wants or wishes (“you wanted to win the game”) or storytelling (“I remember when I was little and that happened to me…”). Rule: When your kids are bent out of shape and need a bit of help to calm.

Positive intent is giving those you love the benefit of the doubt. This means thinking of them as tired not lazy and needing to learn social skills not rude. This is more a shift in thinking than it is a shift in language. Rule: At least think it every time.

Choices are two positives for the child that meet your goal as a parent. Rule: Choices (challenges or contribution) before consequences as best you can.

  • Challenges are making it a game or a race, making it fun.
  • Contribution means giving the child a job to gain the behavior or keep them on track.

Natural consequences are what just might happen in life if the child chooses or continues a given behavior. These start to make more sense around three-and-a-half or four years old. Rule: State and allow the child to experience. Avoid rescuing.

Logical consequences should match the child’s behavior in time (as soon as possible and immediate under three years old), intensity (at the same level) and content (on topic with the behavior).

  • Logical positive consequences are the good related outcome to the positive behavior. Rule: Works a lot like choices.
  • Logical negative consequences are the bad related outcome to the negative behavior. Rule: Meant as an endpoint, and only allowed for starters with aggressive behavior.

*You have asked your child to clean up his toys, he just stands there looking at you.

  • I messages: “I’m frustrated, no one is listening.”
  • Empathy: “I know you don’t like cleaning.”
  • Positive intent: “It is so much fun to play.”
  • Choices: “Do you want to start with blocks or balls?”
  • Challenges: Can he clean up the blocks before you clean up the cars?
  • Contribution: Make him the Clean-up Supervisor with a check list for jobs.
  • Natural: “If you leave your toys out, they might get lost or broken.”
  • Logical positive: “If you clean them up now, we can have five more minutes to play.”
  • Logical negative: “If you leave them out, I will put them on the shelf for two days.”

*One child is yelling at another over taking turns with a toy.

  • I messages: “He is upset, he doesn’t like being yelled at.”
  • Empathy: “I know you are angry, it is hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent: “You really want a turn.”
  • Choices: “Do you want to try again with a whisper or your regular voice?”
  • Challenges: Can he list three other things he can do while waiting for his turn?
  • Contribution: Show the child 10 minutes on the clock, and put them in charge of letting you know when the time is up (but not a second earlier).
  • Natural: “If you are yelling, she might not play with you.”
  • Logical positive: “If you can speak nicely, you can stay together.”
  • Logical negative: “If you are yelling, you will have to play in another room.”

In Discipline: Whoever Starts It Gets to Finish

There is a golden rule in discipline when you are parenting as a couple. It is simple, whoever starts it gets to finish. This means if the first parent is into a discipline exchange, as long as it’s not abusive, the second parent avoids intervening, correcting the first, rescuing the child, taking over or undermining in any way. If the second parent must say something, they should err on the side of supporting the first or offer to help. If the offer to help is declined, it’s declined.

When I have seen a discipline exchange going south fast for my husband, I have offered to help. Sometimes he says, “no thanks, I got it.” Other times he says, “yes, take them. It’s your turn.” If the former, I say, “listen to your father.” I reserve the right to make a note of the situation and discuss it with him after and away from the children. If the latter, I move forward in discipline.

If you don’t offer and just move in, or if you offer and move in even though you were declined, you are making your partner’s job harder the next go around. It can be very hard, but there is a need to let them build an individual parent-child relationship. Both parents should be able to feel confident in their interactions and discipline exchanges.

If you disagree often over discipline, you may want to spend time working through it apart from the children. You might read Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage by Pruett and Pruett. You might also take my live or audio workshop on Parenting as a Couple.

 

 

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