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.”

Ways to Teach Children Emotion Language

Emotion language provides children a tool for managing social exchange. By the time they get to Kindergarten, I want children to be able to look at their friend and say, “I am mad at you. You took my block,” rather than clobber them. There are many ways to teach children emotion language, here are a few:

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way by putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, and people are running). This AVOIDS blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide following an emotional exchange, once all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions.  There is a list on my blog at: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. When Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into six squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way.  You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs –  We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.

For more ideas you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to our workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

The Steps of Positive Discipline

The steps of Positive Discipline are not something I’ve created, these steps have been around for years. Originally written in 1965, Dr. Haim Ginott introduced a version of these steps in Between Parent and Child. Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, or STEP classes, desiged by Dinkmeyer and McKay have been in session since 1976. These steps are covered in some variation in most all Positive Discipline parenting books. We cover the steps of positive discipline in my one-day and eight hour evening series workshops. My full audio workshops are also available at www.askdrrene.com. Here are the basics to get you started:

  • I messages – This is labeling your own or others emotions and blaming the behavior not the child. When labeling your own emotions, it sounds like, “I am frustrated, no one is listening,” or, “I am upset, this is a huge mess.” Labeling others’ emotions sounds like, “she is upset, she wasn’t finished with her turn,” or, “she is angry, that hurt her.” This shares emotions and avoids You messages which blame the child such as, “I am frustrated, you never listen,” or, “she is angry, you hurt her.”
  • Empathy – This is validating the child’s emotions as you enter into a discipline exchange, even when you disagree with the emotion at hand. It is saying, “wow, you are mad, you didn’t like that game,” or, “I see you are sad, it’s hard to be left out.”  It’s remembering to validate emotions and help find a calm before you address the situation or discipline.
  • Positive Intent – This refers to how we view the child’s behavior. What we think and assume about their behavior, shapes our tone and our reply. This is thinking of those you love as tired or overwhelmed rather than lazy. For the child having trouble waiting for a turn, it is seeing them as excited, young and needing to learn patience rather than annoying or rude.
  • Choices – The idea is to offer the child two positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. If you are wanting them to get homework done, this might be, “do you want to start with reading or math,” or, “do you want to work before or after snack,” or, “do you want to work at the kitchen table or your bedroom desk?” These often work because they give the child some power.
  • Natural Consequences – This is what just might happen in life if the child continues the behavior. These warn and encourage the child to think about the possible outcomes. This sounds like, “if you don’t wear a coat, you might be cold,” and, “if you do that, she might not want to play with you.” These consequences start to make sense around three-and-a-half years old.
  • Logical Negative Consequences – This is, if the bad behavior; then the bad related outcome. “If you keep yelling, you will have to play in separate rooms,” or, “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 5 minutes.”
  • Logical Positive Consequences – This is, if the good behavior; then the good related outcome. “If you can speak nicely, you can stay together,” or, “if you can share the coloring books, I’ll get out the other markers.”

Corrections Shouldn’t Feel Like Corrections

The theme this week is working through problem solving with your children. Our third guideline is ‘corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections.’

This guideline is easier to follow with younger children. When a two-year-old says, “I need a ram-baid,” we don’t tend to correct in a heavy way such as, “no, you said that wrong! It is band-aid, not ram-baid.” Rather than feeling like a correction, you might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. let’s go get you a band-aid.” You might very clearly enunciate the correct word, but the words all together didn’t feel like a correction.

This guideline is harder to follow as children get older. When your fourth grader has gotten the last two math problems wrong, and is working through a third in the same incorrect way, it is common for parents to say, “no, you’re getting this one wrong too! Why aren’t you thinking?” When corrections feel like corrections, we tend to turn children off to the problem solving process. By all means, you may need to correct the math problems, just use lighter language. This might be something like, “I see your having some trouble working through, how can I help?” or, “hmmm, this seems tough. Why don’t you walk me through the last problem, and we’ll work together?” Yes, you are correcting, but it doesn’t feel like correction.

The idea here is to keep them engaged in the problem solving process.

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Nurturing Independence

Dear Dr. Rene,

My, just turned three years old, son knows his alphabet, colors, shapes and dinosaurs. He is beginning to spell and can manage 48 piece puzzles by himself. He is very interested in learning and listens intently and soaks information up like a sponge when interested. My concerns are when he has to do things for himself such as turning a doorknob, getting dressed or playing independently. In these situations, he always fights it. He resists and exaggerates his attempts. Sometimes he doesn’t even try, he will just lay down and say he is “resting” until I am able to help him. I try to give him more play time alone, but he has a hard time occupying himself. How do I encourage his independence in situations he isn’t interested in?

Sincerely,

Cynthia

Dear Cynthia,

There really are two issues here. The first is learning to play independently. The second is learning to do for yourself and being able to move forward taking on greater responsibilities rather than continuing to rely on others to do so for him.

To build independent play skills there needs to be adequate downtime. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This may be indoors or out, alone or with you and any siblings available. The idea, though, of downtime is you are not organizing for the child, you are not providing entertainment. The child is left time to entertain themselves. They can also be unproductive if they choose. Real downtime means they can watch the clouds or play with dripping water at a sink if that’s what occupies them. To get good at this, most children just need more practice. This means, stop entertaining them. A little boredom here is a good thing as it prompts play.

To encourage independent play, you might also give them things to do that are like or nearby what you are doing. Meaning if you are cooking, give them pots, pans and spoons with a bit of water. If you are on the computer, give them a leap-pad on the corner of the desk, so they can do their work beside you. You might also give them things you start together such as a big puzzle. Sit together for the first few pieces, and then make trips away.

Encouraging a child to take ownership and increasing responsibility for life tasks is a harder thing. I think the first thing to do is focus on teaching them to do for themselves. If they struggle with parts of getting dressed, which may sink the entire effort, sit and practice that piece. Give them ample practice when you are there to help. Once you know they are capable, move back and give them space to work through. This may mean you are out of the room to avoid doing for them. Think of each challenge as opportunity for them to master the task and to at least learn from the experience.

When they are frustrated, give hints and suggestions to get them back on track. Avoid doing for them. Be sure to give lots of empathy for the frustration and encouragment for the task. Focus your praise on their effort and process rather than the outcome. Notice the hard work and the additional attempts, comment on the time and energy required to get it right. When available, give them opportunity for decision making. Children are much more likely to buy into doing if they are in charge of the process.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Teach Turn Taking thru Role Play

At any age, if your child is not yet good at turn taking, it can be helpful to role play the process. This means to approach them when they are playing alone and happy at, say, the train table. Pick up the blue train that is not being used and say something like, “wow! The blue train. I love this train, it’s the best train on the table.” Then play with it. If the child wants it or even just looks up, say something like, “oh, you’d like a turn. Sure, I’ll be done with my turn in just a minute, and I’ll be sure to give it to you.” Then feel a little silly while you play with the train. Soon say, “I am done with my turn now. Here, you can have a turn with the blue train. Please remember that I want the next turn when you are done with it.” If they remember to give it back when they finish, gush a little. Say, “you remembered I was waiting, that was kind. Thank you for giving a turn.” If they forget, just gently remind, “hey, can I have the blue train back in my hand? I was waiting for another turn,” and gush when they give it, “you are giving me a turn, thanks!” Do this a few times a week and the child is gradualy learning the language and process of turn taking when it isn’t a fight or high emotions.

Taking Children to a Funeral

Dear Dr. Rene,

We are comtemplating taking our five and six year olds to their grandfather’s funeral. My instinct says not to, and I want to know what is the current thinking on this.

Thank you!

For sure, this is a difficult and personal decision and should feel comfortable once made.  If your instinct is saying no, for whatever reason, that may be the way to go. You know your own children, their emotional well-being and their relationship with their grandfather, so you ultimately are the best judge. That said, from a psychological standpoint it can be fine to have children attend funerals. Death is a part of life and can be presented as such with a great deal of love and support. I think a lot of how children manage through difficult situations rests in how we present them. If you decide to take them with you, talk about the place and the activity that will happen. Talk about who will be there and that people may be very emotional or quiet. Find out, if you can if it will be an open or closed casket, an indoor or graveside service and talk about those details as well. Prepare them as best you can for the experience and be open to answering all of their questions before, during and after. I would also consider the child’s response. If there is great hesitation or upset over going, it may be they are not yet able to handle the event. I wouldn’t push a child into attending any related activity. If they do not attend the funeral, it may be nice to offer some other way for them to have closure such as making a photo album or taking a nature walk to talk about memories of that person. This also holds true in the other direction. If a child really wants to attend, I would err on the side of taking them, especially if this is an important relationship to the child. Missing the event can’t be undone.

My children have been to several funerals with us for friends and relatives over the years. While they have willingly attended and asked a great many questions after, they have avoided going near the casket at each, and that is fine. We talk openly about the process, our feeling and fond memories we have of that person before and after.

Blended Families and Re-Building Relationships

Hi Dr. Rene,
We are a blended family and have been for more than five years. One of my step children has suddenly decided they dislike me, and will avoid eye contact or any type of interaction with me if possible. I am getting sighs and dirty looks for doing something as simple as saying good morning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no changes or incidences to cause this sudden change in behavior. Before this started we were very close, got along well and spent regular time together doing activities we both enjoyed. My husband and I have tried talking to the child about the behavior; that seems to help for a day or two. We’ve tried ignoring the behavior; which seems to make it escalate. We are at the point of wanting to enforce some sort of discipline for being disrespectful and rude. I’m not sure if this will help or hurt the situation, but things cannot continue this way, the behavior is affecting the entire family. Any advice would be welcomed.  Thank you!

Sincerely,

Michelle

Dear Michelle,

I am sure this is upsetting, but I would avoid discipline, at least at the emotion. First, I would try to look at the emotion behind the behavior and address that. While you may be unaware of any change, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It may have been a piece of a passing conversation, a new understanding of an old problem as they mature or a sense of slight from his other parent. It may be impossible to find the cause, even the child may be unable to pin point it, but clearly there is upset. I would go out of my way to validate the difficult emotions when there is a behavior. When child rolls eyes, this sounds like, “I get you are frustrated with me, you don’t like what I just asked you to do.” Without lecturing, this can be followed by a simple, “and I need you to do it now.” The idea is to validate the emotion, but follow through with the behavior. It is a narrow road, but if you move forward with discipline, it is along these lines. Validate the emotions and discipline the related behaviors. In the moment this would be starting with, “I see you are grumpy this morning, I will try again later,” or, “I know you are frustratted, let’s go back and try that again.” You might also coach how the child can better display emotion. Rather than a dirty look to a “good morning,” coach that they can say, “I’m not awake yet.” This coaching is best out of the moment, when all is well.

In all this coaching, avoid putting pressure on the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you and I are family, and you will treat me with respect,” go more global, “that is an unfriendly way to say good morning, it would be nicer to say…” Focus on coaching how to speak to people in general, how to be kind and how to carry conversation rather than pressuring the relationship.

I would also make every effort to have child spend individual time connecting with each parent. There’s no need to make an announcement, but think at least weekly each of you are spending a bit of time. This can be a trip to the grocery store if you are focused on conversation and spending the time together. You might also read about and practice Greenspan’s Talk Time as presented in Playground Politics. This is a book about social and emotional development through the grade school years, and it highlights the importance of children having open talk time as they move out of Floortime. It’s an interesting way to open up conversations and emotions.

If you decide to go more specific at the discipline, I would initially make it a whole family effort. Sit and talk with everyone about how you are going to make an effort to be kinder and gentler with each other in communicating even when people are upset. Make it an effort in your marriage and in the parent-child relationships. If there are consequences for negative tones and words, this goes for all. Likely more successful here is, it is a global effort rather than a narrow focus. I would look to discipline more specifically only if all this fails. I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Push Back to Dad Traveling for Work

Dear Dr. Rene,

My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.

It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

Sarah, mother of two

Dear Sarah,

I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.

In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.

I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.

Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.

Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible.  It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene