positive discipline

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.

Descriptive versus Evaluative Praise

Now let's draw big tree!

The folks who research on praise would like parents and teachers to use descriptive praise and avoid evaluative praise when commenting on children’s behaviors, academics and athletics.

What to Say and Why: Descriptive Praise

Descriptive praise describes behavior and gives it a label. For behavior, this might be, “you handed a block, that was helpful,” or, “you listened the first time, that was quick.” For academics, “you wrote five sentences, that’s a lot of work,” or, “you remembered your capital letters and periods. You are really thinking!” For athletics, “you all got the ball down the field, you were really working together!”

Directly reinforces behavior: Describing the behavior, “you handed a block,” directly reinforces it, and makes it more likely to happen again. You are saying this is the thing to do.

Gradually shapes behavior: Giving it a label, “that was helpful,” shapes behavior in the long run. The more a child hears that they are helpful and kind, the more they think of themselves as being helpful and kind, and you tend to get more of those behaviors.

Ownership to child: When you describe their behavior, children can readily take ownership. When you say, “you handed a block,” the child can think, “yes I did!”

Example: Your eight-year-old practices a piano song all week, and then plays you the song.

  • Effort: “You worked on that song all week. That was a lot of practice.”
  • Process: “You learned every note. You were working so hard.”
  • Progress: “You knew it better this week than last.”
  • Details: “I knew that song right when you started.” “The ending part sounded particularly tricky.”
  • Ask questions or open discussion: “What was your favorite part to learn?” “Was there anything particularly challenging about this song?”

What to Avoid and Why: Evaluative Praise

Evaluative praise sounds like this, “Good job,” “You are such a good boy,” “That was great,” “I like the way you…,” “I am so proud of you.” It’s cheerleader praise. It’s do the right thing, and you get a pat on the back.

Often vague, leaves out the behavior: If the child did a series of behaviors and then hears, “Good job!” they are left not knowing what got the comment. Because it’s not behavior specific, it’s less likely to reinforce the wanted behavior.

Doubt when they don’t hear: When children hear evaluative praise often, they may rely on it and doubt themselves if they don’t hear it. If a child hears, “good job,” often at home, and then goes to school and doesn’t hear it so often, they may doubt their behaviors.

Ownership to adult: “I really like that,” or “I like the way you…,” sends the message that your judgement is what’s important rather than the behavior.

Example: Your eight-year-old practices a piano song all week, and then plays you the song.

  • “What a pretty song. I liked it!”
  •  “Wow, that was so good!”

 

 

 

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.

Finding a Balance in Offering Children Choices

fitting

I am a firm believer in the steps of positive discipline as a framework for effectively managing most discipline exchanges. An active step is offering your child choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. If you want them to put on a coat you might offer, “the red or the blue.” If you want them to start homework you might offer, “start with reading or math,” or, “work at the kitchen table or your bedroom desk.” The goal is to gain the behavior by offering your child decision making power. The child buys into the behavior by making a choice.

Choices offer a more flexible step than consequences, and should be used in rotation with challenges and contribution first for most behaviors. It’s also good practice to offer choices occasionally outside of discipline moments. It’s nice to give even young children choices about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear or how to spend their time on a Saturday afternoon. Here’s a full post on the use of choices in discipline.

I’ve met parents who fall at either far end of the continuum on their use of choices. There are parents who feel children shouldn’t be given choices. That all things go easier when children are told what to do, and discipline provides the follow up. That offering choices gives too much power and creates a struggle where there wasn’t one previously. There are also parents who give their children too many choices, choices for everything all day. When these parents offer a choice and the child says, “no,” the parent may offer another choice and then another until the child agrees. There is a good balance between these two extremes. Choices tend to gain compliance, too many choices and behavior runs amok.

Choices too often – When children have choices for absolutely everything, it may be a struggle for them when choices aren’t available. The idea is to use choices, challenges or contribution before consequence language for most discipline exchanges. It’s also great to give choices at other times during the day. It becomes too much when the child is frustrated if there aren’t choices available. The goal is for children to be flexible to this and equally follow requests or directions when there aren’t choices available.

Too many choices – Giving a three-year-old a choice of eight things is likely overwhelming and can lead to frustration. The idea is to start with a choice of two and go wider as they ask for a third choice.

Giving choice, after choice because the child doesn’t like the options – You offer a choice of two things and the child says, “no,” so you offer a choice of two other things and then another. This can quickly become a pattern that repeats often and adds frustration to the system. The answer is to stick with the first offered choices and help children to choose.

If you end up choosing – If the child doesn’t choose, you can choose for them, but you have to let them know that’s coming. You might say, “this is taking too long, you can choose, or I will choose for you.” If you then end up choosing, it is good to stick with the choice you made. Sticking with it encourages children to choose when you say, “you can choose, or I will choose for you,” moving forward.

Continually changing their choices – Let’s say you offer the choice of a red or blue coat, and the child chooses red. The coat is on, you are leaving the house, and the child yells for blue. Once the follow through has happened, as best you can, it is good to stick with the first choice. This helps children to choose well the first time, rather than going back and forth as a game.

Choices are meant to make a discipline exchange easier. If choices are adding to the difficulty, it’s good to step back and think about how the choices are off track. I am happy to answer questions about this or any other discipline questions in the comments below.

 

 

 

12 Ways to Coach Good Behaviors

Mother and toddler

If you’ve had to discipline the same behavior several times, it is time to start coaching.  Coaching is teaching your child about better behaviors, and it’s focused on what you want them to do. For this to be most effective, coaching should be engaging and fun. There are so many ways to shape behaviors, but the one thing to avoid is lecture. If you find yourself lecturing or giving more than a few sentences to a child about the wanted behaviors, stop and find a better way. At least make it a more open conversation, ask them questions and encourage them to contribute ideas. As part of a conversation you might brainstorm together and list several possible ways to improve a situation.

If you are at all creative, you can make up stories related to your child’s behavior. When our girls were little, I told Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarably like Alicen, and Catie was remarkably like Claire. If the girls had a big upset at the swing set, that night Amy and Catie would have a very similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should model good problem solving and emotion management.

For many common behaviors, there are good children’s story books available. If there is great upset over having a new sibling, you might read Julius baby of the World by Henkes or I’m a Big Brother by Cole. The idea is to use the book as a starting point for talking about emotions and behaviors.

Role playing scenarios with your child can be way more engaging than a conversation.  Go back through the scenario, act it out together and find better ways to manage. The child can be themselves or the other child as you go back through. This is meant to be flexible so brainstorm and act out lots of possibilities, and continue to guide them towards better choices and behaviors. If your child is hesitant to role play or you’d like to expand from this technique, giving puppet shows is a good alternative. You can use puppets, doll babies or action figures to model better behaviors and work through social situations.

In our house, we ask a lot of hypotheticals to coach behavior. My kids call this the “what if” game. This is asking “What ifs…” related to your child’s scenarios when all is well.  You can plan to play this over lunch or while driving to preschool. If you are teaching your child to take turns, this 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?” 

If you have an artist, you can coach behaviors by having them draw pictures of it going well. This really focuses them on the behavior and later provides a visual reminder of the discussion. You can also draw them pictures of the wanted behaviors as a gift. For an older child, you might encourage them to draw comic strips rather than single pictures.  This adds the layer of being able to work through a situation across frames.

For some behaviors, there are games available. There’s The Picnic Basket Manners game by Noodleboro for teaching “may I please,” “thank you,” and, “you’re welcome.” There’s a card game for teaching social skills titled Know the Code, and Feelings in a Jar for teaching about emotions. So many board games are good for teaching about turn taking, and later for teaching about managing competition. You can also make up your own games. To practice listening and following directions, we play Crazy Directions which is giving children a series of two, three or four step directions and seeing how many they can keep in order. On the playground, this might be saying, “stomp to the bridge, jump across the bridge, do two jumping jacks and crawl back.” I tend to repeat this to a child, then say “go!” It’s okay to give prompts if they struggle, and it’s fine to cut back from four to three or two directions the next go around.

You can also get creative and plan art projects to coach behaviors. In my preschool social groups, we practice turn taking by sitting four children down to a glue and mosaic art project with only one bottle of glue. We prepare them by explaining they will have to share the glue bottle 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 second glue bottle a few minutes in.

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

 

Preventing Tantrums : Emotion Language, Triggers and Cues

Tantrum child with mom

When children are tantrumming often, parents just want it to stop. Part of stopping tantrums is working to prevent them in the first place. Teaching your child emotion language and knowing their triggers and cues can go a long way towards prevention.

Children need emotion language to better express their upsets. When they can label their emotions and talk about why they are feeling that way, they are much less likely to fall on the ground kicking and screaming. When they can say, “I am mad! I didn’t like that!” in the moment, they are less likely to tantrum. There are MANY ways to teach children emotion language.

  • 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 while 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, 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 this following an emotional exchange when 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. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie 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 6 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. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters 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.
  • Learn more – 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 my workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

Triggers are what sets your child off. Tantrum triggers fall into three categories including situational triggers, social triggers and parent stress level. Knowing what sets your child off, allows you to see it coming in the moment and to teach your child how to better manage out of the moment.

  • Situational triggers – Situational triggers include the child being hungry or tired.  As a parent, this one falls on you to stay ahead of or fix. If you child tantrums from hunger, carry crackers in your bag and feed them healthy snacks more often. If your child tantrums from being tired, look at their sleep in the 24 hour period, check their nap schedule and build quiet time into their day.
  • Social triggers – Social triggers are harder. This is a child that tantrums over having to share toys, being told “no” or not being first at something. The answer here is to teach your child how to better move through these moments. If the difficulty is over sharing toys then read and discuss children’s books about sharing, role play taking turns, tell stories or give puppet shows about sharing and taking turns, draw pictures of it going well and then coach them through it in the moment. Avoiding the trigger doesn’t work. If you end all playdates because your child falls to pieces over sharing, then your child loses the opportunities they need to practice.
  • Parent stress level – This one can be hard to see. When parents are particularly stressed, children tend to tantrum more. It may be that they are reflecting the level or tone of emotion they feel in the house. It may be that because you are stressed, you are preoccupied. When you are preoccupied, you might not be as in touch as you usually are, and they have to get bigger and louder to get your attention. When you are stressed, do you seeing them rubbing their eyes, or do they have to be dragging on the floor to see they are tired? Do you recognize their frown, or do they have to be sobbing to get you to see they are sad? If they have to be dragging or sobbing, they will likely tantrum more because you are just not paying attention. This can often be tied back to your stress level. I’m not saying be super-parent and never feel stressed, just recognize when you are and the role it might play.

Cues are signs your child is about to lose it. Some kids do go zero to sixty, they are walking along and then BOOM, they are on the floor in full-tantrum. Most kids though, do give you a warning or a cue. Sometimes they are generous and give you a few minutes notice, other times it’s just a few seconds. The trick is to recognize your child’s cues and then intervene when they happen, before the tantrum. Some kids get fidgety, others get whiny or loud. It could be as slight as narrowing their eyes or their shoulders getting tense. There are several ways to intervene that may avoid the tantrum.

  • Distraction – Distraction, before the tantrum, is fine while it works. For most kids, at some point, this just doesn’t work. While you are using distraction in the moment, you still want to be teaching emotion language and teaching them ways to better manage when the triggers happen.
  • Empathy – Giving empathy means you validate your child’s emotions, even when you disagree with those emotions in the moment. Let’s say your four-year-old loses at a game and throws the pieces across the room, denying their emotions (what you want to avoid) would be saying, “you shouldn’t be so angry, it’s just a game.” Giving empathy (what you want to do) would be saying, “wow, you are angry! You didn’t like that game.” This validates the emotions, and lets them know you understand how they are feeling. There are so many beneficial reasons to start with empathy here, at the top is that it helps many children start to calm.
  • Positive Intent – Giving positive intent is giving the benefit of the doubt, seeing the good reasons behind the bad behaviors and validating their motives. When children are called for snack and are now knocking each other out of the way to get there, they are “really excited for snack,” rather than “rude and careless.”
  • Choices – In this case, choices are a distraction away from the tantrum. When children are making choices, they are being cognitive, and when they are cognitive they tend to be less emotional. Choices are two positive choices about how, when or where they can do something. Choices for a child who’s upset about not being able to get his shoes on might be, “do you want me to try, or do you want to try again?” or, “do you want to sit on the top step or the bottom step to try again?” or, “do you want to put them on in the car, or when we get there?”

If you don’t know your child’s triggers or cues, you might want to chart their behavior. Charting behavior can be helpful anytime there is repeat behaviors such as lots of tantrums or many aggressive acts. Charting is easiest if you keep a notebook. Give each tantrum one page and on each page make a template. This includes noting where it was, when it was, who was around, what seemed to set it off, any cues they were about to lose it, what happened during, how long it lasted, how they found their calm and what happened after. Once you have notes on several tantrums, you might be able to read through the notes and find patterns. You might realize that your child is always tantrumming around 11:30am, maybe it would help to move lunch earlier. Maybe your child is tantrumming when other children are playing together, and he feels left out. You might role play or read books about joining play.

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

Whining? Focus on the Positive

This seems like a small tip, but it can have a big impact. So often when I hear parents correcting their child’s unpleasant tone, they say, “stop whining,” or, “no whining,” or, “I can’t hear that whiney voice!” If anything, this reminds the child to whine. The golden rule here is, ‘what you focus on, you get more of.’ Focus your language on whining and that whiney voice, and you’ll get more whining.

You’ll be more effective if you change your words and focus on the positive. It’s better to say things like, “use your nice voice,” or, “find your big voice,” or, “I can hear you when you find your regular voice.”

This is true of positive directions in general. Let’s say your child is grabbing toys a lot. If you give negative directions like, “no grabbing,” or, “stop grabbing,” you are reminding them to grab, sending the message that grabbing gets attention. Your child has to be able to turn your language around and figure out an opposite behavior. It’s better to give positive directions such as, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” or, “find something to trade.”

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