descriptive praise

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.

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!”

 

 

 

Ownership in Potty Training

Dear Dr. Rene,

My almost two-and-a-half-year-old decided she wanted underwear 11 days ago. So, we are 11 days into potty training. She goes to daycare, and is now fully potty trained at
daycare (at least barring any regression that could happen.) At home, I still
have to take her to the potty every hour, or she’ll have an accident. She rarely
initiates on her own, and often tells me she doesn’t want to go on the potty. We
had her choose her brand new potty seat, and we offer her “potty treats” after
she goes. We tell her she is a big girl, and we’re proud of her. Any other tips
to help my very head strong little girl with potty training at home? Or is this
just normal for a young girl, and I just need to be patient? (FYI – my older
daughter did the three day method when she was close to three years old, so this is all
new to me.)

Sincerely, June (mom of two)

First, I would ask for what they typically do and say at daycare. If this is going smoothly there, maybe replicate what they are doing. Also, take her to the potty there yourself at drop-off and pick-up. It may be helpful for you to be associated with that success. If available, maybe purchase a similar potty seat or ring for home.

At home, I would do all the small things to encourage interest including reading potty training picture books, watching the potty videos, letting her observe while others potty and playing potty with doll babies or a dollhouse set.

Bigger things to encourage her to more fully participate include offering her choices, descriptive praise and language of ownership. Choices include, “would you like to use the upstairs or the downstairs potty?” or, “do you want to sit on the little potty or the big potty?” Here is a link to a previous post on choices: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/how-choices-work-in-positive-discipline/.

Descriptive praise is being behavior specific when you catch good behaviors. This sounds like, “you knew you had to go. You got to the potty quick!” or, “you were taking care of your body. You put all your poop in the potty!”  Here is a link to a youtube video on descriptive praise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LH6Y-qPnAo&feature=relmfu and the differences between descriptive and evaluative praise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn2Ddh16xIY.

The language of ownership is saying something along the line of, “do you know you are the only one in the whole world who really knows when you need to pee? I don’t really know that from out here. That’s your job.” or, “you are in charge of when you go potty. When you feel that pressure on your bottom that you need to poop, it’s your job to go potty.” The idea is to encourage them to take ownership without adding pressure. Use this langauge maybe every other day and not around the time of an accident, it shouldn’t sound like discipline.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

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