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.

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

 

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.

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.”

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.”
%d bloggers like this: