Give Children Positive Directions

Mother and baby girl playing with toys in living room.

Parents often focus their language on stopping behaviors. They attempt to direct their children in the negative. Let’s say a child grabs a toy from another. The first thing most parents say is “no grabbing,” “don’t grab,” or “stop grabbing!” When directions are stated in the negative, children have to turn that language around and figure out the opposite behavior. Parents are much more effective when they give positive directions such as “wait for a turn,” or “ask for a turn.”

It’s like if I were to say to you, “okay, are you listening? Stop sitting.” Likely, you hesitate. You might even ask, “does that mean you want me to stand?” It would be so much easier for you if I said, “okay, are you listening? Stand up.” That is an easy direction to follow because it is stated in the positive. You can do that right away.

It is near impossible for children under three years old to turn that language around and figure out the opposite behavior. We were at a local petting zoo recently when I overheard a mother clearly say to her two-year-old who was holding a cup of goat food, “now, don’t put that on the ground.” He gave her a confused look and slowly put the cup down on the ground. The mother was shocked that the child was doing the exact opposite of what she had just said. He was trying his best to follow directions. The child wasn’t able to turn the “don’t” around, so he did the best he could with the rest of it. He understood “put that on the ground.” It would have been better to give positive directions like, “hold on to that cup,” or, “keep that cup in your hands.”

When one child has a toy, and another child wants it, what is it that you want that child to do in that moment? Stated in the positive, you might want them to wait for a turn, ask for a turn, find something else to play with, find something to trade, come find mommy or ask for help. What if that child has already grabbed the desired toy? Stated in the positive, you might want them to give that back, drop that toy, apologize for taking it or hand it to mommy. There are lots of possible behaviors that are stated in the positive regarding grabbing toys. Each of these examples provides a solution to the problem.

There is also the golden rule of, “what you focus on you get more of.” When you say, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab,” or, “stop grabbing,” all of your language is focused on grabbing. The message to the child is; “grabbing gets attention.” By putting your attention here repeatedly, you may mildly be reinforcing that behavior to happen again.

If children are unable to turn the negative language around to figure out the opposite, you have left them with what is called a behavioral void. They know what not to do, but they have no idea what to do. So, a day later they want a toy that another child is playing with, they may hesitate when they remember your negatively stated direction, “don’t grab!” But, you have not replaced the behavior by teaching them what to do; instead, you have left them hanging for the next go around. When you state your directions in the positive you are filling in that void. If you repeatedly say, “ask for a turn,” while your child plays with others, you are filling in that void.

When a child is climbing on the book shelf, avoid saying, “no climbing,” or “don’t climb,” leaving them at a loss. Focus your language on the behavior you want by saying, “get off the shelf,” “keep your feet on the floor,” “stay down,” or “play over here.” Any of these are far more likely to work in the moment, and, with repetition, help to curb the behavior.

In Positive Discipline, Nelsen reinforces this idea by stating that solution focused language helps children to do better the next go around. It focuses children on what to do rather than what to stop doing. Once children are old enough, it can be beneficial to have them suggest solutions to ongoing problems. They are more likely to buy into the process if they are a part of it.

 


 

Teaching Patience

In class, we encourage people to listen to others, to take turns speaking and to wait until a friend is finished, so they avoid interrupting. It can be helpful to coach children to listen to others and wait for a break in conversation to speak. When children are little, it may work more smoothly to give a visual or physical cue. A physical cue might be a talking stick. You can introduce this at dinner time. Take a popsicle stick or something similar and discuss how whoever has the stick is the speaker and others must be listeners. Practice passing the stick regularly and develop a cue they can give if they need the stick next. This takes practice, but it quiets the table and gives everyone time to speak and actually be heard.

I had a mom in class who taught her children that if she was on the phone or speaking with someone and they needed her, they should put a hand on one of her hands, she would then put her free hand on theirs to let them know she felt the touch. This exchange of hands was a signal to mom that the child wanted her attention, and a signal back to the child she would get to them as soon as possible. For this to work well, the first 10 or 15 times, the mom immediately following the hand exchange said, “excuse me, my child needs me,” turned to the child and said, “I felt your hand, how can I help you?” The child has learning to trust the system. After several immediate successes the idea is to gradually add a bit of time. Start with a 5 second delay before you turn and speak with the child, a few times later a smile and a 10 second delay before turning to the child. Gradually work your way up to a few minutes or more.

If waiting for you on the phone or computer is often problematic, you might give them other things to do such as a writing pad beside the phone to communicate that way or just activities they can quietly do to fill their wait time.

After each time they successfully wait, draw attention by saying something like, “wow, that was a while to wait. You were so patient!” You might also highlight when you or they are patient about waiting in life. Talk about how it was nice to have pleasant conversation waiting in the grocery line, or how they were able to wait for a turn on the slide at the playground.

Teach Them to Listen

There are many ways to build listening skills. There are lots of good children’s books that introduce the idea and importance of listening. A few titles include Listen and Learn by Free Spirit Publishing, The Worst Day of My Life Ever by Julia Cook and the Amelia Bedelia books.

Many games practice listening skills including Telephone, 20 Questions, Robot, Eye Spy, Crazy Directions, Simon Says, Hullabaloo, Guess Who, Clue Jr. or Clue and Noodleboro’s Pizza Palace listening game. As children are older, there is Mystery Garden, Listening Lotto and Sound Bingo. Play games regularly.

We talk in classes about being a good listener by keeping our bodies still, our mouths quiet and our eyes on the speaker. You might check in with children after you speak or have given them directions by asking what you said, for the most important part or for what they should do first. When you ask them to give you words back about what you said, it’s better for it to be their own version rather than verbatim.

Challenge listening by reading slightly longer books with more words and fewer pictures as they grow. Challenge listening with verbal stories or books on tape. Occasionally, practice dialogic reading with your child. When they are younger it is asking questions about the pictures, such as “What is this?” As they are older, it is asking questions about the story such as, “what do you think will happen next?” or, “what was your favorite part?” The idea is to build open discussion around the reading as a habit to increase listening and comprehension.

Take Listening Walks, this is a trip around the neighborhood or on your favorite path with the idea of walking quietly and listening to all the sounds you can hear. Afterward list together all the sounds and talk about how different it is to really listen rather than talk and play.

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