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.

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.”

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.

 


 

%d bloggers like this: