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.

Coaching: Encouraging Behavior Change a Few Minutes at a Time

A mother and daughter drawing in a book on the kitchen

I teach parenting workshops on positive discipline often. At least weekly, I am reviewing the language of I messages, empathy, positive intent, choices and natural and logical consequences. This language is meant to provide parents with a framework for managing children’s behaviors in the moment. It is a flexible and effective approach for shaping behaviors and often helps to calm the parent/child exchange.

To me, for behavior change over time, positive discipline is half the answer. The other half of the answer is coaching. Coaching is best done out of the moment and when all is well. Coaching time is focused on teaching the child better ways to behave and giving better options. A key to coaching is to avoid lecture, to make it more engaging and more of an exchange.

There are so many ways to coach wanted behaviors. When I review these ideas with parents, it can seem overwhelming. The idea is to think of having one conversation or doing one small activity each day towards coaching what you want kids to do. Even if it’s every other day, after a month you’ve focused on teaching the positive behaviors fifteen times.

  • Model behaviors – If you want to teach your children to greet people, go out of your way to greet people often and warmly when your children are with you.
  • Highlight daily happenings – When your child finally waits nicely for a turn with a toy, notice it and give descriptive praise. Descriptive praise includes describing the behavior and giving it a label. It might sound like, “you waited for a turn. That was so patient!” or, “you waited patiently for a turn. You were being a good friend.”
  • Read related story books – There are children’s books on so many common behaviors or concerns. There are books about how to make friends, sharing and turn taking, how to calm down and work through anger and so much more. On Amazon Books, you can do an advanced topic search under children’s books. On this blog you can visit our children’s book list.
  • Tell related stories – It can be fun to make up your own stories. My girls are Alicen and Claire. When they were little, I told a lot of Amy and Catie stories; Amy remarkably like Alicen, and Catie remarkably like Claire. If Alicen and Claire had a big upset on the swings, that night Amy and Catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. It’s like a lecture without being a lecture.
  • Ask children to make up good outcome stories OR give choices in your stories – If they are old enough, you could give kids a story starter and ask them to finish it in a good way. You might also build a few social choices in to the stories you tell.
  • Role play – It can be helpful to act out scenarios with your child. The idea is to encourage everyone to make good choices about things to do and say. Talk about how to make situations work better.
  • Give puppet shows – In a puppet show, your child might be the audience while you tell a story with good choices. Even better, your child can participate.
  • Draw pictures of it going well – Before a friend comes over to play, you might draw pictures together of how to share toys and how to ask mom for help with sharing toys.
  • Make comic strips – As kids get older, you might draw comic strips together and fill in the words.
  • Brainstorm lists – You can make lists of ways to greet people, ways to ask for turns, ways to express anger and ways to calm down. You can always review lists to try new techniques or put lists in order with the best idea on top.
  • Ask hypotheticals – We call asking hypotheticals the “what if” game in our house. For a child learning to take turns, “what would you do if you were in the sand box and you wanted a shovel, but the there were only two shovels, and they were already being used? What would you do?”
  • Ask multiple choice questions – You might also ask, “let’s say I am in the sand box using a shovel, and you want a turn. Would you; A) throw sand at me? B) take the shovel and run? or, C) ask me nicely?”

There are countless ways to coach behaviors. If you have a particularly challenging behavior, you might google, “ways to teach kids to…” Get creative and engage your children. Think to coach as often, if not more than you discipline.

Ways to Avoid Discipline with Your Children

In my workshops, I teach the steps of positive discipline. This language includes the flexible use of I messages, empathy, positive intent, choices and consequences to best manage behaviors. This framework is meant to guide parents through addressing emotions while curbing behaviors. If you want to learn more about these steps, you can search “steps” or “discipline” on our blog. As much as this is an effective approach, there are several things parents can do to avoid the discipline process. This is especially true for repeat behaviors as parents should be better able to see these coming.

  • Distraction – Two children start to argue over a shovel in the sandbox. If you can say, “hey, look! A puppy!” and it’s over, I think that’s fine. There will be so may times when this doesn’t work, and you’ll need the discipline, but when it does that’s fine.
  • Humor – Say something funny, and it’s over? Okay.
  • Logistics – A mom in one of my workshops said, “it is so difficult every morning to get the kids to stop playing and go down to the foyer to get their shoes on. They can go right back and play, I just need their shoes on.” Solving this with logistics would be moving the shoes to where the kids are playing. If a well placed baby gate solves your situation, there’s no need to work through the steps repeatedly.
  • Schedules – Often, a discipline exchange is sparked by a transition or by having to little time to complete too much activity. For transitions, be sure to give consistent warnings and give children choices and jobs while moving through. For schedules, be sure to plan for the time and build in a little extra for children.
  • Routines – If your discipline happens during specific times of the day like getting kids ready and out of the house in the morning or getting them in pajamas and ready for bed, routines can be a big part of the answer. Decide the time you need to be done, make a list of everything that needs to be done and work backwards. It can be helpful to make a chart with your children by taking pictures of them moving through the routine or drawing pictures of each step. The more consistently you follow the routine the more helpful it tends to be.
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