Parents and caregivers have a lot of work when it comes to raising happy and well-adjusted kids. We want to help children grow, learn necessary social and life skills, and become healthy members of society. To do this, one of our crucial jobs is to help shape kids’ behavior in proactive and positive ways. How do we do this? We use of discipline.

Most people just think of punishment when they think of the word discipline, however, the act of discipline is to teach and help shape socially acceptable behaviors through both positive and negative actions. Positive Discipline is a child rearing philosophy that focuses on creating a respectful and encouraging environment in which children grow into productive members of society. There are four fundamental elements that are critical for creating a successful environment for Positive Discipline.

1. Build a strong relationship with the child. We need to keep in mind that good discipline is based on trust and the quality of the relationship between the parent or caregiver and the child. Children often respond better to caregivers who they feel understand them. If a child does not feel that you are invested in their well-being, they are much less likely to respond cooperatively to your directions and questions. Most kids inherently want to do the right thing, and all kids are going to have bad days. If you can start with a mutual foundation of respect, and a genuine goal to understand what the child wants or needs, then problematic situations can often be diffused early.

Strong relationships build respect. Kids often look to their caregivers for cues of how to behave, so it is important to model the behavior you want to teach to the child. If you don’t want them to raise their voices, then you need to keep a calm, quiet voice even in stressful situations. If you want a child to sit at the table during meals and interact with each other instead of their electronics, you must also participate and set aside your electronics. Children are always paying attention and notice how you handle your feelings and social situations. It is important that you remain calm and respectful.

child doing artwork

2.Be prepared to actively listen to the child. When you can accurately identify how a child is feeling, the child feels heard and understood. This helps build a close relationship and it also helps the child build their self-understanding and self-regulation skills, a person or child’s ability to manage their emotions and behaviors. Critical to helping children feel understood and learn to self-regulate are parents are caregivers who can actively listen. Active listening involves focusing on the conversation and being receptive to what is being said.

Active or reflective listening skills help children become more self-aware of how they are feeling, how they react to different situations, and it also builds their feelings vocabulary. To use reflective listening, listen closely not to just the words the child is saying, but also the feeling being expressed verbally and non-verbally. Identify the emotions and feelings the child is expressing. Repeat or reflect those feelings back to the child using their own words or by paraphrasing. This communication skill helps you as a caregiver to better understand what is behind a child’s behavior and how better to intervene, if needed.

woman and child in desert

3.Be clear when talking to children. We cannot assume that kids know what we know or expect when it comes to behaving. Children are not mind-readers and often struggle to pick up cues around them for what is the right thing to do. It is our job to prepare them and teach them what is expected in different situations.

We need to be clear about expectations and desired behavior in advance, especially if it involves a new or potentially stressful situation. Talk to children about what they might see or hear and how you expect them to behave. Allow them to ask questions and give answers as best you can in response.

When giving directions, keep your words clear and simple. Young children cannot follow a long string of requests and so break things down into small steps and make sure they understood before moving on. Kids’ developing brains are easily distracted and they are often not skilled in tuning out multiple distractions. Help the child learn how to focus their attention. It can help to give the instruction, then ask simple and straightforward questions to make sure they understand.

woman doing art with child

4.Choose your words and strategies carefully. As part of our quest to encourage positive behavior, the words we use with our children matter. We tend to use the word ‘no’ quite a bit in attempting to shape behavior. It’s easy and clear. However, using alternative methods such as distraction or redirection techniques can sometimes be more effective than a simple ‘no’. We need to keep in mind a child’s developmental level when shaping our responses and our expectations for their behavior.

It can be helpful to show kids what is okay instead of an undesired behavior or response. Distraction and redirection are two examples of effective strategies as an alternative to just saying “no.” In distraction a child’s’ attention is diverted to an unrelated item or task from the unwanted behavior. If two children are wanting the same toy, it may be useful to distract one child with a different toy, especially if they are too young to grasp the concept of taking turns. Another example of distraction may be useful when shopping with a younger child. If the child begins to get ‘antsy’ waiting in line at the grocery, the caregiver or parent could utilize storytelling or counting games to distract the child. In redirection, a child’s negative behavior or reaction is steered to more acceptable behavior. For example, if a child is throwing balls or toys at another child’s block tower, they could be encouraged to start throwing the ball into a basket instead.

The above four elements are key when setting up a strong foundation for successful positive discipline. There are additional techniques that can be a part of this process (natural or logical consequences, positive and negative reinforcements) but without the foundational elements above, successful discipline is likely to be challenging. It’s key that we develop and nurture a respectful and trusting relationship with the children in our care. This relationship must include clear communication with the child that involves clear and concise expectations as well as active listening. It’s important choose your words and techniques carefully to best illustrate the types of behaviors that are desired.

Discipline can be a sensitive topic. It needs to be consistent and age appropriate – no matter who is caring for the child. If you are childcare provider that is not the parent, it’s very important to have an open and ongoing dialogue with parents about their philosophy on discipline so that you can work together as a team to help set the children in your care up for the best success possible for a positive future.

Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval

To learn more, a Positive Discipline course is available with enrollment in the Basic Childcare program.

About the Author: Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval is a faculty member of Amslee Institute. She is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Durham, NC and has spent over 15 years helping to strengthen children and families.