It happens to all parents, even those of us professionally trained in child behavior. One moment our kid is smiling and adorable and then—in an instant—that sweet little Honey Bear morphs into a wild Honey Badger. Just about every child on the planet will portray “spirited” or strong-willed behavior from time to time, mine included. Remember that a child having a rough moment does not mean that they are a bad kid, or that you are a bad parent.
It’s normal for parents to feel worn down from the negotiating, arguing and scolding that sometimes comes with kids. If you are also in this good company, try these evidence-based behavioral strategies utilized in classrooms by teachers like myself around the world, adapted for parental use at home.
The positive discipline strategies teachers use to help kids listen, learn and grow:
1. Be proactive, not reactive
As adults, it’s easy to assume that our kids just know certain rules, especially ones that seem like common sense. But if we’ve never clearly stated an expectation, kids may not be aware. From birth to age three, a child’s brain develops so rapidly that it produces over a million neural connections every second. They are intaking so much stimulus that sometimes you are going to have to explain things that may seem like a no-brainer.
Rather than being reactive when they make a mistake, try being proactive to try to prevent the mistake before it starts. For example:
Before you give them crayons or markers: “We only color in coloring books or paper we give you. We do not color on walls or furniture.”
Before you go to the park (or anywhere they may not want to leave): “I will let you play for as long as we have time, but when I say it’s time to go, you listen. If you do that without arguing, we can keep coming back to the park.”
2. Use positive reinforcement
Have you ever had a boss that only points out what you did wrong and never acknowledges what you did right? Over time, it’s easy to lose the motivation to please. The same goes for kids and adults. Noticing—and praising—when they do something right is a necessary step to making them keep wanting to do the right thing, again and again.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to mean a present, especially if it’s an expected behavior (like not biting the dentist). Verbal praise works just as well. Even a simple “I noticed how you used self-control, even when you were scared. You should be proud of yourself.” can be very impactful.
When I notice my kids going above and beyond an expected behavior, that’s when I give them a small reward in addition to positive reinforcement.
3. Give logical consequences
The term “logical consequences” is derived from Responsive Classroom, a research-based social curriculum utilized around the world and developed by educators, designed to teach children cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.). Logical consequences are just what they sound like—not punishments, but consequences that are directly related to an action.
For example, once an expectation is firmly established that your child is fully aware of, then a consequence may be in order if they don’t follow your directions. Kids—and adults—all make mistakes, and consequences are a necessary part of learning. If you give your child the direction, “We only color in coloring books or paper we give you. We do not color on walls or furniture” and they don’t follow that direction and color on the walls or the table, then the logical consequences would be taking the crayons away (until an agreed-upon time when they can try again to follow directions), and getting them to help clean up the crayon marks.
A consequence differs from a punishment. A consequence is directly related to an action, while a punishment usually is not. Many kids develop armor and grow immune to punishment, especially if it does not require an action on their part (such as if their punishment is only getting yelled at—all they have to do is tune it out).
It’s also important that the logical consequence be something that’s actually, well, logical. The purpose of this is to help them learn responsibility for their actions. Kids see through grandiose threats like “I’m giving away ALL your toys FOREVER!” That’s a punishment for both of you.
4. Focus on the action, not the person
A logical consequence focuses on a child’s behavior, not the child’s character. You aren’t shaming or berating the child, you are calling out the negative action. For example:
Instead of: “You are so irresponsible.”
Try: “What you did was irresponsible. I know that you are better than this. We are going to come up with a way for you to fix it.”
5. Avoid giving too many reminders
Even if your consequences are logical, they are meaningless if you never act on them, or only give warnings like “If you do that one more time…” Giving repeated warnings or reminders in place of consequences only demonstrates that they’ll get multiple warnings before they really need to stop—and you will turn into a broken record forever.
My rule with my kids is I give them one reminder before I go to consequence. They know that I mean it and don’t push it.
Kids learn much faster from logical consequences than from repeated reminders, constant yelling or empty threats. You can usually facilitate the consequence without needing to yell or raise your voice. This teaches them a direct correlation between their action and the consequence, not their action and you.
6. Make power struggles into choices
Kids have minds of their own and may refuse to do what you tell them to (I’ve got a couple of “strong-willed” kiddos myself).
But keep in mind that the moment you are in a power struggle with your child, you have already lost. The child can sense that you don’t have an upper hand, which may make them dig in their heels more. Try tweaking your wording so the responsibility to complete the task is on the child choosing to do so, not you making them.
Instead of: “Pick up those toys RIGHT NOW.”
Try: “Your choice is to pick up your toys before this timer goes off, or else you will have another consequence.”
If they still choose not to follow directions, matter-of-factly tell them they will have additional consequences, such as a temporary loss of privilege.
As parents, we will all have moments of self-doubt, wondering if we are being too strict or too soft. Every single kid on earth is different, and ultimately, knowing what is effective and healthy for each child is the best thing you can do when it comes to encouraging good behavior.