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Positive Discipline

Every parent and caregiver struggles at one time or another with how to set limits and guide children’s behavior. The goal of positive discipline is to teach children to develop safe, socially responsible behavior that promotes self-­‐respect and respect for the feelings and property of others.

Discipline and punishment are not the same. Discipline is guidance and teaching that promotes self-reflection and positive behavior. Punishment is a penalty imposed in reaction to unacceptable behavior.

Today we’re talking about positive discipline, which is more effective than punishment because desirable behaviors that last a lifetime must come from within the child rather than be imposed by an external force.

Let’s start with some helpful guidelines for setting limits for your children and their behavior.

  • Rules are a list of appropriate or inappropriate behaviors. Younger children often struggle with remembering rules. Instead, try grouping things into three categories, or expectations. For example, “We are safe, we are healthy, and we are kind.” This allows children to problem-solve and create their own behavior limits as situations arise. For example, if a child pushes someone you might ask, “Is pushing kind?” These rich conversations allow children to reflect on their behavior and learn.
  • Always explain why a rule or expectation is important, because this will help children understand the value in changing their behavior. For example, “When we play in the sandbox, it’s important to keep the sand near the ground so that it does not get in someone’s eyes. That would hurt.”
  • Make sure children understand that they are always accepted, loved, and capable. Instead of focusing on the child, focus on the inappropriate behavior. For example, “Hitting hurts me. If you feel angry and need to hit something, you can hit a pillow. If you need help, you can ask me to help you.”
  • Keep rules simple and specific. When a rule is broken, state the rule and direct the child toward correcting the mistake. For example, “Climbing on the counter is dangerous. If you need something you can’t reach, please ask for help.”
  • Power struggles often increase stress. Focus on labeling emotions, describing what is happening, and using a calm tone of voice with minimal body movement. Keeping a calm presence helps children regulate their own behavior.
  • Avoid offering choices when the choice should be yours. For example, saying “Do you want to take a nap?” implies there is a choice and provides a child the chance to refuse. Instead state, “In five minutes it will be nap time.”
  • Avoid overusing the word “no” and save it for when you really need it. Try offering an acceptable alternative instead. For example, if a child asks for a cookie too close to lunchtime, say, “You may have a cookie after we finish lunch.”
  • Offer children a chance to change their behavior with a reminder, and follow through if needed. “The next time you throw sand, you will have to leave the sandbox.” Redirect the child toward acceptable activities.
  • Involve children in solving problems by asking them to brainstorm solutions when challenges arise. Point out the effects of the different solutions, and help the child decide on a course of action. With older children, problem-solving can also be used to create family or group rules or expectations. When children develop problem-solving skills and help set limits, they are more likely to follow them.

Help children understand that behaviors and choices have consequences. Natural consequences — what naturally results from actions — can be powerful teaching tools. For example, if you stand in the rain, you get wet and you are more likely to remember your umbrella next time. When possible and safe, use natural consequences to help children learn to manage their own behavior. Gently point out what happened and why. For example, “If you break your toy, you have no toy.”

When natural consequences are not appropriate or safe, set a logical consequence related to the behavior. For example, if a child does not stay in the yard to play, the result may be that they get hurt. But that isn’t safe. So, a logical consequence for leaving the yard would be having to play inside the house instead.
You could say: “When you leave the yard I’m afraid you could get hurt, so I need you to stay inside the fence. If you leave the yard again, you will need to play inside.” Then, follow through with your actions. Make sure the consequence is respectful of the child and is reasonable to follow. For example: “Walls are not a space for drawing. Let’s get some soap and water, and I’ll show you how to clean the wall. Then you can color on paper at the table.”

You can use the following tips and techniques to guide the behavior of children and help them learn to express themselves in healthy and positive ways:

  • Make sure your expectations for your child are developmentally appropriate for their age and ability.
  • Model desirable behavior. Your children will learn from your example.
  • Notice when things are going well. “Thank you for sitting quietly with a book while I was talking on the phone. Would you like me to read with you now?” Commenting on appropriate behavior helps children learn what is expected.
  • Be consistent. Consistency provides structure and a sense of stability. It also allows children to be familiar with expectations and to be able to anticipate what is expected of them.
  • The environment can affect a child’s behavior. Make sure surroundings, materials, and toys are safe and appropriate.
  • Maintain a balance between quiet and active play.
  • Spending time outside is a natural way to de-stress and release energy. Make outdoor play or neighborhood walks a part of each day.
  • Build independence by providing children choices and decision-making opportunities whenever possible. For example, “Would you like to draw or read a book?”
  • Establish rules and expectations that are respectful of children.
  • Always acknowledge and label children’s feelings. Behavior is often a result of feelings. When children learn to explain their feelings or ask for help, they are more able to control their own behavior.
  • Establish regular routines for busy times like meals, getting ready in the morning, and going to bed. Providing structure helps children understand expectations and feel safe.

All of these strategies will help you to set the stage for success with your child. For a printable version of our Positive Discipline Brochure, as well as access to additional podcasts and brochures on important parenting topics, please visit Children’s Home Society of California’s website at www.chs-­‐ca.org.

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