4 Foundational Skills Parents Need for Successful Positive Discipline

We want to help children grow, learn necessary social and life skills, and become healthy members of society.

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 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 to 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.

Childcare Tips with Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval, Psychologist and Adjunct Faculty Member

Dr. Formy-Duval has worked with children and families for over 15 years in schools, hospitals, community agencies, and is currently in private practice.

Dr. Formy-Duval has worked with children and families for over 15 years in schools, hospitals, community agencies, and is currently in private practice. As an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute, Dr. Formy-Duval is the faculty instructor for the Understanding Children, Positive Discipline, Stress Management, and Self-Regulation courses.

With years of experience in psychology helping children and families, what made you interested in teaching 4 classes at Amslee Institute?

Dr. Formy-Duval: I know how hard it can be to find good nannies as I myself have 2 children and work. I wanted my kids in my home with one person and it was hard to find the right person; we went through several people. I had a hard time finding quality people and when I heard about Amslee, I agreed with the goals of being able to help Nannies have the qualifications families want in order to watch their children. I thought these courses were a good match with my experience and training.

What things should families do with children during the summer when the kids are out of school?

Dr. Formy-Duval: A lot it depends on whether you are a parent who works and has a nanny or one who can stay home with their kids. It also depends on the age of the children. Changing the schedule can be stressful, but summer can be a really fun time to reconnect with your children in a way that is less structured. Children can struggle with the transition of not having the same packed schedule they have in school where they are told where to go and what to do. The free time of summer or summer camps can lead to boredom. The kids complain, and parents feel they need to entertain their kids. But, boredom is developmentally good. Give kids time to be bored and they will creatively fill the time. It may take a few days of enduring the complaining but send them off to play or give them options of what they can do.

What roles do social media, being on the phone, video games, and chat rooms have on their behaviors?

Dr. Formy-Duval: Electronics are embedded in our day to day life and we are welcoming technology in our homes in so many ways. It can be hard to understand how much exposure to technology is too much or if it’s bad. There is a wide spectrum since some families allow unlimited access while others have strict rules. It’s unrealistic to think our children won’t be exposed to and use technology. It can be great for entertaining and web-based education. I think the key is to figure our how social media and electronics can be used as a tool but don’t use it to replace healthy physical and educational activities. It’s a matter of moderation and for older kids, being on the phone is a great way to stay connected through text messaging. I do really caution parents about social media apps like SnapChat, Instagram, and Facebook. A lot of kids can’t manage the social nuances of these apps – that is, arguments and fights can be viewed by 300 people and blown out of proportion. As adults, we struggle with context and have a hard time with it too. I am really cautious with social media and believe they should be limited to older children. However, but messaging and face timing can be a lot of fun at younger ages too.

What are some ideas for parents to re-connect with their kids?

Dr. Formy-Duval: Most of our time with our kids is spent on instructional actions – telling them what to do like brush their teeth and get their shoes on. One of the best ways to reconnect with our kids is sitting down and asking them to tell us about something they are interested in. Now, this might mean that you have a 10-minute conversation about Minecraft or Pokémon or Daniel Tiger or something else you aren’t interested in, but it is worth it. Take the time to put your phone down, make eye contact, and listen to what they are saying. If parents pause and pay attention, it’s a great way to reconnect and only takes 5 to 10 minutes a day. Actively listening really goes a long way.

In our culture, parents and kids are stressed. What can we do to help?

Dr. Formy-Duval: We are a stress society and kids inherently feel the stress from their parents. We need to share stress management tools like helping kids take deep breathes, pausing, counting to 10, and being physically active (running, going up and down stairs, doing jumping jacks, or stomping feet). I really encourage parents to teach our children more ‘feeling’ language (“tell me how that made you feel” and “it sounds like that made you feel frustrated). When we feel stressed there is usually something around us that needs to change. We have to help kids understand what is going on inside of them, so they can use coping skills. We also need to make sure they have really good habits like getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, having balanced meals, and getting enough physical activity to proactively manage stress.

If you can share one more thing, what would it be?

Dr. Formy-Duval: In this day and age of 24 hours news and information, I really want to caution parents and childcare providers to remember we have our phones on all the time and often televisions are on in the background. We should focus on allowing our kids to keep their innocence. Children don’t need to know about mass shootings and other adult events on the news. As parents, we are anxious in many ways about the state of the world and many parents are reacting by holding their kids close. Kids need to be allowed to play and to have some freedom. Research shows that our kids are safer today than ever before so let’s shield our young kids from traumatic events that they may not understand. Kids who fear danger at any moment may have anxiety and we want our children to preserve that innocence and enjoy childhood.

Thank you, Lauren, for this session as our first Facebook live video!

To learn more, an Understanding Children course is available with enrollment in the Basic Childcare program.