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What is Positive Discipline?

What is positive discipline?
Could you shake up the way you deal with bad behaviour and make your family a calmer, happier place? Here's how to put a positive spin on how you discipline your child.

Knowing how to deal with difficult behaviour can be challenging for every parent. Even if our aim is to be calm, fair and positive, at times we all boil over and resort to shouting, grounding and bribery.
While no one gets it right all the time, a positive approach to discipline has the power to improve children’s behaviour and wellbeing. More and more schools are using Positive Discipline to gently correct and encourage, and adopting the same strategies at home could have a big impact on family life.

Positive Discipline explained

Positive Discipline is an approach to behaviour based on encouragement.
‘It’s based on the philosophy that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child,’ explains Positive Discipline expert and author Joy Marchese. ‘Positive Discipline tools are all focused around mutual respect, and are designed to increase a child’s sense of belonging and significance. We also look below the surface so that we can address the belief behind the behaviour in order to create lasting change.’

The main premise of Positive Discipline is to encourage good behaviour by fostering mutual respect between the adult – whether that’s a parent, teacher or other carer – and the child. It’s not about teaching adults to manage children, but teaching children to manage themselves.

‘All children respond to the philosophy of Positive Discipline, when we’re both kind and firm at the same time: connection before correction,’ Joy says. It’s about doing things out of love, thinking about what characteristics we want our children to have as adults, such as kindness, confidence, resilience and fairness, and what we can do today to nurture and teach those characteristics and life skills.
‘Put simply, we all do better when we feel better.’

Why Positive Discipline is more effective than negative discipline

It’s not easy to be relentlessly positive when your child is pushing your buttons, and many of us are conditioned to use negative discipline techniques to make our children change their behaviour quickly.
Some negative discipline techniques are easy to identify, such as shouting, time out or grounding, bribery and removal of privileges. Others may not be obvious, and in fact, we may even consider them positive strategies, like sticker charts and rewards.
‘These are all common discipline strategies used by parents, because they work: we wouldn’t use them if they didn’t,’ Joy explains. ‘But they’re only effective in the short-term, not in the long-term.
‘Punishments or bribery may work as a quick fix, but consider what your child is learning. Most parents think that when they use punitive approaches, the child is learning not to do the behaviour again, but these approaches lead to a vicious circle of discouragement, confirming a child’s belief that they don’t belong.’
Rather than promoting ‘good’ behaviour, Joy says that punishment usually leads to one of four Rs:
Rebellion: ‘You can’t make me, I’ll do what I want.’
Revenge: ‘I’ll get even and hurt back, even if it hurts my future.’
Retreat, or low self-esteem: ‘I must be a bad person.’
Resentment: ‘This is unfair. I can’t trust adults.’ 

‘It’s understandable that parents use punitive approaches when they’re frazzled, but rather than learning not to do the behaviour again, the child learns to rebel, seek revenge, be sneaky or give up,’ says Joy.

10 Positive Discipline strategies to try with your child

Positive Discipline might sound like hard work, and it’s true that it involves a commitment to rethink how we respond to our children’s behaviour, but it also helps us as parents: we feel less stressed about whether we’re getting it right or wrong, less guilt about being too harsh, and less exhausted as we’re not always locking horns.
These strategies and tools will help you gain confidence applying Positive Discipline. Many are already used in schools to great effect.

1. Allow them to make amends

This is called restorative practice and will help your child understand what went wrong and how they can put it right. So for example, if they break their sibling’s toy, you might encourage your child to think about how their sibling might feel (sad because their toy is broken) and what they might do to make it up to them (save their pocket money to buy a replacement).

2. Say yes rather than no, and do rather than don’t

‘Please hang your coat up,’ is more effective than, ‘Don’t dump your coat on the floor,’ and, ‘Yes, you can watch TV after you finish your homework,’ works better than, ‘No, you can’t watch TV until your homework is done.’ It gives your child the chance to do the right thing, and models being polite and respectful.

3. Help them understand their emotions

If your child can name and identify how they’re feeling, they’ll become better at expressing themselves and less likely to have angry outbursts, or resort to physical aggression or rudeness.
Saying, ‘I know you’re angry right now, so let’s have a walk around the garden and then we can talk about it,’ will help them feel you understand their emotions, and recognise how they’re feeling the next time.

4. Treat mistakes as learning opportunities

‘We often think that children learn from mistakes when they’re punished, but what they’re usually learning is, “I must be a bad person,” “I’m not good enough,” or, “I don’t belong,”’ Joy says. ‘Instead, celebrate mistakes as a wonderful opportunity for growth.’
Rather than telling your child off for getting mad when they lose at a computer game, talk to them about how they now understand the game better, and how they can use what they’ve learned next time: this builds resilience and encourages them not to give up.

5. Let them experience natural consequences

Sometimes, it’s better to let your child follow their course of behaviour through instead of trying to stop them, so they can experience the natural consequences of how they’ve acted.
So instead of rescuing them by rushing to school with their forgotten PE kit, you might let them experience the consequence of having to sit on the sidelines during the lesson so they understand what’ll happen if they make that mistake in the future.

6. Encouragement

Children may not always get things right, but the vast majority want to do the right thing, so give them encouragement when they do something positive: ‘You worked really hard on your maths. You must be so proud of yourself.’ This is different from praise (‘I’m so proud of you’) because it focuses on the process and your child’s growth, rather than the result.
This helps children become more self-motivated (‘I did it!’) and develop a growth mindset rather than simply wanting to please (‘I did it to please you’).

7. Explain your reasoning  

No one would ever say it’s wrong to yell ‘STOP!’ when your child is racing towards a busy road or in a similar situation where they need to change their behaviour instantly, but once they’re safe, explain why you shouted: ‘There were lots of cars coming, and it was very dangerous. I’d be so sad if you got hurt.’

8. Involve them in setting boundaries

With older children especially, tensions can mount when they think you’re being too strict and unfair over things like screen time, bedtime and tidying bedrooms.
So they don’t feel dictated to, let them get involved with setting agreements and boundaries. Be prepared to compromise: you might, for example, agree that they can have an extra hour online on Saturdays and Sundays if they agree to come off screens by 8pm in the week. If they’ve helped set the boundaries, they’re more likely to stick to them.
It’s important to keep these agreements in mind and follow through: ‘I can see you’re having fun playing that game, AND what was our agreement about screen time on weekdays? Do you want to shut it down, or shall I?’

9. Initiate family meetings

Family meetings might sound cheesy, but they’re a good way to give everyone in the family a chance to be heard, and to discuss together what’s going well and not so well. Schools use this to great effect in Circle Time to solve problems, nurture positive relationships and improve behaviour.

10. Follow through

One of the big mistakes we make as parents is making a threat or imposing a certain punishment – like no computer time – only to backtrack if our children are suitably apologetic or upset. But the key is to follow through on what you said without a big drama, based on the agreements and boundaries you’ve discussed and formulated together.
If your child starts raging about being banned from the computer, it’s better to silently leave the room because they’re not being respectful rather than being drawn into arguing and negotiating. This shows you’re being kind, consistent and fair: life skills that your child can learn from your example.

‘I’m firm but fair and set clear boundaries’

Mum-of-two and former teacher Georgina blogs about special educational needs and is also a private tutor for children with additional needs.
I’m only 5ft 3in, so when I was teaching, my presence in the room wasn’t enough to make children behave, so I had to think differently and that’s where my positive approach to discipline comes from.
Positive Discipline in my opinion is about understanding behaviour, knowing that children aren’t born ‘bad’ or ’naughty,’ but instead might not always do the right thing.
At home, I try to use positive language, so instead of, ‘Stop shouting,’ I’d try to say, ‘Talk quietly,’ and instead of, ‘Don’t hit,’ I’d say, ‘Keep your hands to yourself.’ Children tend to just hear the last thing we say, so if I kept saying, ‘Stop shouting,’ they'd hear the word shout a lot, and would probably see it as an instruction!
I also try to invest time in talking through behaviours and reasons why they’ve done certain things. Like most people, they respond much better when we take the time to listen.
I think people often mistake positive discipline for being less firm, but I’d argue it’s the opposite: I’m firm but fair and set clear boundaries, I just don’t shout lots!
Positive Discipline might seem a long winded approach initially, and sitting down with your child each time they’ve done something wrong and discussing why they chose to do that and how they could have done it differently does take time, but it pays off in the long run, and is well worth the investment.

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