April 11, 2016

How NOT to teach your kids

This is a basic instructional tip that teachers and parents need to master. NEED. It’s very simple: When instructing your child, frame directions positively. That means tell them what they SHOULD do, not what they shouldn’t do (unlike my image title…). For example, it will be more effective to say, “Keep your food in your mouth!” instead of “Don’t spit out your food!”

Framing things positively helps your child focus on the words and actions they should do. Not only does it keep the image of unwanted actions out of their heads, it replaces them with positive desirable actions. One of my teaching instructors once put it like this: “Okay, I want you guys to do exactly what I tell you. Don’t think of the color blue. NOT blue. NOT BLUE. NOT BLUE. DON’T THINK ABOUT THE COLOR BLUE. ANYTHING BUT BLUE– you’re totally thinking about the color blue, right?”

We laughed. It was true. He kept SAYING blue, so even though we were trying to follow his instructions, the color blue kept cropping up in the visuals of our minds. Even when we had pink or red or yellow passing through our minds, blue kept flashing through as he kept saying it.

That’s what comes to mind when I hear myself say to my child, “Don’t spit! Don’t spit! DON’T SPIT OUT YOUR WATER.” I watch in horror as water, seemingly involuntarily, comes dribbling out her mouth, down her chin, and all over her shirt. Perhaps she’s being disobedient, or perhaps I’m just making it hard for her by using the very verb I’m trying to have her avoid. Instead, I try to remind myself to say, “SWALLOW IT! SWALLOW your water! KEEP IT IN YOUR MOUTH!” I often find that this results in her making a concentrated effort to swallow and keep it in her mouth.

It has become more second nature to me to frame things in terms of what I want her to do rather than telling her what not to do. But it’s also taken years and years and years of practice! I mean, I taught for a living. I still teach as part of my day job, so I’ve had plenty of practice. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see the different ways students respond when I say, “Focus on your books!” rather than “Don’t talk to each other.” I know they find a new sense of control when I say, “Keep your hands and feet to yourselves” rather than “Don’t hit!” It’s just a matter of catching myself when I forget this effective tool of reframing things in a positive way.

I’ve mentioned it before, including one of my posts on shaping a child’s behavior, but it’s a hard thing to remember and reprogram yourself to do, so I figured everyone could benefit from a reminder about this simple but effective technique.  Here are some more phrases to help exemplify this instructional strategy:

Instead of saying this: Try saying this:
Don’t hit. Keep your hands to yourself. / Be gentle!
Don’t run. Walk.
Don’t bite others. Be gentle with others.
Don’t spit out your food. Keep your food in your mouth.
Don’t throw your food. Keep your food in the bowl.
Stop leaving your clothes on the floor! Keep your room tidy. / Pick up your clothes.
Don’t yell. Use quiet voices. / Use indoor voices. / Speak softly.
Stop annoying your brother. Be kind to your brother.
No more television. Start your homework. / Read a book. / Go play outside.
Stop kicking my chair. Keep your feet still.
Stop squirming around (on the changing table). Lay flat and still.
Stop cutting. Go to the back of the line.
Don’t lie to me. Be honest with me.
Stop blaming others. Tell me YOUR role in this situation.

As you can see, my mind is flitting back and forth between school and parenting scenarios. This strategy is effective in both environments.

The next time you find your child doing something you don’t want, take a moment to consider what positive behavior you would prefer. Find a way to keep that directive short and clear, and then use that line to firmly instruct! Hopefully you will find that your child will start trying to pursue a positive behavior rather than seeing how far they can toe the line in the direction of the undesired behavior. If anything, at least you are giving them a positive image to focus on rather than replaying an undesired image in their minds.

I have found this strategy to be very effective in a classroom of students and also with my own child, so give it a try and keep reminding yourself to frame things positively!

Frame things positively

9 responses to “Frame Things Positively”

  1. Tina says:

    What a great post! Any suggestions for when my 27-month-old granddaughter grabs toys away from her 10-month-old sister? You can imagine how upset the little one is. The parents always give the little one another toy and say, “No, don’t take her toys.” But they let the older child keep the stolen toy to avoid having both of them crying. Doesn’t seem right, but I am not the parent and I don’t have a better idea to convey not grabbing.

    • joellen says:

      Aw, that’s rough. I think I’ll be facing this scenario more and more in the months to come! But I’m with you: I don’t think it teaches the older one a good lesson to let her keep the toy, regardless of whether or not the 10-month old knows what’s going on. I wouldn’t tolerate that behavior from the older one, but as a grandparent, I’m afraid I really don’t know what the appropriate response is for you :/. It’s tough!

  2. Nancy Z says:

    Thank you for this! It seems so obvious but it’s so easy to forget!!!

    • joellen says:

      Super easy to forget- I catch myself all the time (even a few times today haha :)).

  3. Laura says:

    I have a question for you… When would you use ‘please’ with kids? Does it change the message? If I want my daughter not to get up and down or lying/crawl/crouch etc in her chair, in your opinion, is there a difference between saying ‘Sit on your bum’ or ‘Sit on your bum please’?

    • Emma says:

      I use please and thank you with my kids. They may be young, but they still deserve respect (also kids mimic what they hear so if you’re saying it they’re more likely to say it as well). More important is to make sure that you’re TELLING them and not ASKING. Which was a habit I had to work hard to break. “Will you please sit on your but now?” leaves it open for them to say, “No. I will not sit on my but now.” Where as “Please sit on your but.” is as solid instruction without wiggle room.

      I also give my kids a reason why along with most of my instructions. “Please sit on your bum, I don’t want you to fall and get hurt.” That way it’s not just an arbitrary command but it’s actually got reasoning behind it. (The ‘whys’ are most helpful with my very strong willed child who’s liable to resist any instructions on principle.)

    • Mel says:

      I agree that’s a hard one… I usually start with a please and then if they (ages 16, 10, 8, 4 and 2) respond as if there was an option, I reply “oh, let me be more clear: (then repeat the instruction with no question).” They totally understand and usually say “I don’t want to,” to which I say (as kindly as I can), “dear, you don’t have to want to”. They’re catching on. Even the little ones 😉

    • joellen says:

      I have to admit I should use “please” more often myself. I think the main difference between those two phrases is that one models the courteous speech that you probably want your child to pick up :). Otherwise I don’t think saying “please” makes it any less of a command. Curious to see what others think!

  4. Florence says:

    I mostly do basically the same thing as Emma and Mel: use a soft or normal tone, and start or finish my instruction with please, and if she doesn’t obey, I use an increasingly firm tone, and either no “please”, or a *very* firm one (meaning, I’m not asking, I’m telling you). I modulate my tone on the gravity or emergency of the instruction (if she’s already starting to spit out her food or water, for example)