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 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!