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Acknowledge, Communicate, Target (ACT) Limit Setting

Updated on March 14, 2018

Origin of ACT Limit Setting

Acknowledge, Communicate, Target (ACT) Limit Setting is an approach developed by Dr. Garry Landreth.

Dr. Landreth is a leading figure in the field of child-centred play therapy. He has written and spoken volumes on the subject, his most notable book being Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.

What is ACT Limit Setting

ACT Limit Setting is a simple and effective way to address unwanted behaviour from a child. It's comprised of 3 easy steps, namely:

  1. Acknowledge the feeling. Let the child know that you are paying attention to him, and that you are aware of how he feels. This helps the child feel that you are concerned about him, and are trying to understand him. For example, "I know that you are unhappy that you can't have ice cream now..." is better than "You can't have ice cream now because I said so."
  2. Communicate the limit. This focuses on the unwanted behaviour of the child, rather than saying something like "No, bad boy!". It also makes it clear to a child that is testing boundaries what is and is not acceptable behaviour. For example, "We don't have ice cream before dinner" is better than "No ice cream now."
  3. Target an acceptable alternative. Telling a child no will not only frustrate the child, but it attempts to ignore the child's need or want. Rarely will the need or want vanish just because you tell it to. Rather, an acceptable alternative helps them address the need or want, and also focuses their behaviour onto something within the acceptable limits. For example, "If you finish your dinner first we can have ice cream after." is better than "Eat your dinner instead."

Ideally, steps 1, 2 and 3 would go in order, but sometimes steps 2, 1 then 3 are used.

Additionally, 2 further steps may be required if things are not going as hoped:

4. Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3.

5. Offer an ultimatum choice.

Source

Example of The Ideal Scenario

Child begins to play with a dart gun. Child asks, "Can I shoot you?"

  • Acknowledge the feeling. "I know you think it would be fun to shoot me."
  • Communicate the limit. "But I'm not for shooting."
  • Target an acceptable alternative. "You can shoot the doll over there if you'd like."

Example of Less Ideal Scenario

Child begins to play with a dart gun. Before any words can be exchanged, child is already raising the dart gun and aiming it at your face.

  • Communicate the limit. "I'm not for shooting."
  • Acknowledge the feeling. "I know you think it would be fun to shoot me."
  • Target an acceptable alternative. "You can shoot the doll over there if you'd like."

Example of Least Ideal Scenario

So what happens if after Steps 1, 2 and 3, the child still proceeds to shoot you with the dart gun? Then what's done is done, and we repeat the limit, "I'm not for shooting." and hope that the unwanted behaviour does not repeat itself.

But of course, a child will most likely try to repeat the unwanted behaviour. In which case, Dr. Landreth makes it clear, you still approach it as though we are in a brand new ideal scenario. You still believe that the child will not shoot you, even if he's already done it three times. Repeat Steps 1, 2 and 3.

And if at last the child insists on continuing the unwanted behaviour, we are forced to use Step 5. Offer an ultimatum choice.

So for example, Steps 1, 2 and 3 have been repeated several times, but the child still continues to shoot you with the dart gun. At this point you say "If you choose to continue to shoot me with the dart gun, then you choose for the gun to go away."

It's important to use the word "you", and "choose". This way the child is aware that it is not you who are exerting authority and forcing something upon the child, but the child that has the power to choose the outcome of the situation.

If you just said "Shoot me again and the gun goes away", it comes across more of a threat.


Summary Table

Ideal Scenario
Less Ideal Scenario
Least Ideal Scenario
Acknowledge, Communicate, Target
Communicate, Acknowledge, Target
Acknowledge, Communicate, Target, Repeat, Ultimatum Choice
I know you think it would be fun to shoot me. But I'm not for shooting. You can shoot the doll over there if you'd like.
I'm not for shooting. I know you think it would be fun to shoot me. You can shoot the doll over there if you'd like.
If you choose to continue to shoot me with the dart gun, then you choose for the gun to go away.

© 2018 MarkLim81

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