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Disciplining Children-Choosing Powerful Words for Positive Results

Updated on January 14, 2011

Children are “works in progress” and the adults in their lives have the opportunity to shape behavior either in a positive or negative way.  Since kids will (and often do) make lots of mistakes and bad choices it is important to have a way to speak to them when they have made a bad choice in order to help shape future choices.  Once you learn the pattern for choosing powerful words when disciplining a child you will find that you ultimately will shape positive behavior in the child and be rewarded with better behavior.

Children make all types of behavior choices
Children make all types of behavior choices

Kids Have a Sense of Fairness

School age children have a keen sense of fairness and often feel that many aspects of their lives feel “unfair”. After all, kids don’t get many choices in life since they are guided by adults through much of their day. The one thing that kids do get to choose is how they behave. This is the key to shaping positive behavior in children.

Child Developmental Stages

It’s important to recognize the developmental level that children are in when they make poor behavioral choices.  This is to say that a two year olds tantrum will be very different from six year olds tantrums because they are at different developmental stages.  So the word choice for shaping behavior for a two year old will be different from that of a six year old.

Three Step Statement Method

When a child (from about age four or five on up) has displayed poor behavior keep these simple yet powerful words in mind and use them in the following order to redirect the child.

1. Always acknowledge (in a calm and quiet voice) that the child is “a good kid” by telling the child just that. Sometimes kids don’t recognize that they are of any value especially when they are in trouble. By sharing this statement with a child you are setting up the conversation with a positive message at the start prior to “laying down “the negative stuff.

2. Next state: “What you chose to do was a bad choice. You are not a bad kid but your choice was bad”. This is critical in separating the “act from the action”. In other words, by saying that they are not a bad kid but rather their choice was bad, this allows a child to see that they indeed have control over their behavior and are a person of worth. This is also a great time to remind a child that they don’t often get to make a lot of choices in life but they do get to choose how to behave.

3. The third step is critical as it drives home the point that the child is of great worth and you expect better of them. The next statement is “you are better than this”. At this point you can ask a child if indeed they are “better than this” and typically a child will be nodding in agreement. It also allows you a window into what the child’s self perception is and if it is in need of a boost.

Delivering Consequences

After using the three step statement method it is time to deliver the consequences (yes, there should be consequences). It is important to remind the child that the consequence is being issued as a result of the bad choice that the child made and that the idea is to serve the consequence and learn to make better choices should they face a similar situation in the future. The consequences should also start out small in order to leave room for additional consequences should a child repeat the same bad choices in the future. (Be sure to increase the consequence should the behavior be repeated) One way to issue a consequence is to ask the child what he or she believes is a fair consequence (keep in mind that kids have a keen sense of fairness and will respond to this word choice). Often a child will suggest a consequence that is much more severe than you would have thought of so use your best judgment if the child suggests something that is too harsh or difficult to enforce. Also be sure to be very specific regarding how long the consequence will last (think of the challenges that a long term grounding or time out has for both you and your child-easy to issue, difficult to enforce!).  Keep in mind as the adult in charge, you have the ultimate say in what the consequence will be regardless if you invite the child to make suggestions or not.

The Payoff

By continually using the three step statement method your child will come to realize that they do have choices in life despite the fact that they are still kids.  Many kids need to be continually reminded that they do indeed have the power to make choices-which no one controls how they behave except for themselves. 

Having worked in the field of education (elementary through secondary) for the past thirty years (the last 12 as an elementary school principal) and being a parent,  I have used the three step statement method countless times and have found that I have been able to reshape negative behavior choices into positive ones.  It takes a few tries to “get the hang” of the statements and sometimes a lot of convincing that kids do indeed have the power to “decide how to behave”  but by being consistent with the wording the results are satisfying both for the child involved as well as the adults!


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  • AtHomeHeather profile image

    Heather 5 years ago from PA

    Wonderful! A great hub for parents!

  • Judy HBerg profile image

    Judy HBerg 7 years ago

    Thanks for reading and commenting Loren! Best wishes with your three year old-enjoy the wonderful moments that go by so quickly :)

  • Loren's Gem profile image

    Loren's Gem 7 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

    Great share, Judy! I've got these valuable tips to keep in mind when dealing with my wonderful 3-year-old toddler. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  • Judy HBerg profile image

    Judy HBerg 7 years ago

    Thanks for stopping by and not only commenting, but for becoming a follower as well!

  • profile image

    Lene Lynn 7 years ago

    Very good article. You have a new follower! :)