When I went to graduate school to become a school psychologist, I learned about a concept called positive phrasing, also referred to as positive language. I have noticed over the years in my career as both a school psychologist and behavior specialist, that people sometimes confuse positive phrasing with praise or positive reinforcement. While they are both considered positive ways to support behavior support, positive phrasing refers specifically to phrasing directives in a positive way, by giving a clear specific directive, rather than just telling a child stop, no, or don’t. Whereas praise, also an effective strategy, is specific positive feedback for making good choices (e.g., I am impressed by how hard you worked on your math assignment).
Research studies support the use of both positive phrasing and specific praise. For instance, the Responsive Classroom approach which focuses heavily on the use of positive phrasing and praise is an evidenced-based approach which has shown to significantly improve students’ academics and behavior in the classroom. Working as a residential counselor, tutor, assistant teacher, behavior specialist, and school psychologist, and now as a mother I have consistently experienced the benefits of positive phrasing.
In general, children respond so much better to positive phrasing for a few reasons:
1) It sounds more supportive and makes the child less likely to challenge you or push back.
2) It provides the child with an alternative that they may struggle to think of on their own. Just saying stop or don’t doesn’t provide insight into what the child can do instead. Some children need to be provided with that alternative.
3) Directions are clear and concise so there is no confusion about what the child is expected to do.
The table below provides clear examples of positive phrasing:
Some people are skeptical about this approach, but once you start using it, it will become second nature and you will personally see the benefits of positive phrasing. You can practice it when the kids aren’t around to get the hang of it.
Also, an explanation can go a long way such as “the reason you can’t touch that is because ____________________, but you can do this…” Adults often say “I don’t need to give a reason. You should do it because “I said so.” But it is human nature to want to understand the reason for things. It is a learning experience for children to be taught why it is important to follow certain rules and expectations, and just like adults, kids are curious about the world around them and why things work the way they do. When kids understand the reason for things, they are more likely to comply with a request.
When you just keep telling a child to stop doing something, and you become louder and louder because they are not listening, it turns into a battle and someone will eventually give in. This is a power struggle approach, and for the child, does not lead to a clear understanding or the importance of the request. Once the threat of yelling or punishment is removed, the negative behavior often returns. Positive phrasing allows you to teach your child behavioral expectations in a supportive way, in order to help them internalize the importance these behavioral expectations.
Since not all people use the approach of positive phrasing, I talk to my four-year-old about different ways adults might communicate the same message. I realize that not all the authority figures in his life will use this approach.
We talk about what he can do when he hears other adults saying stop, no and don’t, but in our house, positive phrasing is the approach we use and it is very effective. As he has gotten older, I sometimes pair a negative with a positive so he has a better understanding of negative phrasing, but when he was very young I always stuck with the positive. An example of pairing negative and positive would be something like “stop screaming because your sister is sleeping, use your inside voice.”
Sometimes I will demonstrate concepts like inside voice, walking nicely, using words to express frustration, etc. so he is even more familiar and comfortable with the concepts. Positive phrasing and demonstration are the same approaches I have used, very successfully, with my students and clients over the past 20 years. years. Sometimes picture cards like the one below are helpful too.
I challenge you to an experiment. Use positive phrasing with your kids or students over the next two weeks, and let me know the result. I would love to publish my own research study on the benefits of positive phrasing. I have a passion for this topic and would like to contribute more to the field. Feel free to comment your results at the bottom of this post or talk to me about your experiences with positive phrasing.
While positive phrasing is helpful for getting kids to listen, it is not a magical fix for every single child. It is important to remember that multiple strategies need to be used together to see changes in behavior. For more behavior strategies based on research and 20 years of experience in the field of behavior see:
10 Simple Ways to Improve Children’s Behavior (Home and School)
How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior
17 Ways to Get Your Kids to Listen to You and Show You Respect
How to Prevent Tantrums by Changing the Way You Say No
Top 5 Reasons for Behavioral Problems in Kids
8 Major Principles of Positive Behavior Support
Top 10 Discipline Tips for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder
How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.