Parents and teachers often wonder how to discipline a child with behavior problems. Although some children truly have challenging behaviors regardless of what strategies we try, many children just need to have the adults in their lives make changes in the way they react, respond, or interact with them. This article gives 10 simple strategies that you can start implementing right now to encourage positive behavior in your child/students. All of these strategies are positive in nature and will help you connect with your child/student(s) in a way that will increase their confidence, self-respect, and respect for you. Children with good confidence and a healthy respect for themselves and the adults in their lives show better cooperation and make healthier choices.
10 Simple Strategies to Promote Positive Behavior
1. Verbally acknowledge children’s efforts. Tell your child/student(s) specifically what he/she did that you are proud of. For example, you can say “You were so focused on your math homework tonight! Keep up the good work,” “That was so nice the way you helped your brother with his math homework.” When children get praised for doing the right thing, they want to do more of it. Virtually all children want to please adults (whether they show it or not) so for most children, praise makes a positive impact. Praise is also an easy way to give your child attention which many children so desperately crave.
2. Use positive body language to show approval for positive behavior. Positive body language can include a smile, thumbs up, high-five, pat on the back, etc. Keep in mind that some children do not like to be touched and would respond better to something like a thumbs up than a pat on the back. Get to know your child/students to know what they like.
3. Use humor with your child/student(s). Make jokes, listen to their jokes, smile often, say something silly, sing something you would normally say, or anything else that would make them smile/laugh (make sure it is age appropriate).
4. Show your child/student(s) that you are happy to see them. Smile at them when they come into the room; for parents…put your arms out for a hug. Ask about their day, weekend, etc. and really listen when they talk.
5. Remind your child/student(s) that they should be proud of themselves (e.g., “You worked so hard on that science project. You should be so proud of yourself!”). This helps build internal confidence in them, so they can learn to be proud of themselves for being persistent, working hard, being kind to others, etc. If they feel successful they will be successful.
6. Take an interest in your child’s/students’ interests. Ask them what they enjoy, get excited about their creations or accomplishments, ask them what they want to learn about, ask them their opinion about things, etc. Teachers…try to incorporate students’ interests in the classroom.
Parents…do activities with your children (academic or otherwise) that involve something they are interested in, even if it may not be your favorite activity. Let them choose topics of interest for certain activities.
7. Acknowledge your child/student(s) feelings with empathy. Be understanding when they are nervous because they are trying something for the first time, frustrated because a writing assignment is difficult for them, disappointed because they didn’t get invited to a birthday party, or embarrassed because other students laughed at them. Avoid saying things like “Stop making a big deal about it,” “You’ll get over it,” or “Why are you having such a hard time with this; it’s easy.” Instead, make empathetic statements like, “I understand that this assignment is frustrating for you” or “I understand that you are nervous, that’s common when trying something new.” Also, let them know that you are there to help in any way you can.
8. Be open minded and don’t pass judgment on your children/student(s) if their thoughts, values, feelings, or ideas don’t match yours. Of course it is okay to share your opinion (and unsafe or hurtful behavior is unacceptable), but in general, don’t make them wrong for their opinion. They need to feel like they can be open and be themselves around the adults in their lives. When children feel like they won’t be judged or made wrong, they are more likely to talk to us when there is a real problem.
9. Be a role model for good behavior. If you want your child to treat others with respect, you do the same. If you want your child to be an honest person, set an example of honesty for them.
10. Follow through on your promises and rules (barring unforeseen consequences) and stay away from empty threats. If you tell your child/student(s) that they can pick a favorite book to read after they finish their math assignment, make sure you stick to your end of the bargain. If you tell your child that he can go on the computer after his sister has a turn, make sure he gets a chance to do that. Have consistent rules that teach your children that they need to stick to their end of the bargain as well. For example, if you have a rule such as “Homework first, then TV.” stick to that rule by making sure your child completes homework before watching TV. Stay away from empty threats such as “If you don’t stop I am going to leave you here” or “I’ll throw all of your toys away if you don’t clean them up.” First of all, these statements can be scary for children leading to crying, tantrums, etc. and in all probability you are not going to do those things. If you keep making empty threats your child will learn that you don’t mean what you say and will also learn to not take you seriously. If your children/students have faith in what you say, and know the boundaries you have set for them, they will feel a sense of security and trust which leads to confidence in themselves and respect for you. Children with confidence and respect feel good about themselves and the people around them, making them more likely to cooperate with requests and make healthy choices.
Are you thinking “I am doing all of these things and it is not working?” These are ten great strategies, but they need to be used in conjunction with several others. Check out
- How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
- 17 Ways to Get Your Kids to Listen to You and Show You Respect
- How to Motivate Your Students and Get them to Listen to You
- Top Ten Discipline Tips for kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior
- 9 Practical Strategies to Decrease Impulsive Behavior in Children
- How to Prevent Temper Tantrums
Using all of these strategies together will most likely lead to positive behavior changes over time. Although, there is no magic solution, as a mother, educator, and behavior specialist, I have personally found these evidenced-based strategies to be the most effective over 19 years in this field. Just like a patient who does not respond right away to medical treatment, we do not give up. We keep trying.
If your child is significantly struggling with behavior, despite several positive strategies being in place, talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional to help determine the next steps you should take. If you are a teacher who is having significant behavioral difficulties with a student (despite several positive strategies) talk to the child’s parent and your school team (administrator, guidance counselor, etc.).
Always keep in mind that some children truly have difficulty controlling their behaviors or making a better choice because they have not yet learned alternative/more acceptable methods to get their point across, or their behavior happens so quickly (almost impulsively) before they have the opportunity to slow down and think of an alternative. This often happens when children feel anxious, scared, sad, or angry. While this is frustrating for adults, imagine how it feels to the child who frequently gets punished, singled out, or yelled at because they don’t have the coping skills, communication skills, or control to do something different. For a related article on impulsive behavior see 9 Practical Strategies to Decrease Impulsive Behavior in Children.
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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.