One of the first words we learn as children is “No”.
We learn the meaning of “No” early in our development. It’s a quick and easy instruction. “No” is simple and used regularly – especially with toddlers because it is immediately effective at that age. A stern “No” and an action to stop the child quickly ends the behavior that we don’t want.
The effectiveness of this strategy usually backfires for us when our child learns to parrot “No” back to us. Often called the “terrible twos”, children start to assert their self determination. They learn that if “No” works on them it should work on everyone else.
From childhood, we become accustomed to hearing and giving instructions that start with “Don’t” and “Stop”. We learn that “Don’t hit” or “Stop talking” is quick, clear and easy to comply with – but is it really? In the long run, the “No” strategy often ends up creating more problems for us than solutions.
As parents, we often become frustrated and angry with our children because when we tell them what not to do, they quickly find something else to do that is equally undesirable. ”Stop talking” becomes singing or whispering, “Don’t hit” becomes poking or kicking.
Without clear instruction, children are often frustrated as well. They have followed your instruction, but now they’re in trouble for doing something else! They have a multitude of other behaviors to choose from and feel overwhelmed, (or fearful), at the potential of further failure. Children often prefer clear direction so that they can be successful.
In children challenged by Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), negative language usually ensures the child will do exactly what you told them not to do. In our home, telling our child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder to not something prompts him to do it. Then he will quickly apologize because he was compelled to do it, and in the end, everyone feels bad.
Consider this simple example of positive and negative language for instruction:
- Positive language instruction:
Think of a green monkey.
What happened? Did you comply with the request? You probably did and even if you didn’t, I would bet that you didn’t think of a pink elephant which is exactly what I didn’t want you to do.
- Negative language instruction:
Don’t think of a pink elephant.
What happened? In order for you to NOT think of a pink elephant you were forced to think of a pink elephant. This is called priming and prompts the child to do something. Unfortunately for everyone, what they end up doing is what you didn’t want to happen.
What is Positive Language?
Positive language is a strategy that can be used to direct children and works especially well with children who have oppositional tendencies. The opposition could stem from hyperactivity and attentional challenges, Tourette Syndrome or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Positive Language is the use of direct language that states what you want the child to do, increasing the chance that the child will be successful.
Positive Language tells the child what they can do. Be as specific as necessary for the child to be successful. An example that comes to mind is the direction, “relax” – positive language but difficult to do especially if the problem is that you are not relaxed. A more simple positive language instruction than “relax” would be “take a deep breath”, “close your eyes”, or “think of a happy moment”.
Positive Language increases the chance of a child complying with your request without providing the idea of doing what you don’t want them to do. Instead of telling them what not to do and forcing them to hear and think about it, clearly state what you want them to do. Remember the pink elephant example. We don’t want to prime the child and set them up to fail.
Positive Language reinforces desired behaviors by verbalizing exactly what is desired. Undesired behavior is prevented and not verbalized which would inadvertently give it undue attention. Don’t focus on the behavior that you want the child to stop. By giving direction about what they can do or should do, the attention stays on the desired behavior. Children prefer positive attention so be sure to positively reinforce their compliance with your request with praise.
Using Positive Language
Positive language instruction may be kept very simple. It may be a clear direction stating specifically what you want the child to do. For example, “put your pencil down”. With negative language you would say “stop tapping your pencil” which may be met with the child breaking it or chewing on it.
In my home, with a child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, “stop tapping your pencil” would turn into a drum solo! ”Don’t do that!”, using positive language, becomes “Please eat your dinner” or whatever else you want them to focus on.
Talking in class would be met with “Mouths closed, please.” To regain the attention of my class, I would say “Knees under your desk, mouths closed with your eyes on me, please”. To address running in the school hallway, I would say, “Everybody walking with your hands by your side, with one person in front of you and one behind you, please”. Make your request as direct and simple as you need depending on the child.
Positive language instruction may be more complex. The child may have options but is directed away from what you don’t want them to do. For example, “you can stay in this room if you are being respectful to everyone”. The child may choose to leave and do something else. Be confident that the child is likely to make a good choice with what he goes on to do.
If the choice is likely to be a different undesired behavior somewhere else, you may want to stick to a more simple use of positive language instruction. In this example, using negative language you would have said, “stop hitting your brother” which may be met with the child then poking or making faces at his brother.
To address this behavior using simple positive language you might say “Keep your hands to yourself, please”. Occasionally, with challenging children I may have to make the request clearer, stating, “Please keep all your body parts to yourself”. Fair enough – just keep it positive.
Take some time to self reflect on how you direct your child or students and try to add more positive language in your instruction. We are often very pleasantly surprised by the positive responses we receive.
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