Positive Discipline: Three Practical Strategies Parents Can Use

I’m hearing more and more stories lately of teenagers filing lawsuits against parents. It’s quite disconcerting to me. In the wake of decades of expanding children’s rights, kids are now using terms with adults like:

  • You can’t do that to me.
  • I have rights to my privacy.
  • This is my life to live how I want to.
  • I’m going to sue you.

While I am a child advocate, I think it’s time to evaluate the way we discipline kids. Moms and dads today agree—disciplining children is more complicated than it was when we were kids. Both children’s rights and a disrespectful culture have made the issue both complex and gray. Add to these an empowered and entitled generation of teens who know so much thanks to social media—and you have a population of parents and teachers who, while we are the most educated group of adults to date, still find it difficult to know exactly how to best correct unruly or misbehaving youth.

What Is Positive Discipline?

The “positive discipline” model is used by schools and parents to reinforce positive behavior. Rather than focus on punishment, the model focuses on mutual respect. When respect exists in both the adult and the student, the disciplinarian can focus on positive points of behavior.

The Parenting and Classroom Management theory is based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs. Dr. Adler first introduced the idea of parenting education to United States audiences in the 1920s. He advocated treating children respectfully, but also argued that spoiling and pampering children was not encouraging to them and resulted in social and behavioral problems. Here are some basic tenants:

  • There are no bad children, just good and bad behaviors.
  • Good conduct can be taught and reinforced without hurting the children.
  • Positive discipline doesn’t ignore problems, but involves kids in solving them.
  • The model enables kids to handle situations appropriately while staying calm.
  • It promotes positive decision-making, teaching expectations to kids early on.

I vividly remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mayo. She was a textbook positive discipline teacher. One day, I got mixed up with a wrong crowd of kids and broke a school policy on the playground. Every one of us boys got in trouble. Mrs. Mayo had already won me over as a caring adult and I feared the moment I had to face her after this incident. She said nothing during our afternoon class, but asked me to stay behind during our afternoon break. She pulled me aside and said, “I heard about the incident on the playground today.” She paused as her eyes pierced mine. Then she said, “You know I’m disappointed in you, don’t you?” I nodded, staring at the floor. Then, she continued. “Do you have any idea why I’m disappointed?”  I was not in the mood to guess, so I shook my head. She then spoke very directly to me: “Because, Timothy, I know that’s not like you. You’re better than that garbage you pulled today. Others can do that. You should not. That’s below you. I expect much better, and I know you’re capable of better. Now, I want you to stop following, and be yourself.”

Three Simple Strategies to Practice Positive Discipline

1. Look Ahead More Than Behind

Positive discipline stands in contrast to negative discipline. Instead of angry outbursts and reactions to misbehavior, it leverages reinforcement and response in light of the preferred behavior you want to see. For example, this model uses positive reinforcement (such as affirming good effort) as well as negative reinforcement (such as ignoring requests made with a whining voice by a child). The model also uses positive responsive leadership (such as requiring a child to clean up a mess they made) as well as negative responsive leadership (such as removing a privilege after poor conduct.) The idea is—this kind of discipline looks ahead at what you are cultivating, not behind at the immature act that just happened. This parent or teacher is always in a futuristic building mode.

2. Redeem What Happened

Positive discipline always seeks to redeem poor performance or behavior and make it a learning experience. After emotions settle, the parent or teacher debriefs what happened and attempts to turn it into a teachable moment, believing the student is better than the conduct he or she just demonstrated. Once again, it believes there are no bad kids, just bad behavior. A leader who practices positive discipline attempts to help the young person envision himself as a person who’s capable of better behavior. The leader works hard to prevent the young person from identifying with the sub-optimal behavior as part of the norm for who they are.

3. Speak From Belief

The leader is both responsive and demanding because they believe the best about the student. The feedback this leader or parent offers is given in a firm and caring fashion, out of confidence in the student. Positive discipline can get away with hard constructive criticism and direction because it’s done out of belief in the receiver. I’ve cited before the experiment that was conducted with middle school students. Several types of feedback were given to students to see what would elicit the most effort from a student after a paper was handed in. Far and away, the feedback that got the best effort (somewhere between 40 percent and 320 percent more effort from them) was this phrase: “I am giving you these comments because I have high expectations of you and I know you can reach them.” That’s it. Just truthful criticism but done from a belief in the person who’s receiving it.

That’s what I call positive discipline.

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Positive Discipline: Three Practical Strategies Parents Can Use