Conscious Discipline Skills & Structures

How do I use Choices effectively?

Choices can be used effectively as a discipline technique and as a means to help children focus. Mr. Adams had announced to the class that in five minutes it would be cleanup time. He personally got Jason's attention and told him face-to-face. After the five minutes had passed, the class began singing the cleanup song and putting toys away. Jason had trouble redirecting his focus from playing to cleaning up. “Jason, you have a choice. You may pick up the big blocks first or the little blocks first. What is your choice?” Mr. Adams asked. Jason said, “The big blocks because I am strong.”

Most children can benefit from using choices as a guidance tool, especially children who need additional structure to be successful. Jason is a good example. He needs more direction than some of the other children. Since he needs more guidance, the teacher is prone to giving him a lot of commands. “Jason, get your lunch. Jason, get in line. Jason, wait until the door is opened.” Jason, in his need for external structure from adults, misses out on some of the choice-making decisions other children acquire on a regular basis. So, instead of constantly directing Jason with commands, choices would give him the structure he needs, provide practice in making decisions and ultimately build his self-esteem.

Choices are also helpful with compliance. A teacher is less likely to get resistance with “Katie, you have a choice to sit on the red tape or the blue tape,” than if the teacher simply says, “Katie, it is circle time. Sit down.” Since preschool children are developing autonomy and initiative skills, they sometimes like to assert themselves in response to adult commands. Choices provide the option of complying with adult wishes while still maintaining the “last word,” so to speak.

In order for the adult to deliver choices to children on a regular basis, two things are required.

  1. The adult must think in terms of what he or she wants the children to do. We have been conditioned to think negativity—what we don't want them to do. “Don't run. Don't talk when I am talking.” This “don’t” thinking is detrimental to giving choices.
  2. The adult must give the children two positive choices. Typically, adults have been trained to give the child one “good” choice and one “bad” choice to coerce the child into picking the one the adult wants. For example, children have been given the choice to pick up their toys or lose recess time. This is not a choice; it is a manipulation. A true choice is given when we, as adults, do not care which option the child selects.

To create choices for children, think first, “What do I want them to do?” Then create two positive options to accomplish that goal. If you want a child to wipe off the table, you could create the options of “with a towel” or “with a washcloth.” If you want a child to pick up some trash on the floor, you could give the options of “putting it in this trash can or that one.”

When is my toddler old enough for a time out?

Conscious Discipline teaches lifelong social and emotional skills. In general, time out does not teach a life skill, nor does it permanently change behavior.

Traditionally, we send a child to time out to think about what they’ve done wrong or as a punishment. With Conscious Discipline, power struggles, tantrums and other conflicts are handled in a way that models and teaches new skills so children have specific tools for success. Consequences are utilized, but in a manner that directly relates to the infraction, which a generic time out does not. Instead of relying on time outs, try practicing some of the core concepts of Conscious Discipline and see what happens. Perhaps you will see your desire and need for time outs diminish, to be replaced with learning tools and consequences that encourage your child’s development.

Composure is the first chapter and skill of Conscious Discipline. It discussed at length in the beginning of the Conscious Discipline book (educators) and Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline (parents). By maintaining composure, parents can view misbehavior as a call for help and teach children the behavior they want to see instead of punishing the misbehavior. As parents model and maintain their composure, children also learn to take a deep breath when they are frustrated. This skill alone will greatly diminish the power struggles and outbursts that lead to the time out threat.

Along with composure, parents may offer a Safe Place for the child. The Safe Place is a physical location in a room that provides the opportunity for children to remove themselves from the group/family in order to become regain composure and maintain control when they feel upset, angry or frustrated. The Safe Place is not a place of punishment, but rather a tool for becoming calm. Outfit your Safe Place with comforting blankets, stress-relief tools, paper to draw on, and images reminding children of active calming techniques such as S.T.A.R. (Smile, Take a deep breath And Relax). Free downloadable icons for active calming can be found online, the Safe Place Mat is a helpful plush breathing reminder and Shubert is a S.T.A.R. helps introduce the calming techniques and the Safe Place to your child.

When a conflict is occurring, the focus must be on maintaining/regaining composure. Only when both the parent and child are composed can true teaching and learning take place. Once everyone is calm, the parent has the opportunity to teach a helpful way the child could have responded. If the child pinched you, you would set the limit and teach him the exact words you would like him to use: “You may not pinch. Pinching hurts. When you want my attention, say, “Mom, over here!’”

When a child continues to misbehave, a parent may impose a consequence that is related, reasonable and respectful, and that teaches the child that his/her choices have certain prescribed outcomes. Generally, tying the consequence to the loss of an opportunity related to the infraction will have greatest teaching value. (For a child who repeatedly throws blocks, the prescribed consequence would be to put the blocks away until tomorrow.) At all times, the parent must retain composure so that the child is focused on his choices and subsequent feelings, and not on the parent’s anger or upset.

What does Positive Intent really mean?

Are you a mind reader? I’m not, yet I find myself walking through the day attributing intent to other people’s actions and words. The waitress is an idiot because she didn’t give me correct change. My husband is being spiteful by leaving his shaving can on the tile after I specifically told him it leaves a rust ring. My child is being selfish by grabbing things out of my purse without asking.

Are stupid, spiteful and selfish the “real” motivations these people have when they open their mouths or take a certain action? There is no way for us to know for certain. We make up their intent in our minds. We can choose to see the best in others or to see the worst. Once we’ve judged the nature of another person’s actions or words, we reap a slew of emotions of our own. When we attribute negative intent, the emotions that we experience are equally nasty. Attributing negative intent to them creates negative feelings within us and throws us into the lower centers of our brain. If we’re making up the intent, why in the world would we want to attribute an intent that results in nasty feelings for us? We can just as easily attribute positive intent to these situations and reap positive emotions.

Negative intent does more than just flood us with nasty feelings, it also inhibits our ability teach others how to treat us and how to treat each other. Particularly when dealing with children, seeing the best in them is the only perceptual frame that will enable us to teach new skills rather than project guilt, hurt and other negative feelings. Children convey their wants and needs through actions such as hitting, grabbing and fussing. When they don’t get what they want, they tend to fuss louder and bigger. To be effective parents, we must shift from viewing “louder and bigger” with negative intent (she’s being selfish), to viewing it with positive intent (she’s missing social skills).

The habit of attributing negative intent is so ingrained in most of us that it is difficult at times to recognize, much less reframe positively. Yet this shift is 100% necessary if we want to raise children with self-esteem, responsibility and self-control. It is also essential for teaching them a new skill and solving problems. Below are common examples of attributing negative intent followed by possible positive intent for the same situation. Remember, we are making it up; it is our choice which way to perceive the situation.

Casey is just mean.
Casey wanted the crayon and didn’t know how to ask for it.

I’ve told her 1,000 times not to come in without knocking!
She gets excited and forgets to knock.

Mathieu sure pushes my buttons!
Mathieu is giving me an opportunity to practice staying calm.

Devon is acting crazy!
Devon has a lot of energy and needs help to focus.

Keri is disrupting my quiet time just to irritate me.
Keri is having trouble finding her blankie.

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying, “You mean nothing the child does is wrong?” Attributing positive intent doesn’t mean the rules fly out the window and limits don’t need enforcing! Rather, positive intent allows you a frame of mind from which you can better teach the skills the child needs. First attribute positive intent, then set the limit and teach as necessary.

Step 1 – Breathe and attribute positive intent to the action. You could reframe the situation with the child calling for love, displaying a need for skills, etc. Make the shift to positive intent in your own mind first, and then say, “You wanted_____.” “You wanted my attention.”

Step 2 – Put words to the child’s action. No judging words allowed; just describe the action. “So you_____.” Your verbal description will bring the child’s action into his/her awareness. “So you hit me in the knee.”

Step 3 – Finish speaking the positive intent out loud. Define the child as a worthy person who made a mistake. You might say, “You didn’t know how to_____.” “You didn’t know how else to get me to look at you.” Your child may correct you. If this happens, repeat the correction and reframe. “Oh, you hit me in the knee because you were mad at me. You didn’t know how else to tell me you were angry.”

Step 4 – Assertively set the limit and explain why. Give the child a clear limit and a simple reason why the limit is set. Be assertive. Relate the limit to safety whenever possible. Setting the limit fits nicely into this sentence: “You may not ____, ___ isn’t safe (hurts, etc.).” “You may not hit. Hitting hurts.”

Step 5 – Finally, teach what is acceptable behavior. Once you have taught the appropriate action, ask the child to practice the new skill. It’s helpful to use these words to frame the learning: “When you want ______, say (or do) _____. Say (or do) it now “When you want my attention, touch my arm gently. Try touching my arm gently now.”

Step 6 – You did it! Reinforce the action by telling the child how his/her new skill is successful. Say, “You did it!” and describe the action. “You did it! You touched my arm gently so I would know you wanted my attention.”

With positive intent, we can transform hurtful situations into teaching moments. With negative intent, we will continually punish our children for not having skills that they have not been taught. The choice is ours.

How do you resolve conflicts with children of different age groups?

What does it look like to focus on what to do in the face of daily conflict and “bad” behavior? First, calm yourself. Then approach your child in the following age-appropriate ways:

(2 year old) Tantrum in the store:

Your toddler wants a toy in the store. She throws herself on the floor screaming. You feel angry, embarrassed, tired and desperate. Focus on what you want to have happen rather than on your feelings of discomfort or her tantrum. Take a deep breath. Say to yourself, “You’re safe, keep breathing, you can handle this.” Once you feel calm, you are ready to teach your child to handle frustration and calm down. Be encouraging. Tell her, "You can handle this. Breathe with me. You're safe." Hold her and breathe deeply with her. When her body begins to relax, tell her that she has a choice. "You can sit in the cart and hold the shopping list or you can sit in the cart and hold your doll." Once your toddler makes her choice, say, "You did it! You calmed yourself down and that's hard to do." Celebrate your success together.

(3-4 year old) Being bullied on the playground:

Your preschooler runs over to you at the playground, whining, "He pushed me.” Your child is focused on being hurt. You can focus on an assertive solution. Ask him "Did you like it?" Then instruct him to tell his playmate, "I don't like it when you push me." Encourage him to practice saying it. Teach him to use an assertive voice because either an aggressive voice or a passive (whiny) voice will invite further aggression. (An assertive voice sounds like “just do it.”) Practice with your child. Tell him to make his voice match yours. When his voice sounds assertive, support his success with, “There you go. You did it!”

(5 year old) Bullied in Kindergarten:

Your child wanted her friend's blue marker, so she smacked her friend and took it. Rather than highlighting poor behavior by admonishing your child as a first response, focus on a solution by teaching new skills. Go to the victim. Console him and ask, "Did you like being hit?" Then turn to your child and say, "You wanted a blue marker so you hit your friend." Resist the urge to judge the action as mean. Instead, see it as an opportunity to teach communication skills. Say, "You didn't know the words to say to get the marker, did you?" Tell her directly, "You may not hit. Hitting hurts. When you want a marker, say 'May I have a turn, please?' Say it now, for practice." When you handle the situation this way, your child is seen as someone who didn't know better. If she seems remorseful, she may apologize. Whether she apologizes or not, your goal is to focus on teaching her the skills needed to behave acceptably the next time.

(6-8 year old) Tattling on your brother or sister:

Your grade-schooler loves to tattle. "Sissy’s not cleaning her room!" he says. Shift your focus from negative tattling to helpful behavior. Ask your child, "Are you telling me this to be helpful or hurtful?" He'll stop and reflect on his intent. Maybe he was trying to get her in trouble because she embarrassed him in front of his friends yesterday. If he answers, "hurtful," ask "What could you do that would be helpful?" If he says, "I don't know," you've created a teaching moment. Tell him to go back to his sister and ask her, "Mary, do you need some help cleaning your room?" If his initial response to the question is “helpful” or "I don't know," then tell him, “So, you wanted to be helpful. Families help each other. If you want to be helpful, ask her, ‘Mary, do you need some help cleaning your room?’"

(9-10 year old) Not doing homework

You receive a note from your child's teacher saying that he isn't turning in his homework. Resist the urge to tear into him. Instead, show the note to your child and calmly ask, "What seems to be the problem? What would help you be successful in getting your homework done?" (or "…help you keep your room clean?" or "...get to bed on time?" etc.) This places the burden of action on the child. If you start admonishing your child, your intent changes from helpful to punishing. Do you want the child to pay or do you want the child to learn? Problem solve by giving your child a say-so in the process. Map out a plan together and help him to be successful by offering encouragement. You may also set up prescribed consequences if he does not meet his obligation. He might say, “I don’t like doing homework right after school because all my friends are hanging out together. I’d rather do it after dinner.” You might say, “Okay, you can do homework after dinner, however, if you do not turn in your homework every day, you will go back to doing homework as soon as you get off the bus.” Remind him that it is homework time after dinner and follow up with the consequence and more problem solving as necessary.

Remember the following principles as you discipline your children:

  1. What you focus on, you get more of.
  2. When you are upset, you are always focused on what you don’t want.
  3. Upset comes from resisting “what is.”
What does the acronym Q-Tip stand for?

Q-Tip is an acronym I use to help remember to Quit Taking It Personally!

I have a child who is abusing the Safe Place. She goes there and pretends to cry to stay in this special place much longer than the other students. Is it okay to set rules like time limits and the number of times per day you can use the Safe Place?

Most teachers employ "Safe Place Rules," rules for using the Safe Place. They generally include things like "You can go to the Safe Place on your own. The teacher can suggest you go to the Safe Place. If someone else is in the Safe Place, you can make your own by moving a pillow to another location in the classroom." Etc. If you decide to set a time limit on using the Safe Place, you would need to include that in the Safe Place rules, and make the rule the same for all children. Post written and visual representations of your rules in the Safe Place and teach/model/practice them regularly. 

At the same time, I would strongly encourage you to explore this child's behavior as useful information to you. When you say she "pretends to cry to stay in the special place," I think I am hearing frustration with her behavior (your buttons are pushed). If this is true, reframe this statement from "the child is misbehaving" to "the child asking for my help." With this new perspective, you might ask, "Why does she feel the need to be in the Safe Place so much?" Ultimately, there is a skill this child is missing or some problem in her life that is urging her to act out in this way. Maybe transition time or a certain subject is overwhelming. Perhaps she is having social issues or has an ill relative. Her behavior is a signal to you that she needs your help coping; she needs a new skill set. Once you know why she is crying to stay in the Safe Place, you can better determine how to help her/what skills to teach.

Years ago one of our long-time teachers had a young girl in her class who spent a large amount of time sleeping in the Safe Place. Instead of seeing a child as trying to avoid her schoolwork, the teacher saw the little girl's overuse of the Safe Place as an important clue that said, "This is a call for help. Something is going on with this child." In 99% of cases, that "something" is anxiety, upset, a skill issue, etc. In this particular case, it was something much greater. Upon further exploration, the teacher discovered that a family member was molesting the child at night, causing this little girl to come to school exhausted. The teacher called in a professional for assessment, and the child was removed from this dangerous situation. The teacher's ability to see the behavior as a call for help rather than misbehavior was the key that unlocked a positive ending to this difficult story.

By all means, set up your Safe Place rules so you are comfortable with the way children use the Safe Place, but please don't forget that seeing a child's behavior as a call for help rather than misbehavior is a powerful shift that will help you to teach children the coping, social, academic and other skills they are missing. I will be wishing you well as you work through this issue with the child.

How do I use the acronym A-C-T to set limits with toddlers?

It’s a toddler’s job to explore. Hand-in-hand with that exploration come behaviors like pushing the limits. A toddler is trying to define the edges of his/her world, and to define where “I” end and “you” (everyone else) begins. Because they are just beginning to explore and gain experience, toddlers are unable to consciously realize the consequences of their behavior. In behavior, this ends yup looking like impulsivity to adults. A toddler’s impulsivity is the tool s/he uses to learn about boundaries and cause-effect relationships. When children are impulsive, parents and other caregivers must set limits on their behavior. You can optimize your child’s exploration while setting appropriate boundaries by acknowledging your child’s feelings while clearly communicating and maintaining the limit, and offering acceptable alternatives. The steps to set an effective limit can be summed up with the acronym “ACT.”

A - Acknowledge the child’s feelings, wishes and wants.
C - Communicate the limit in terms of safety
T - Target acceptable behavior

A- Acknowledge the child’s feelings, wishes, wants and motivations. When you do this, you tell your child that his/her emotions and inner-self are okay. Setting the limit without acknowledging your toddler’s feelings indicate that emotions are not important and may carry a sense of “wrongness” rather than age-appropriate exploration. As you empathize with your child’s feelings, you will help to diffuse them. Accepting the feelings often satisfies the child and his/her need for the act no longer exists. Acknowledge your toddler’s feelings with statements like these: “You seem angry.” “Seems like you’re frustrated with these puzzles.” “It seems to me like you feel sad today.” “You wanted to see what was outside the window.”

C- Communicate the limit in terms of safety, using an assertive voice and clear language. Set the limit using words that the child can easily understand. “Throwing puzzle pieces is not safe,” “It’s not safe to climb on the dresser,” “It’s hard for me to breathe when you squeeze my neck so hard,” are examples of clear and age-appropriate limits. These statements leave no doubt about the behavior. Avoid phrases like, “You need to___,” and “I think___,” because these phrases do not communicate the limit in a clear and assertive way.

T- Target acceptable behavior by giving the child positive alternatives. You have told your child the unsafe consequence of his/her action, now tell him/her how to express the original desire appropriately. Toddlers act impulsively and without stopping to think about consequences. They have a feeling, wish, desire or need, and they express it in the only way they know. They may not be aware of other way to express what they want or feel. “If you want my attention, you can touch my arm,” is an example of an appropriate alternative.

Putting all of our examples together, the ACT process would sound like this:

“Seems like you’re frustrated with this puzzle. Throwing puzzle pieces is not safe. You can throw the sponge ball inside or throw a regular ball in the back yard.”

“You wanted to see what was outside the window. It’s not safe to climb on the dresser. You may climb on the play gym at the park.”

“You wanted to get my attention. It’s hard for me to breathe when you squeeze my neck so hard. If you want my attention, you can touch my arm.”

“You wanted to give me a big hug. It’s hard for me to breathe when you squeeze my neck so hard. If you want to give me a big hug, do it gently like this (demonstrate).”

“It seems to me like you feel sad today. It’s not safe for you to run away from me in the store. If you want to have some quiet time, you may sit in the cart.”

“You seem angry. You may not push, pushing hurts. You can use your words to say, ‘I’m mad at you’ or you can go to the Safe Place.”

How do I use the acronym A-C-T to set limits with children at any age?

There are several basic steps that can be used in the limit-setting process. The key factors in limit-setting are the understanding of the child's intention and motivation. Limit-setting works better when the adult acknowledges the child's feelings, wishes and wants, communicates the limits clearly, and targets acceptable behavior.

A - Acknowledge the child’s feelings, wishes and wants.
C - Communicate the limit in terms of safety
T - Target acceptable behavior

Why is the active calming activity called "draining" but the icon is of a faucet?

Draining is an active calming technique where we drain our stress out of our bodies through our fingertips like water through a faucet. So, the technique has components of both "drain" and "faucet". We took creative liberties with the name and icon in order to include both components. (Plus we think faucets are cuter than drains, don't you?) To practice draining: Extend your arms out, pretending your arms are faucets. Tighten your arm, shoulder and face muscles. Exhale slowly making a “sssshhh” sound and release all your muscles, draining the stress right out through your tingertips!

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