Power of Intention


Big Idea: Mistakes are opportunities to learn.

Goal: To teach and/or learn a new skill.

Skill: Consequences

Structures: Class Meetings, Conflict Resolution Time Machine

Join me for a life-changing journey through all Seven Powers, including the Power of Intention, in the new online course Powers of Resilience: Social Emotional Learning for Adults

The Power of Intention and the corresponding Skill of Consequences are the last of the Seven Powers and Seven Skills.

This is not because they’re less important or valuable than the others. It’s because they are not effective without the internalization and use of the other Powers and Skills.

The first six Powers and Skills prepare us to create schools and homes based on effective consequences that match our intention and foster permanent behavior change.

Punishments vs. Consequences

Traditionally, schools have confused punishments with consequences. Punishments rely on judgment, make children suffer for having a problem, cause children to fear making mistakes, and emphasize what not to do. They provide extrinsic motivation to please others and avoid physical or emotional pain.

Systems of punishments and rewards create a division between “good” kids and “bad” kids, as well as how we treat each category.

Consequences, on the other hand, rely on reflection and personal responsibility. They teach children how to solve problems and show them that mistakes are opportunities to learn. Consequences focus on what to do. They provide intrinsic motivation to use or learn new skills.

For a consequence to be effective, it must be applied to a connected child who possesses the desired skill.

In the traditional model, the same children are punished over and over because they are disconnected or lack the needed skill. Punishments don’t teach skills, and they damage connections rather than fostering them. It’s no surprise, then, that punishments are ineffective.

With Conscious Discipline, we create environments that feel safe, build connections with children and teach them missing skills. Then, when we introduce a consequence, it is effective and leads to sustainable change.

The Role of Composure in Applying Consequences

Of course, it’s challenging to choose a wise response when we’re triggered by misbehavior.

If we’re in the survival state, we will feel threatened by the behavior, instinctively becoming defensive and acting in hurtful ways. In the emotional state, we’ll feel frustrated and act in punitive or permissive ways.

Like the other Skills, the Skill of Consequences requires us to be in the higher centers of the brain. We can access the executive state through active calming.

Before responding to misbehavior, pause. Take deep breaths, reminding yourself, “I’m safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this.” Remember that the behavior is not personal. The child is missing an essential skill and needs help learning it. Here’s a golden opportunity to teach!

If you’re in your executive state, you’ll be able to help the child reach the executive state. In the executive state, the child can reflect on their behavior and accept personal responsibility.

This is not possible if the child is in the lower centers of the brain. In the survival state, children perceive consequences as threatening and will likely respond with revenge. In the emotional state, they will take the consequence personally, choosing to blame and deflect.

So, it’s important to deliver consequences when both you and the child are in the higher centers of the brain. This is where the Power of Intention comes in.

Using Your Power of Intention

Every action we take is preceded by an intention. Our intention as we approach a situation influences the outcome in profound ways.

Intention is a powerful energy that enters the situation before we do. We’ve experienced this in our interactions with others. If a person approaches us with the intention of attack, we sense it and become guarded. If a person approaches us with an open heart and mind, we feel that too, and we relax. We can also sense when someone falsely represents their intention.

Intentions can divide, exclude, stagnate and inhibit learning. Intentions can also bond us together, enhance communication and foster goal achievement. Intent is vital when delivering a consequence or using any Conscious Discipline skill. Intentions often happen unconsciously, blindly following our emotions and impulses. From the integrated executive state, however, we can choose to consciously set our intention before we respond.

With the Power of Intention, we ask, “What is my intent as I approach this child?”

Three Types of Intent

When it comes to setting your intention in a conflict situation, you have a few choices:

  • Intent to Punish (Punitive Intent): The goal is to make children feel bad, shameful or guilty. It implies, “Don’t feel what you’re feeling. Feel what I tell you to feel.” This is unhelpful because it is children’s feelings that will motivate them to change their behavior or try a new approach. Instead of taking responsibility, children blame, defend, deny and deflect.
  • Intent to Save (Permissive Intent): The goal is to rescue children from discomfort by saving them from their feelings (e.g. dropping off the homework that your child forgot). It sends the message, “Feelings are bad,” or, “You are incapable of handling your feelings. They are dangerous and could overwhelm you.” Like the intent to punish, the intent to save communicates, “Don’t feel your feelings.” Permissive intent encourages entitlement and manipulation rather than responsibility.
  • Intent to Teach: The goal is to help children reflect on how they feel about the consequence and the impact of their choices. It says, “Feel your feelings. Let your feelings guide you. You can handle this.” This enables children to take personal responsibility for their actions and provides the intrinsic motivation to choose new, better strategies in the future.

Each type of intent tends to produce a different outcome. Punitive intent often leads to resentment, further disconnection and thoughts of revenge. Children may grow to view mistakes as personal failures reflecting innate flaws.

Permissive intent often encourages children to distrust and avoid difficult feelings. In addition, children who don’t feel consequences for their behavior when they’re young may repeat inappropriate behavior in the future, when the consequence are more severe.

When you enter a conflict with the intent to teach, children learn from their mistakes. They get in touch with their inner guidance system (feelings), take ownership of their actions, and have the opportunity and the willingness to grow through personal choice (intrinsic motivation).

Setting Your Intention

We like to believe that our intent is always to solve the problem and be helpful. One way to check ourselves is with the Power of Attention.

Before addressing the child, ask yourself where your attention is focused. If your attention is focused on what you don’t want, what went wrong, or what behaviors you want to stop, then your intent is likely to be negative, resulting in an attempt to punish or save. That’s okay! If you’re conscious of this information, you can make a shift.

If you focus your attention on what you do want, it indicates that your intention is to teach and/or solve a problem. Attention guides intention. Use it as a compass to point you in the direction you’d like to go.

Power of Intention + Impact

Sometimes, we misuse intent like a magic wand or a convenient excuse. If we’re hurtful to others (whether intentionally or unintentionally), we might say, “That was not my intention.” This implies that others have no right to feel hurt if we don’t intend to be hurtful.

Communication improves when we take responsibility for both our intention and our impact. We might say, “I had no idea that was hurtful. I didn’t intend to _____________, but I can see the hurt it caused.” Follow up by making amends or outlining concrete steps for more helpful communication in the future.

If you feel your intention was positive, but communication goes sour, ask yourself:

  • What occurred? Was the impact of what I communicated helpful or hurtful?
  • How is the outcome different from what I intended?
  • Where can I take responsibility? What changes can I make to align my intent with its impact?
  • How will I handle this situation differently and share information more effectively in the future?

None of us will get it right every time. That’s not the goal. The goal is to remain conscious of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors and willing to reflect on their outcomes.

Final Thoughts: Power of Intention

Many educators and parents start the Conscious Discipline journey with the intent of making children behave. As you continue your journey, you’ll begin changing that intention from “making children behave” to “helping children be successful.”

This seemingly small shift has a powerful impact on your interactions with children, including your ability to facilitate effective consequences. Feeling the energy of your intention, children relax and become willing to cooperate, listen and learn.

We can’t teach responsibility with threats and demands. We foster personal responsibility by creating the safety and connection children need to reflect and listen to the messages their feelings provide about their impact on the world.

Together, the Powers of Conscious Discipline allow us to reach our optimal brain state, so we can help children reach their optimal brain state. From this optimal state for learning and problem solving, children can receive consequences with the intent in which they’re given, providing the opportunity to change behaviors instead of repeating them.

Next Steps

More Helpful Resources for the Power of Intention