Positive Guidance: How to Give Firm and Kind Positive Directions (And Actually Get Cooperation!)

by Casey Hardigan


If you’re a parent or a teacher you have likely found that gaining cooperation from your child is the most difficult part of your job. When you’re too firm you end up feeling bad about yourself and perhaps gain compliance at best; at worst you may inspire thoughts of retaliation or rebellion. When you’re too kind you feel inadequate and frustrated with your child.

Positive Discipline, a method created by Dr. Jane Nelson, gives the tools to be both kind and firm at the same time and focuses on teaching children lifelong skills to successfully self regulate in the future when mom, dad, or teachers are not around.

What Does Positive Discipline Sound Like?

  • Instead of “calm down,” -  “It seems like you are [frustrated, sad, etc.] How can I help you?”

  • Rather than “stop crying,” - “I can see this is hard for you.”

  • Instead of “you’re okay,” - “Are you okay?”

  • Rather than “be quiet” - Use an inside voice.”

  • Instead of “don’t hit,” - “Please use gentle hands.”

  • Rather than “stop yelling,” - “Take a deep breath, then tell me what happened so I can hear and understand you.”

  • Instead of “Don’t get upset,” - “It’s okay to feel sad.”

  • Rather than “That’s enough,” - “It seems like you need a minute. I am going to go over here and you let me know when you are ready to talk.”

  • Instead of “I’m over this,” try “ It seems like you are frustrated. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s not okay to kick the chair. When you are frustrated you can take deep breaths, kick a ball, talk to me about why, etc.”

What Does Positive Discipline Look Like?

  • Have clear expectations - “As soon as you finish ___, then you may ___.”

  • Respond with a question - “Would you like to do this yourself, or do you want/need my help?”

  • Check understanding/knowledge - “What needs to happen before you can ___?”

  • Limited choices - “Would you rather get dressed now or take your clothes to school in your bag?”

  • Come to a mutual agreement - “If I let you ___, when will you ___?”

  • Follow through - “What was our agreement?”

Why Does it Matter in the Long Run?

Rewards and punishments are popular methods to gain cooperation among parents and teachers for good reason. Sticker charts, iPad time, and treats will absolutely tame a tantrum or award you a few moments of peace and quiet. Positive Discipline requires more thought, practice, and time. However, rather than teaching a child that he should listen and do the right thing to attain an extrinsic reward - Positive Discipline helps children learn self regulation, responsibility, cooperation, and the belief that they are capable.

In The Science Behind the Genius, Angelline Lillard discusses some of the research. While extrinsic incentives work in the short term, for most children, in the long haul, they “disrupt the very behaviors they aim to promote. Children’s motivation to engage in activities further, their cognitive functioning, their creativity, and their prosocial behaviors are all negatively impacted by extrinsic rewards and evaluations. [...] Research shows that if a person was already motivated to do an activity to begin with, expected rewards actually interfere with their subsequent interest in that activity.” (Lillard, 153-156)

Positive Discipline tools give children an internal compass and critical thinking skills. These things require a lot more patience and time as they require relationship building on the part of the parent or teacher, but are skills that will serve the child for the rest of his life, in every relationship, aiding in the development of an independent, happy human being.