Friday, January 17, 2014

The Power of Praising the Positive

Recognizing positive behavior can feel disingenuous when a child struggles with numerous behaviors.  Helping parents to grasp the importance of praise can also be a challenge.  For you and for parents, a good exercise is to make a list of all the good things about this child.  I use the term “things” because it could be anything from “funny” to “they took out the recycling last week.”  For this exercise, it doesn’t matter that being funny is mostly at their sibling’s expense, or that when they took out the recycling they left a trail all the way down the stairs.  The point is there are still positive elements - the child has a sense of humor and attempts chores.  Take any trait or “thing” from the list and think about how you might praise the child.  Each time they make a joke that is not at the expense of another person, you laugh or say “you know, you’re pretty funny.”  Or what if you said “thank you so much for taking out the recycling.  Once you’ve picked up the containers on the stairs you’ll be done.”  The key is to mean it and not add qualifiers - “you know, you’re pretty funny, but no more making fun of other people like usual” or “thanks for taking out the recycling, but you dropped stuff everywhere!”  However, on the same note, you’re not ignoring negative behavior - if the child is mean to his/her sibling he/she needs to apologize, but this behavior is separate and it is important to keep it that way.  You are also not telling the child that they did a great job with the recycling and you will help them pick up the containers they dropped.  

Using praise can be effective even in dangerous situations when we feel compelled to yell, "what ever you do don't  _______!!"  Yelling this can promote the undesired outcome.  Praising a child in a sticky situation does not absolve bad behavior; instead the focus is safety first, consequences later.  A well-trained professional was working with a very behaviorally challenging child who had climbed up on the heating vent of a classroom and was in a position that if he were to move a few feet in either direction he would incur serious burns.  This professional had to think quickly.  She started praising him while the aide rushed to seek the kind of help that required a ladder.  "Nice job staying still" "you're being very safe right now, good work," she calmly said.  Notice she did not say, "you're a good performer" or “you’d be a great acrobat.”

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