From Julia Tomes, M.A.T., Certified Positive Discipline Trainer

Take a minute to think of a child you know and care for deeply. Think about all the challenging behaviors that child does and make a mental or written list of those behaviors. It’s probably quite a long list, especially if at this time you, like me, are quarantined in your home with that child. Now take a deep breath, close your eyes, and picture that same child all grown up, perhaps age 25 or older. Imagine you are sitting at home one evening and you hear a knock on the door. You open the door to see your fully-grown child, who has stopped by to visit. What characteristics and skills do you hope this child will have as that adult standing before you? Now imagine putting all of those characteristics and skills into a box and handing it to them today, like a gift for the future. What would you put in that box? Take a moment now to create a mental or written list of those characteristics and skills.

Opportunities to Teach

Now let’s think about how children learn all of these characteristics and skills. When a child is presenting a challenging behavior such as having a tantrum, swearing at you, or fighting with a sibling or classmate, it is important to think about how you feel and what you do in these moments. Is your first response one that models something from the characteristics and skills list you’ve created? For example, do you respond with empathy, flexibility, and deep listening in these instances of stress and conflict? If you are like many of us, and especially if you are stressed, anxious, and tired, probably not. Perhaps you’ve heard of the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? The catch is, children are visual learners. They will learn more from what they see us do than what we tell them. I know, not what you want to hear, but probably something you have already noticed. However, here’s a wonderful tool that might be helpful. What if we rename that first list you made of “challenging behaviors” and instead label it “opportunities to teach”? Do the behaviors now feel different to you? The simple shift of focusing on modeling and teaching the characteristics and skills we want young people to learn allows us to see those difficult moments in a new way.

Our level of influence on another person is directly connected to the strength and health of that relationship. We can nurture this relationship through growing trust and practicing transparency. This foundation of trustworthiness and transparency are keys to creating a healthy connection. It also allows us to maintain dignity and respect for all people involved. Our role as teachers, parents, administrators, colleagues, and humans is to remember that being in relationship with one another is a long-term process which can easily get side tracked by the challenges that arise in daily life. The activity of creating the two lists is a core experience that you would find in any Positive Discipline workshop for parents or teachers. By grounding us in this long-term vision we have created a guide to help keep us on track as we meet each challenge and situation.

The Positive Discipline Approach

The Positive Discipline approach is based upon the work of Psychologists Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs.* A primary focus of their work was to consider why people do what they do. When you look at the two lists you have created, it’s helpful to know the following key concept of Adler’s work: we are social beings. We do best when we are part of a community and this is supported by brain science. Our level of connection to a community (sense of belonging) and ability to give to a community (feeling capable/significant) directly relates to our level of health and well-being. When we have a strong connection to these two things, Adler would say we have courage. When a child is “misbehaving,” Adler would say that the child is discouraged. Their sense of connection and ability to contribute in a meaningful way is somehow disconnected or damaged. Adler said, “a misbehaving child is a discouraged child,” and what that child needs in those moments is to be encouraged. A wise colleague, Jody McVittie of Sound Discipline in Seattle, WA, beautifully describes courage as “the movement we make in the direction of becoming our best selves.” When we give encouragement we are creating the space for that movement in others. By reframing the list of challenging behaviors, we hopefully can find more opportunities to create that space for others.

For the last decade, I have been a Certified Positive Discipline Trainer leading workshops and trainings for parents, teachers, and schools in the Positive Discipline approach. One of the most common challenges parents and teachers share with me is the need to get children to do the things that they don’t seem to want to do. An activity we do in workshops demonstrates this very well. In partners, one person is instructed to hold their fist very tightly and the other person is told they have 30 seconds to get that fist open, “without bloodshed.” People try all sorts of things to get their partner’s fist open, from different types of force to promising a reward, and even tickling. Every so often, someone kindly and respectfully just asks their partner to open their fist. Even more rarely, someone (often a preschool teacher) asks their partner to open their fist and help them with something. It is always this last approach which is most effective and invites cooperation. We naturally go to the old tools when placed in stressful dynamics. We lean into what we know and what we have grown up with. But when we take time to reflect and think about what we are doing to our relationships by relying upon these old tools, what is often revealed is the underlying cause of the problems we face with our children in the first place. Punishments, and rewards (yes, those too!) are both forms of manipulation which break trust. When put in these situations people will hold onto their dignity rather than open their fist and lose the game. However, when we let go of the power struggle and treat the other person with dignity and respect, we can offer transparency which builds trust and preserves the relationship in a healthy way. Another term for this is horizontal leadership.

Horizontal Leadership

In order to help families, teachers, and schools develop horizontal leadership, it takes lots of practice as well as the ability to model recognizing and learning from mistakes. It also takes what Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, calls “vulnerability-based trust”. Not only do we need trust that is developed through reliability, but we need trust that allows for people to be vulnerable and open in order to learn and grow. This type of trust is dependent upon leadership that models that vulnerability and is transparent. Once again, we can go back to those two lists to look at the challenges and use them to help us move in the direction of our shared vision. In Positive Discipline, the tool that ties this all together is the practice of having regular family or class meetings. Sitting together in circles, sharing thoughts, ideas, fears, needs, and wants in spaces that are safe creates a unique, powerful, and, when needed, restorative bond. Encouragement through appreciating one another provides the support for people to have the courage they need to be their best selves and help one another solve problems that arise from living in community. The tools needed for these meetings look different than the hierarchical ones that have been passed down for centuries. Horizontal leadership requires a lot from all of us, including compassion, listening, empathy, and creating a shared vision which provides a mutual purpose. Adler said “. . . when people are equal they will always find a way to settle their difficulties.” The grounding building blocks of trustworthiness and transparency allow for this type of leadership because it creates the ability for collaboration. It is the difference between thinking in terms of “how to” and moving forward to thinking “how with.”


*If you are interested, you can learn more about Positive Discipline by visiting the following sites: