5 Principles of Positive Behavior Guidance

During a recent training on positive behavior guidance, our teachers learned about the five positive discipline principles as presented by Dr. Jane Nelsen, a parent of seven children, child psychologist, licensed marriage and family therapist and best-selling author.

Before we begin, we want to define how we use the word “discipline” in the Montessori and behavior guidance context.  We often use “discipline” to mean “punish” or “harshly correct.”   However, the Latin root of the word means “to learn”.   Our role as adults is to guide children in their learning journey, helping them to gain the independence, confidence and self-discipline they need to succeed.  Children (and all humans) do better when they feel better.  We are “more motivated to cooperate, learn new skills, and offer affection and respect when we feel encouraged, connected and loved”, says Dr. Nelsen.  Positive discipline (or, the more contemporary term “positive behavior guidance”) is all about being constructive, encouraging, affirming, helpful, loving and providing optimistic support.

Having said that, as parents, caregivers, or educators, how do we approach challenging behavior?  Dr. Nelsen presents five key principles for positive discipline.

father and son walking at sunset

Fosters a sense of belonging and significance

All humans desire to feel a sense of belonging and significance.  Many challenging behaviors are a result of a child feeling unloved or unimportant, including negative behaviors such as undue attention, misguided power, revenge and giving up.  It’s important for parents to see beyond the behavior to the (unconscious) belief behind it, and then proactively find ways to counteract that belief.

If your child is demanding attention, you can respond by giving them attention at other times throughout the day.  In the moment, you can respond with firmness (“I would be happy to spend time with you once I’m done with this project.  If you want to watch what I’m doing, I’d love for you to sit by me with quiet hands.”) 

If your child has a sense of misguided power, he may be showing defiance.  He is looking for choices and independence.  Find areas to give him opportunities to exercise choice and independence and seek creative solutions rather than engaging in a power struggle.

If your child has a sense of revenge, they may be showing this through hurtful words or actions.  Instead of rejecting or punishing your child, dig into the behavior and find out why your child feels hurt.  Provide them with a listening, empathetic ear and take responsibility for any ways you may have hurt your child.  Then, talk through solutions that might help your child feel better.

If your child easily gives up or shuts down, keep encouraging your child.  Affirm them and show confidence in their ability.  Point out small, positive steps forward and look back on previous accomplishments to instill a sense of confidence in your child. 

Is kind and firm

A kind and firm parenting style involves mutual respect and encouragementThis may be stating the obvious, but mutual respect means that the parent respects the child while also respecting themselves.  It focuses on meeting the needs of the child and the needs of the adult.

Most people tend towards one of two parenting styles (or bounce inconsistently between the two): authoritarian or permissive.  Research has consistently shown that a balance between these two styles fosters healthy social-emotional development in children. 

Authoritarian parents (what Dr. Nelsen refers to as “The Bosses”) exercise excessive control and are reactive.  They typically revert to blame, fault or punish in order to control a situation.  They often forget that the goal is to find solutions and that the first person who can and must change is the parent.  Authoritarian parents see themselves as having all the power. There are almost no choices available to the child and there is a sense of order without freedom. It sends the message that, “You do it because I said so.”

Permissive parents (what Dr. Nelsen refers to as “Milquetoast parents”) tend to feel sorry for their children when they mess up and are unwilling to let a child learn from his or her behavior.  Their parenting style tends to be motivated by guilt.  They are also reactive, but their overprotective behavior sends the message to the child that their parent views them as incapable and lacking the ability to learn and grow.  They also give the child a misguided sense of being the center of the universe instead of an important part of the universe.  Permissive parenting gives all the power to the child, provides freedom without any order, and offers unlimited choices to the child.  It sends the message that, “You can do anything you want.”

A healthy parenting style is one that is both kind and firm, establishes healthy boundaries, and which gives oneself and one’s child permission to make mistakes, to be imperfect, and to try again.  It provides freedom with order, limited choices, and the message that “you can choose within limits that show respect for all.”

Is effective in the long term

We parent for the long-term goal of the health and happiness of our child, not for immediate results.  Unfortunately, we often revert to punishment simply because it is easier and is what comes naturally.  “You never have to tell adults how to use punishment.  They know. Punishment is often a ‘reactive’ response, but it takes effort and skills to use effective discipline,” says Nelsen. 

Punitive measures are a “quick fix” that teach our children what we DON’T want them to do.  But we want to intentionally use guidance measures that have positive, long-term results and that model for and foster in our children what we want them to do.  

Teaches valuable social and life skills for good character

Invites children to discover how capable they are and to use their personal power in constructive ways

“Joy, feeling one’s own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul.” 
Dr. Maria Montessori

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