Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Do Kids Need Positive Thinking?

Like adults, children are not immune to the stressors of life. In managing personal and academic challenges, kids quite often experience frustration, expressing high concern and self-doubt with remarks such as:
  • I can’t do anything right.
  • I messed up again.
  • I’m so stupid.
  • I’m a failure if I can’t do this.
  • Nothing works out for me.
  • I’m going to do awful.
  • I know I’m going to fail this test.
  • The other kids think I’m weird.
  • Everybody makes fun of me.
  • I know something bad is going to happen.

Most children seem unaware of this pattern of negative thinking, missing the important connection between repetitive and pessimistic self-talking (negative thoughts) and a low self-confidence with high anxiety. Like with the rest of us, these kinds of negative judgments or beliefs put us down; we criticize ourselves harshly for common errors and mistakes, doubt of our skills and abilities, and anticipate only the worst. With children specifically, negative and pessimistic thinking strongly correlates with low motivation in school and learned helplessness; the latter is the tendency to give up when facing challenging and difficult tasks in school, even when the child has the skills and ability to deal successfully with the academic task. As we can see, habitual (common and recurrent) negative thinking and beliefs are extremely damaging to anyone’s self-confidence, especially children’s. When we think positively, on the other hand, we anticipate good and favorable outcomes, trying harder and perseverating longer when things get tough. Positive thoughts and more optimistic expectations open the mind to ideas, words, and images that are in harmony with good mental health. This is why is so important for teachers, parents, and caregivers to openly discuss the value of positive thinking and talking with children, so that we help build resilience, or the ability to recover quickly from troublesome experiences. Here are some activities that caregivers can use to train children in positive thinking:

Help the child write a list of five-to-ten positive things about himself or herself. When the list is ready, have the child practice by saying the list softly a number of times. Discuss events or times when the child can use the list (e.g. when coping with angry feelings or when teased).

Have the child complete an Inventory of Strengths where she lists her positive qualities, skills, and efforts. Questions to answer can be:
  • What are my strengths?
  • When do my strengths help me?
  • Where do my strengths help me?
  • Do I use my strengths?
  • When do I use my strengths?
  • Where do I use my strengths?
  • How do I use my strengths?
Use the child’s answers to customize a set of positive self-statements that she can use to reinforce her self-confidence and to stay motivated. Examples of customized self-statements for a specific child can be:
  • I’m hard worker and I want to do well in school.
  • I enjoy poetry and love writing stories.
  • My spelling is strong.
  • I have tons of friends; my parents call me a people’s person.
  • My friends like about me that I’m a good listener.
  • My friends also like the fact that I know how to keep a secret and I can be trusted.
  • I’m strong-willed; I do not give up easily.
  • Okay, I may be stubborn, but I’m fair and respect other people’s opinions.

Once children develop skills in recognizing negative and anxiety producing thoughts, and they identify their strengths, the final step will be teaching them to reverse the thinking, substituting negative and pessimistic thoughts with more positive and optimistic ones. Children experiencing high anxieties and insecurities benefit from having at hand a set of coping self-statements that they can use to neutralize the worrisome thought. The insecure child can use these coping statements individually; several statements combined, or coupled with other behavioral management interventions such as anger management and/or relaxation. Some examples:
  • Things will be fine.
  • I’m upset now, but things will get better.
  • Soon, I’ll feel happy again.
  • When I start to worry, I relax and feel better.
  • There’s no problem so big that it cannot be solved.
  • I can problem solve. And I will.
  • One-step at a time will get me there.
  • Trying my best is what counts.

Related Reading...

The Heart of Disciplining- For Parents: Understanding and Delivering Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Teach Positive Behavior- To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Contributing Factors to the Escalation of Behavior Problems

In the psycho-educational field we firmly believe that adult behavior strongly influences child behavior, often creating an emotional atmosphere that is more conducive to noncompliance than to compliance. More specifically, what we say to children and how we say it can either accentuate or de-escalate a behavior problem. Caregivers need to be vigilant of those communicative (i.e. messages) and interactional (e.g. strained adult-child interactions) factors that may inadvertently fuel inappropriate behaviors in children. Next, I share some insights of things we say to children that may be contributing to disruptive behavior at school and at home. Among them, we can find:
·        Creating on-the-spot penalties for misbehavior rather than developing and discussing consequences for negative behavior with children before problem behaviors happen. Children need to know the consequences for misbehavior in advance.
·        Describing inappropriate behavior rather than appropriate behavior; for example, saying, “Stop playing with that pencil!” instead of “Please, hand me the pencil.”
·        Using too many “stop” messages (e.g. “Stop talking!”) and not enough “start” messages (e.g. “Put the toy away so that you can start doing your work”). Compliance is easier when we tell the child what to start doing rather than just telling the child to stop a behavior.
·        Using vague commands; for example, “Knock it off!” An effective command is descriptive, and in 15 words or less tells the child exactly what we want her to do to comply. An example would be, “Pick up all the toys from the floor and put them on the bottom shelf.”
·        Giving negative directions that tell the child what not to do (e.g. “Do not hit,” “Do not make noises,” or “Do not color on the desk”) rather than using positive wording that identifies an acceptable alternative and tells what to do to fix the inappropriate behavior. For example, “Try hitting this toy if you feel angry” or “You can color on this paper, not on your desk.” The child may be willing to change his behavior if he receives a good suggestion (alternative behavior) of what to do instead.
·        Using name-calling (e.g. “What a baby you are!”), put-downs (e.g. “You are just lazy” or “You just never use your head”), and/or threats (e.g. “You are going to get it if you keep that up!”).
·        Labeling the child with “you-messages;” attributing negative qualities to the child’s character or identity. For example:
a.     “You are just lazy.”
b.     “You’re rude and obnoxious!”
c.      “You are so disorganized.”
d.     “Cindy is stubborn!”
e.     “Daniel is such a troublemaker!”
f.       “You enjoy stirring up things.”
·        Criticizing the child in ways that indicate stability and permanence (e.g. “You are always messing up” or “You never listen”), suggesting that the problem behavior is here to stay.
·        Failing to reinforce the child’s compliance with our appreciation (e.g. a smile and a “thank you”).

What We Can Say Instead...

Constructive criticism is specific and behavioral, describing the child’s actions or behavior; negative criticism, on the other hand, is judgmental and concentrates on blaming the child for her behavior and in finding faults in the child’s character (e.g. “You are so rude and obnoxious!”). When correcting behavior, teachers, tutors, and parents need to communicate a basic acceptance of the child even when we disapprove of a particular behavior. Simply put, we describe and disapprove the behavior, even expressing disappointment if we want, but never condemning the child’s identity or character; for example, we can say to the child, “I feel disappointed with this behavior; you behaved in a rude and obnoxious way.”

Related Reading...

All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior- To preview this book on Amazon, click here.