What is positive discipline and how do we manage unwanted behaviour?

24 Jul




The word “discipline” originates from the Latin word disciplina which means “instruction” and derives from the root discere which means “to learn.” The word discipulus which means “disciple or pupil” also stems from this word. So in a very fundamental sense, discipline can be considered systematic instruction given to a disciple. Discipline does not have to imply punishment.

Discipline works best when it’s tailored to suit the age and accommodate any special needs each child may have. For example, a toddler has no impulse control and little empathetic development so should not be expected to be capable of sharing and waiting long periods or sitting still. Furthermore, Children who have sensory processing issues should not be expected to be capable of remaining still and calm in unfamiliar and busy environments, also around crowds of people.

Behind every behaviour is an unmet need.

Every child’s ‘bad’ behaviour reflects an unmet need with a positive intention of fulfilling that need. Crying and winging don’t just happen because a child is deliberately trying to upset their parent, rather it is a form of communication to let the parent know that something is out of balance and they need help to fix it. Often the imbalance may even be a reflection of the parent’s mood or behaviour so self-reflection is a great practice to engage in should you wish to get to the root of your child’s behavioural issue. In times of meltdown I always check in with my own feelings and wellbeing before I continue to talk with my child about what’s going on in his mind.

Equality does not mean the same but does include respect. Respect is shown in many ways, the way we communicate being one of the most important when it comes to building strong relationships with others. Non-violent communication is a method of resolving conflicts and disputes in a respectful manner. You can find out more about the nvc formula of effective communication here…..Nvc

Positive discipline sees the child as an equal human being who deserves the same respect as you would give another adult. At the same time, positive discipline seeks to move away from exerting power over a child, instead coming from a position of authority to guide, discuss and compromise in order to find a solution that respects the needs of everyone involved.

No shaming or coercion.

Positive discipline does not use punishment (physical or mental), rewards, shame or bribery as a method to deter or control unwanted behaviour. Naughty steps are never used, instead the adult is encouraged to take time out and come back when they are calm enough to speak rationally and respectfully with their child.


Examples of unmet needs: stimulation/boredom, tiredness, overstimulation, hunger, lack of connection, sadness, stress

Let me illustrate some of these principles with a basic example: my children find the bag of flour in the kitchen cupboard and want to play with it so begin throwing some over the floor. Instead of saying ‘no you can’t do that’ I find a yes to go with that no, identify the unmet need and also give an explanation to go with it. ‘No you cannot throw flour inside because it will be difficult to clean up on the carpet but you may play with it in the garden’ (unmet need = lack of mental stimulation and the need for messy play and exploration).

Discipline for 0-3years: Avoid saying no too much, instead distract.

With toddlers and pre-school aged kids, distraction may also be a useful tool to manage negative behaviour just so long as the adult does not use it to suppress the child from releasing their emotions. Validate feelings when a child is angry, upset or sad by saying what you see again e.g. We must go home now for dinner, I see you are sad that you can’t stay and play longer’ and then offer a choice if possible e.g. ‘Would you like to pick the slide, the swings or the climbing frame as your last thing to play on before we leave?’

Motivating your child to be their best.

The problem with the use of Rewards to encourage good behaviour is that they only work on the principle of extrinsic motivation ie. ‘If you do X then you will receive Y’. This method inhibits intrinsic motivation which is an inner desire to help for the sake of feeling good. With extrinsic motivation the child comes to always expect something in return for his or her co-operation, with intrinsically motivated kids, they need only to understand the reasoning behind the request rather than be bribed. Bribery is very different to giving occasional treats though. Treats can be offered without condition for exceptional behaviour or achievements such as helping someone out in need or courageously making it through a traumatic time.

Saying well done in an effective way.

Praise can be good but also can be negative, especially if it’s overuse results in the child becoming dependent on it to fuel their self-esteem. Often it’s better to ask the child how they feel about their achievement rather than just giving your opinions. Praise is fine on occasion but so long as it’s not empty praise statements, lacking specifics such as ‘good boy’ or ‘good job’. We must explain to kids what they are doing well and describe our observations without focusing on the outcome but the effort instead e.g. ‘I see that you found climbing that net really tough but you didn’t give up!’

It’s not you I don’t like, it’s your behaviour.

When you are discussing issues with your child try to label the behaviour, not the child. Behaviour can be changed but a personality quality cannot. E.g ‘you acted irresponsibly when you ran across the road without stopping’ rather than just ‘you were naughty crossing the road like that’.

Do we have rules?

Of course we do, our rules are mutually agreed on and follow basic courtesy for other beings. Every family must decide what rules are important for them. Here are some of ours:

*Take shoes off inside the house.
*Do no harm to others.
*Respect other people’s needs, property and boundaries.
*Allow others to sleep in quiet, if you need to make noise then go somewhere else.

Do we set limits?

We follow a child-led, unschooled approach to lifestyle. We feel strongly that limits should not be set on issues such as bedtimes, food intake and choice and screen time. We wish for our children to learn to listen to their own body’s needs over someone else’s ideas of what is appropriate for them. This way we believe they will not lose touch with their own wellbeing e.g. hunger and tiredness cues. I do admit that screen time has been the most uncomfortable issue for us as we are great nature lovers. Technology does have a lot to offer in terms of learning opportunities but also has a downside of restricting a child’s movement, interaction with others and exposing them to electromagnetic pollution. Despite this we have found that as long as we continue to offer a range of activities and social opportunities, our son regulates his own screen time quite nicely.

Of course we all falter when it comes to implementing our ideals but the important thing is that we always try to catch our mistakes and become aware of how to move forward in a positive and peaceful direction. If we want to build a relationship of mutual respect with our children well into adulthood then we must start now, for our children’s sake and ours too.

For more info on these topics please visit my posts on mom.me

7 Responses to “What is positive discipline and how do we manage unwanted behaviour?”

  1. Silver D'Beau July 24, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    1. Get a proofreader, this is incomprehensible.
    2. Where is this proof that younger children have no empathy or understanding of cause and effect? I have two children under five and when my one year old hit her brother with a toy and made him cry she immediately went to comfort him. That’s understanding. No one can say young children lack empathy if they can’t speak yet.
    3. What you’re doing isn’t positive parenting. It’s compromising. Stop using buzz words as though you actually know what they mean. Charlatan.

    • Adele Allen July 25, 2016 at 7:03 am #

      Thanks for you comments. In response to your statement on empathy: ‘the neocortex is the seat of critical and rational thought, or what many perceive to be “intelligence”, as well as the home of voluntary movement. Development of the neocortex is not well under way until a child reaches approximately the age of four years. With this understanding of brain development we can see how social development such as empathy, self-awareness and the ability to interact with others, all functions of the neocortex, does not really develop until a child reaches almost school age. This means that children lack the social development necessary to share until around the age of four onwards.’ (Toddler calm- Sarah Ockeell-Smith)
      Here also is a link which discusses the incremental development of empathy for young children….https://uvearchives.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/the-development-of-empathy-hoffmans-theory-part-3-of-4/

    • Liz July 25, 2016 at 9:10 pm #

      hear hear silver D’beau I did not read one thing that i didn’t already know. This is just rehashed drivel you can read in any parenting book but told in a slightly patronizing way. No child likes to share but i dont belive this is because they can’t empathize, they might not know that’s what their doing but ive yet to see any child who doesn’t go comfort a brother, sister, parent or pet that’s in distress. The authour goes around the houses trying to explain some simple points as if she thinks other parents have no clue and she that she’s discovered the secret of perfect parenting. The way in which she parents causes the child great distress in its own way, a child needs routine and boundries to feel save and secure these include regular bedtimes and meal times to name a few

      • Adele Allen March 14, 2017 at 9:21 am #

        Munich children are healthy and happy, social services agree with this. We do use boundaries, just not strict and inflexible timetables and limits. Perhaps you might find my latest radio interview useful to listen to (starts at 40 mins in) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04tljt6#play

    • Joanna July 27, 2016 at 10:37 am #

      I am guessing that thats the way u teach ur child to do 🙂 so does not do this becose feels it but cos thats the way u showed 🙂 children do not understand “sorry” till they r around 5 🙂

    • Andréanne Perron March 13, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

      1. Very easily understood by both my husband and I. We both read a lot and my first language is French. You may be too used to mainstream media simplification?
      2. Congratulations! Your one year old understands cause and effect, and can imitate the same comforting motion that you apply most likely on a daily basis. My dog seems to be feeling sad, but he can’t speak that he is, so surely he’s incapable/capable of that emotion/thought. Does that make sense to you?
      3. What you’re doing is bashing someone else’s writing and lifestyle because you can’t handle your own frustrations in a healthy manner. Buzz words? I wouldn’t even know how to point them out in this text? With how forceful you are, you’re the closest thing to a Charlatan here. Mal-baisé. 🙂

  2. Andréanne Perron March 13, 2017 at 6:27 pm #

    Oh Adele this is such a beautiful read! And so very helpful!

    It was absolutely, wonderfully written and very easy to understand. I admire your approach and your writing so very much, we are on the same healthy and happy path in our home. I couldn’t imagine it any different. Selflessness and understanding are lacking so much in conventional parenting, I wish everyone could realize how much happiness and love is happening in our homes and how much our children are truly benefiting from our way of life/parenting. They are too busy living in fear/denial/conformity and it is so sad, even more so for their children. It sure is refreshing to know that we aren’t alone in our adventure to nurture our children in a positive, freedom-filled and safe manner, topped with unconditional love and security.

    Thank you so much for voicing out your highly criticized way of parenting, I am sure it isn’t always easy to read the rude judgments/preconceptions that other parents write, but know that it is a small price to pay for spreading awareness of all children’s rights/needs/wants. xoxoxox!!!

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