...But my kid doesn't listen!!
Disclaimer: Discipline is a touchy subject and there will always be people who disagree with particular methodologies. What I say is not law; no one is requiring you to implement it, or even agree. In more than 10 years working with munchkins with behavioural needs (and kids without behavioural needs) I have picked up a trick or two, and all I plan to do is share what has worked for me. Proceed only if you so choose (and if you don’t agree, no problem—just move right along to the next blog post!).
As a children’s therapist and principal, I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with parents at their wits end over their child’s tantrums, or affinity for exclaiming “no” (or more creative adaptations).
I remember one particular conversation; the mother was beyond frustrated and admitted that often, she wasn’t sure how to manage her monkey’s spirited moments. I said “have you ever heard of the 3, 2, 1 method?!”
The “1, 2, 3 Method” and the “You Mean Business” tone
1. Make a request; “it’s time to sit down for lunch! Let’s go wash our hands! Share with your sister!”...you get the idea. 2. Let your little one process the request (this takes on average 3-5 seconds, but may take longer if your child is particularly engrossed in something, or if your child has any learning disabilities which impact his/her ability to process spoken instructions) 3. Here your child has two options; they either follow the instruction (YIPPEE!!! CELEBRATE) or they don’t.
If they do... ...pat yourself on the back. (And them too...I suppose :P) If they don’t....bring on the “3, 2, 1”... ...give a countdown, this gives them a second chance to meet the expectation and also shows them that you’re going to persist (often times that’s enough to get the job done).
When you do a countdown, remember the magic recipe for showing “you mean business”’; the recipe calls for a delivery that is gentle, but firm (you’re not angry, but you’re not joking around). You give the famous “3, 2, 1” (pause in between your numbers to give them a chance to spring into action). By the time you get to 1, they should be meeting the expectation!
If they are... ...HOORAY! Success!! The 3, 2, 1 wins again!!
...”but, what happens if I get to 1 and they are not meeting the expectation?!”
”UH OH, you NEVER get to 1...” (and the truth is, once you make this a habit—you really will rarely get to 1 before your munchkin hops to it. But in the meantime...expect to get to 1, and expect to proceed accordingly).
Let’s say you do get to 1...
“By Yourself or with Help?!” the Illusion of Control
The little one gets another chance, this time you remind them of the instruction “it’s time to x, y, z” without missing a beat, you then offer “are you going to do it by yourself or with help!?” (If your child has a hard time processing auditory/spoken instruction limit your words and just say “by yourself or with help?!”) This is the final plea for them to meet the instruction on their own, usually kids will chime in with a “by myself” and meet the expectation.
In this moment you’re giving a false sense that they have some control, we call it “the illusion of control”; they get to choose after all: will they meet the expectation on their own, or with assistance? This is often enough to get a resistant monkey to play along; it makes them feel like they call the shots, which is sometimes half the battle.
If they don’t say “by myself” you assume they choose to complete it with help. You can say “OK with help” or you can simply step in at this point (your actions will speak louder than words).
At this point you step in and help them meet the expectation. This might mean physically helping them meet the expectation by guiding your child by the hand, or using whatever means necessary to complete the task (you might have to turn off the TV, get in the way of whatever they are doing that is not what you asked, or otherwise). Unless your child is in a full blown tantrum, you likely won’t have to get too hands on; when you do get hands on we call this hand-over-hand (i.e. you guide your child through completing each step of the action, whether it is sharing, cleaning up, washing their hands and so on). Prompting at this level (hand-over-had) is an absolute last resort because it's intrusive. Don't go there unless you absolutely have to.
A Learning Moment not a Punishment
In this moment, don’t treat the non compliance as a bad behaviour; consider that the child may not understand what you need them to do, so you’re going to teach them by guiding/showing them. (That sounds better right?! They aren’t bad kids; they just need to be taught that you’re serious).
You may know without a doubt that your child knows what you mean by “clean up the toys” but by acting like it’s a teaching opportunity you can follow through on the request issued without “punishing” in the traditional sense; shouting, time out, shaking your finger...it’s not super effective as a teaching tool (at least in this situation).
Side bar-You’re always better off telling a kid what they CAN do verses what they CAN’T, which is my beef with traditional applications of punishment.
Assume for the sake of argument, that it’s not that your child wants to ignore you; it’s that they don’t realize that following your instruction is not optional. Once you have a history of using this method, your child will understand that when you issue an instruction, there is no option. On the other hand, if something is optional—say, you want to offer some options in terms of what to do, or where to go, the delivery will NOT be the same as if you give an instruction. Ah...the nuances, right?
When an Instruction is Optional, and when it’s not.
“Do you want to go to the bathroom?!” In this delivery, there is OPTION and it would not be reasonable to issue a “3, 2, 1”.
“Let’s go wash our hands” in this delivery it is NOT OPTIONAL and it would be reasonable to issue a “3, 2, 1”.
Understanding how delivery impacts your child’s response is crucial.
Listening is an Essential Skill, Especially when Safety is a Concern.
Ok, ok, you’re not a drill sergeant (believe me that style won’t work...no one likes a bossy pants)—but you want to make sure that in a crisis, an emergency, or otherwise in a situation in which you need your child to listen (or else!!)—he or she understands that expectation. The tone of delivery or the “you mean business” tone is equally important as the use of “3, 2, 1” in the crucial moments where well being is potentially at risk.
There are any number of naturally occurring situations in which your child’s ability to listen carefully and quickly will impact his or her safety. Be proactive and establish the expectation, of good listening, consistently across a variety of situations. It will be good for your sanity, and good for ensuring safety!