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Guest post: How to use descriptive praise to tackle your child's challenging behaviour

ParentingAdvisor Member Posts: 13

By Noel Janis-Norton, learning and behaviour specialist, parenting advisor & author

Lack of cooperation is one of the most stressful things that parents have to deal with. And when a child has complex needs, parents may become so exhausted and discouraged that they don’t expect or require cooperation.  Or you may worry that your child is too stressed or emotionally fragile to cope with the expectation of cooperation.

Fortunately there is a tool that parents of disabled children can use to get more cooperation: descriptive praise.

What is descriptive praise?

Figure with speech bubble

Descriptive praise is a way of guiding your child towards better habits, not only first-time cooperation, but also motivation, confidence, self-reliance, consideration and social skills.

With descriptive praise you leave out the usual superlatives: ‘Well done!’  ‘Good boy!’  ‘Wonderful!’ Instead, mention exactly what your child did that was OK:  

‘You’re chewing with your mouth closed.’

‘You did what I told you to do as soon as I asked.’

‘You’re swallowing your medicine, even though you’re angry.’

The more descriptive praises you say every day, the more your child will want to please you, and the more cooperative they will become. Descriptive praise works because it feels so good and because it helps children to see themselves in a new light, as cooperative, sensible, helpful, kind, etc.  Descriptive praise is effective, whether your child is three years old, or 13, or even 23.  It helps improve behaviour and self-esteem, whatever your child’s special challenges may be.  As a result, family life becomes much calmer, easier and happier.

Change your own habits first

There’s no need to go overboard with superlatives when praising your child though; descriptive praises and smiles are much more effective.

Also, you would probably bore yourself and irritate your children if you were to say, ‘I’m happy’ or ‘I’m so proud of you’ each time they do something good. It doesn’t really help them to hear that you’re happy or proud; what’s important is that they hear exactly what they’ve done right or what they haven’t done wrong. That way they know exactly what they can do again to get more of your appreciation. So we need to train ourselves to change our old habits.

Are you saying I should just ignore misbehaviour?

No! Many parenting books and articles advise parents to ignore misbehaviour and to reward good behaviour with positive attention. But ignoring misbehaviour is difficult to do consistently, unless you're a saint, because a child whose misbehaviour is being ignored is likely to keep escalating the misbehaviour until you finally have to pay attention. And unfortunately, any attention from parents, even if it’s negative attention, reinforces the misbehavior. Children would rather get told off than be ignored!

Here’s how you can use descriptive praise to reduce a lot of minor misbehavior. Most of the minor misbehavior that children do comes in spurts; it’s not usually one long, continuous stream. So what’s much more effective than ignoring minor misbehaviour is to look at your child without saying anything. Be willing to wait in silence until there’s a pause of about five seconds in the annoying behaviour, and then descriptively praise the OK behaviour:

           ‘You’re not grabbing now.’

           ‘You’ve stopped shouting. Now you’re using your indoor voice.’

           ‘Now you’re eating; you’re not playing with your food.’

This gives positive attention for the positive behaviour, which will reinforce the positive behaviour.

After a few weeks of descriptively praising your child ten or more times every day, you’ll be getting lots more first-time cooperation. But of course you’ll still be left with some misbehavior to deal with.

Have you tried using descriptive praise with your child? What were the results? Do you have any other tips for parents of disabled children? Let us know in the comments below.



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