Tell them what you want
One of the staff in a high school found it difficult to stop students running up and down the stairs. She continually told them not to run but it made little difference. She was at her wits’ end. I suggested that instead of telling them not to run she say something like: “Slow down please” or “Walk down the stairs.” She was excited and somewhat amazed to report that it had worked – such a little change in language brought such a marked improvement in the match between what she wanted the kids to do and what they actually did.
How does this happen?
If I don’t want you to think of pink elephants and I say “Don’t think of pink elephants” what happens? You immediately get a picture of pink elephants in your mind and then, if you are feeling complicit as you read this, you try not to think about them. Now, if I’d asked you not to think about red rhinos, for example, there is much less chance of you conjuring up those pink elephants.
The mind works a bit like a search engine on the internet. Put in a word, press SEARCH and all the references to that word come up on the screen. Put in a mental suggestion like pink elephants and you don’t even have to press a button; up come images of pink elephants on the screen of the mind.
And that’s what happens in kids’ minds when we tell them not to do something. Its not wilful disobedience so much as the mind making pictures and the body going towards them.
Bill Rogers – in his excellent behaviour management series “Corrective Discipline” – suggests using the pattern “When …. then ….” rather than “You can’t …. because….”
For example: “Johnny, when you have finished tidying your room, then you can go out to play.” rather than: “Johnny you can’t go out to play because your room is a mess”
With the first sentence Johnny gets a picture in his mind of tidying his room, then going out to play. Just what we want. In the second sentence we’re inviting his subconscious to picture himself not being able to go out to play and with an untidy room.
This works for our own internal dialogue as well. If we continually tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be eating those cream cakes (assuming we want to lose weight) we’re making things unnecessarily difficult for ourselves.
If you catch yourself about to ask a child, or tell yourself, not to do something, ask them/tell yourself to do an alternative instead. The unconscious mind will make pictures of whatever words you say – so choose the ones you want the listener to see.
Some alternatives to use.
I mustn’t eat that cream cake – I will leave the cream cake in the shop.
Don’t be late – Come home in good time.
Stop shouting – Talk quietly.
You can’t have any pudding because you haven’t eaten your meat. – When you’ve eaten your meat you can have some pudding