Sorry about the delay on Positive Guidance Posts! Hopefully the combination of a few topics here will make up for my paucity of posts!
I mentioned in an earlier post about the importance and power of choice for children. Giving children the opportunity to make choices builds their esteem, their independence, and gives them practice for future, more critical choices. Here, I’d like to add to that by discussing how offering choices can be used to guide behavior, and how the consequences of a child’s choice can also shape current and future behaviors.
Guiding behaviors. There are several ways we can use choices to guide behaviors. The first is by redirection. When a child is engaged in an inappropriate behavior, say running inside a classroom for example, we can use choice to redirect that behavior by giving appropriate choices. We might say something like, “Sarah, running inside isn’t a choice today. There are too many people and things in this room, and I’m afraid someone might get hurt. You can choose to go outside and run, or you can walk with me around the room to find an activity you might like.”
We can also use choice to guide behavior as we clarify the choices that are available and their accompanying consequences. For example, if your child is supposed to be dressing but is not, you might say, “Damon, if you choose to get dressed right now, I will be here to help you. But if you choose to keep playing and do it later, I will not be able to help you. You will have to do it all by yourself.” Be sure to pay attention to your tone of voice. Don’t state the choices as threats, merely as a matter of fact statement. Another example might be, “Abbie, this is snack time. You may choose to eat with us, or to keep reading books. Either way, there will not be another snack time today. If you choose to eat with us, you probably won’t get hungry later. If you choose not to eat with us, you might get hungry later when there is no snack time.”
Choices are not without their consequences. As a matter of natural law, choices have consequences. Too often we, as parents or teachers, are tempted to rescue children from those consequences. We offer “one more chance” again and again. (And I include myself in this category!) We just hate to see those sweet little ones upset and disappointed. We avoid the meltdown in the short-term, but we also avoid the teachable moment. We must remember that our responsibility is not to keep children from feeling any sort of discomfort in life. It is our responsibility to teach these children and help them to gain the skills necessary to succeed now and in the future. Sometimes that learning and growth requires a bit of discomfort. There are far too many people in this world who struggle in life, in large measure, because they do not consider the consequences of their own actions, or do not feel personal responsibility for those consequences. Learning that can take place in these early years can prevent such behaviors. Particularly when we have outlined the consequences of specific choices, we must be willing to love children enough to let them experience the consequences they have chosen.
Consequences versus punishment. Consequences are not really about punishment. It’s not about exerting authority or inflicting unpleasant conditions. Allowing consequences is simply a matter of giving children the opportunity to learn about choices. It’s about giving them ownership of their behavior.
When we come from a punishment mentality, we tend to think that if the child doesn’t throw a fit, or exhibit disappointment, as a result of his punishment, then he hasn’t been punished enough. We, as adults, come from a position of authority and often try to control the situation, perhaps too much so.
When we implement a mentality of choice and consequence we come from a place of love and support. We allow the children to choose, and to fully experience that choice along with its consequences. We are there to support and coach, but the choice and the consequence are owned by the child. Just because a child deals with the consequence without so much as pouting, doesn’t mean that it has been a failure. It likely means that the child is learning to accept personal responsibility and to deal appropriately and independently with those consequences.
As we talk about consequences, there are two types: natural consequences and logical consequences. The two will be discussed and clarified here.
A Natural Consequence. Sometimes, all that is necessary to implement a consequence is simple hesitation. All we have to do, is do nothing. The consequence will occur on its own as a matter of natural laws. As an example, if a child chooses not to eat dinner, that child will become hungry.
We, as adults, must use reason in deciding which natural consequences we will allow to happen. Not all are appropriate. A natural consequence of not brushing is severe decay and cavities. Simply allowing that to happen is not an effective learning opportunity and is negligent on our part. Likewise, any natural consequence that results in injury or humiliation is not an appropriate learning opportunity. Waiting for a child to break an arm is not an effective way to teach that jumping off of a slide is not safe. Obvious, I know, but you get the point!
A Logical Consequence. Logical consequences may not happen on their own, but are logically connected to the initial behavior. As in the previous example, where a natural consequence of not eating dinner would be hunger, a logical consequence would be not getting dessert. It’s logical that if a child does not first have a healthy dinner, she can not have a rich dessert. An illogical consequence would be not getting computer time or not getting a sticker because she did not eat her dinner. In these examples, the consequence and the choice have very little to do with each other.
A logical consequence should be timely so that the connection can easily be made. It should also teach the cause and effect concept of choice. Logical consequences connect the behavior to the result and may be a preferred substitute for natural consequences that may not be appropriate or safe or that may take too long to occur for learning to be connected.
Positive Consequences. As we teach children about choice and consequence we must not forget that their choices often have positive consequences as well. We should be just as diligent in emphasizing these consequences as we are in supporting their undesired consequences. If a child is particularly timely in getting ready for bed, it is logical that as a consequence, there is more time for stories. If a child works hard at the art table, it may be a natural consequence that she has several magnificent projects to take home. We can draw her attention to that consequence by commenting, “Sylvia, you worked so hard today! I noticed you spent a long time at the art table. Look at all these things you were able to make!”
As we allow children to make choices, and as we allow them to experience the consequences, we begin to build a foundation for future decision making. When we can allow them full ownership of their behavior, they will begin to recognize that their choices have consequences and that they are able to control those consequences by carefully choosing their actions.
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Photo by musaid.