When a child misbehaves, two separate things need to happen in order to teach better behavior. First, the behavior needs to stop. Second, the behavior needs to change. However too often, we only focus on the stopping part. It is not enough to simply punish or scare a child into stopping the behavior and then move on, satisfied because they have stopped doing whatever it was that was unacceptable. It is also not enough to only tell them what you’d rather they were doing without first acknowledging what they’re doing wrong. In my experience four little words can accomplish both tasks and teach children to effectively manage their behavior: "You are...I need..."
This has been one of the most helpful phrases I’ve ever used when correcting a child's behavior. I learned it from Diana Day, a teacher and consultant with over 30 years of experience in the classroom, and it has completely changed how I work with children to stop inappropriate behaviors, and change them into appropriate ones.
Here's how it works...When a child has been misbehaving or disobeying, walk over to that child and get on their level to have a private conversation. Make sure you have their attention, and calmly say to them,
“You are (insert inappropriate behavior). I need you to (insert appropriate behavior.)”
For example, in a classroom a child might be repeatedly shouting out answers instead of raising her hand. After a few visual or verbal reminders to raise her hand, if the behavior has still not improved, I would walk over to the child and tell her, “You are shouting out answers without raising your hand. I need you to raise your hand when you have something to say and wait for me to call on you.”Then I would simply walk away, or as I've mentioned before, I might make sure she has heard my message by asking, “Understand, or got it?”
At home, it might look something like this: “You are bothering your brother by kicking his seat. I need you to keep your feet to yourself.” Or with older kids, “You are late coming home after school. I need you to call me if you are going to be later than 4:00.”
You are... communicates that you clearly see the inappropriate behavior and are holding them responsible for it. When you start the discipline with a statement of exactly what you saw them doing, it eliminates some of the “I didn’t do anything!” types of reactions from your kids. I need... then puts you in a position of calm authority and clearly states what you expect. The beauty of this method is it leaves very little room for confusion, while calmly and firmly correcting unacceptable behavior.
In order to be effective, the adult must not engage in an argument. You are simply stating two facts, and neither of them are up for debate. The child was doing something inappropriate, you’re acknowledging that you noticed it and that you expect a different behavior. End of story. By not hanging around to engage in an argument, there is no need for the child to get defensive, because they’re not in trouble. You are making the expectation clear in a calm way. Over time, and with consistency, the child also knows that you mean business, and you see them and care about them doing the right thing and learning to manage their behaviors.
Another key factor in this being effective is to be specfic. Instead of general statements like "You are disobeying. I need you to listen," try to be more specific..."You are not following my direction about bedtime. I need you to go put your pajamas on right now."
Give it a try. It takes a little practice, but if you can consistently phrase your corrections to kids in this way, you'll notice less escalating misbehavior overall, and fewer power struggles when a misbehavior does need addressing.