Guest post: How to use descriptive praise to tackle your child's challenging behaviour
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?
praise is a way of guiding your child towards better habits, not
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:
chewing with your mouth closed.’
‘You did what I told
you to do as soon as I asked.’
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
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.