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"No! Don't do that!"

All of us who work with or have children have uttered (perhaps shouted) these words at some point. And almost all of us have been frustrated when, some period of time later, the child starts doing the exact thing he was told not to do. From time-to-time such situations come up for me as I tutor children.

The trouble with the “don’t do that” command is that it usually lacks a “do this instead” follow-up. In the seconds or minutes following an adult’s correction, it is just too easy for a child to go back to the behavior that got her in trouble in the first place. After all, there was something about that problematic behavior that worked well for her; it was rewarding or reinforcing in one way or another.

There is a better strategy, however: redirecting children to do something positive. For example, I’ve worked with a number of students who destroy classroom supplies leaving eraser crumbs, shredded paper, or unwound paper clips at their desks. In this example, I’ll hand the student a stress ball to fidget with while I help clean up the mess on the desk. (In my classroom and my tutoring sessions, I have introduced fidget toys to all of my students, and I give them the choice of using them, so a child with a stress ball does not stand out particularly among her peers.) In future lessons with a student who has a destructive fidgeting habit, I might pre-emptively hand her the stress ball before we start working. My goal, over time, is to train children to choose the desired behavior without having to be corrected. We all feel less frustrated that way.

The trick is to be creative. If you have a chance to reflect on past behaviors that you have wanted to stop, you may be better able to anticipate future behaviors that you want to redirect. With more time you can come up with good alternatives for kids. Another thing to be mindful of is one’s own vocabulary. Before you reflexively shout “Stop!” have an alternative in mind like “Let’s do this instead” or “I need your help over here.” By changing your strategy a little, you can get better results and help everyone to feel calmer.


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