Tag Archives: discipline

The Race Car Brain

There are some children whose brains and bodies always seem to be racing. The parent may feel like they start playing with blocks with the child and then the child runs off to paint and while the parent is still putting blocks away and cleaning up paint, the child has already flipped through a few pages of five different books and is climbing the bookshelf.

Talking to them may also feel like this – they ask a question, and as you start to answer it, they ask another question, and before you can answer that one, they tell you what they had for breakfast. Parents (or teachers) may feel like they can never quite catch up.

It’s easy to fall into patterns of continuously scolding them to “stop!” or “pay attention!” It’s easy to see them as problem kids. However, they have a lot of important strengths, like curiosity, enthusiasm and energy.

Dr. Ned Hallowell* would say to these kids: “Your brain is very powerful.  Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car.  You have the power to win races and become a champion. However, you do have one problem.  You have bicycle brakes.  Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got.  So, you can’t slow down or stop when you need to.  Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track.  But not to worry… we can strengthen your brakes.”

Strengthening their Brakes

We can do several things to help them slow down and learn new skills, like a longer attention span, persistence, and impulse control:

  • Routines: having predictable schedules, where they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. Visual schedules may help.
  • Break it down: they may have a very hard time doing a big task, but find it easier if you break it down into small specific tasks. So instead of saying “clean up this mess”, say “we have four steps – the first step is to put the Legos in the basket – when you’re done with that, let me know and I’ll tell you step two.”
  • Practice sticking with a task: try setting a timer and say “we’re going to do this activity together for at least five minutes. When we give persistence muscles a workout, they get stronger.” (Before you do this, try to get a baseline of how long they typically stick to a task. If they typically can do 3 minutes, you don’t want to set a timer for fifteen… that would be too much of a stretch.)
    • Use a timer they can read and see the progress on (like an hourglass where they can see that their time is halfway up, or a kitchen timer, where they can see that the dial is halfway toward zero are both easier to understand than a digital countdown)
  • Tell them what to focus on. Instead of just saying “focus” or “pay attention” tell them exactly what to pay attention to: “I’m going to tell you the three things we need to do today, so I want you to listen till you hear all three things.” Or “right now the priority is eating breakfast – can you focus on counting each bite you take till you get to ten?”
  • Physical supports: Some children focus better in a class when they sit on a ball where their body can wiggle or they spin a fidget spinner while their brain pays attention. My child could focus better when he wore a weighted vest because the pressure gave his brain some tactile stimulation. Some children focus better if there’s some white noise or quiet background music. (It’s over-stimulating for others.) Experiment to see what helps your child.
  • De-clutter. Too much stimuli can over-activate these kids. If they’re in a room with just a few toys, they do fine. If they’re in a room full of toys and decorations, they flit from one to the next non-stop. (Read about “How Many Toys is Enough.”)
    • These kids LOVE novelty! But instead of buying more toys, I like providing new experiences outside the home – taking classes or going on field trips gives their brain the novelty it craves while still keeping a home environment that helps to settle them with familiar items to explore in depth.
    • You can also mix up existing toys without having to add new – like putting the toy dinosaurs with the blocks, or using toy cars with the paint.
  • Connect to their interests. If there’s something they have to do, but it doesn’t capture their attention, find a way to make it more engaging. For example, if they need to practice writing their letters and they are dinosaur fans, you don’t have to practice writing the words a teacher assigns – they could practice writing pachycephalosaurus.
  • Brain and body breaks: Make sure they do have plenty of opportunities to play and burn off lots of energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature can be very calming to people whose brains are always racing.

Discipline and Race Car Brains

It’s important to know that some discipline techniques that work well with other kids don’t work well with these kids. Parenting advice is not one size fits all.

Check out: 8 practical tips for parents of children with challenging behaviors. For my racecar kid, I found the book Incredible Years by Stratton had the most helpful discipline tools. I wrote several posts on discipline based on these techniques. Find links to them here.

I also find neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s writing on brain development to be very helpful. He says the “downstairs brain” is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. These take years to develop. When a child is very upset, extreme emotions block their ability to use
their upstairs brain. They “flip their lid” and regress back to the downstairs brain. When they’re in this state, you can’t reason with them, you can’t ask them to make choices, you can’t expect them to “use their words.” Learn more: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.

So, if you have a racecar kid in the middle of a meltdown, you’re not going to be able to reason with them or have long discussions about the implications of their choices. They can’t pay attention to a deep discussion when they’re at their best, and especially not if they’ve flipped their lid. They’ll do better with clear rules, concrete statements of what behavior you want to see, and quick consequences for misbehavior. See more tips in the Discipline Toolbox.

Is it ADHD?

*Note: Hallowell, who coined this metaphor, specializes in ADHD, so he is using race car brain to describe the ADHD brain. I am using it more broadly.

Many toddlers or preschoolers who may seem like racecar kids may slow down as they get older and develop better brakes, so may not ever be considered ADHD. They still benefit from this early learning of skills to slow themselves down and you’ll benefit from using these tools to keep those early years a little calmer

However, many race car brain kids do get diagnosed eventually as ADHD. About 9% of children do have ADHD. Learn about criteria for an ADHD diagnosis and deciding whether to have your child assessed for ADHD, and how to access testing.

ChallengingBehavior.org

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National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) has lots of great free research-based resources on their site at http://challengingbehavior.org – from that page, click on the link in the lower right hand corner that says “For Families: Resources” and that will take you to http://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/Implementation/family.html

There are several sections of this page – here’s what you’ll find:

  • Making Life Easier: tip sheets on how to turn events that are often challenging for parents into something more manageable or even enjoyable. Covers: Bedtime / Naptime, Diaper Changes, Going to the Doctor / Dentist, Holidays, and Errands.
  • Visual Schedules: how to use this powerful tool for teaching routines and expected behaviors: first you do this, then we’ll do that.
  • Backpack Connection Series: a way for teachers and parents/caregivers to work together to help young children develop social emotional skills and reduce challenging behavior. Handouts on four topics:
    • Addressing Behavior – Biting, Hitting, Whining, Meltdowns
    • Teaching Emotions – Anger, Fear, Frustration, etc.
    • Routines and Schedules – and how they reduce family challenges
    • Social Skills, Sharing, Taking Turns, Appropriate ways to get attention
  • Family Articles – Making the Most of Playtime, Teaching your child about feelings (from birth to age 2), Teaching Independence with Daily Routines
  • Scripted Stories – I like Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Think. The “turtle technique” is a really helpful skill for my kid who struggles with emotional regulation.
  • Teaching Social Emotional Skills – includes graphics for a feelings chart (see picture above) and problem solving steps.
  • General Resources. Includes a helpful brochure called Positive Solutions for Families: 8 Practical Tips for Parents of Young Children with Challenging Behaviors.

Elsewhere on the site is a helpful video for child care providers or parents about how to teach social skills and emotional skills in the preschool classroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVqjF7BDsnw&feature=youtu.be

Offering Choices to Children

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Parents often talk about “offering choices” to children. It can be a very helpful technique for building cooperation with your kids, avoiding power struggles, and helping them learn decision-making skills. But, like all the tools in the discipline toolbox, it helps if you know some basic ideas about how to use a tool in order to get the best results.

What Choices are Available

It is the parent’s job to decide what options are available. Then the child chooses between those options.

On a busy morning when we’re in a hurry to get out of the house, it would be unfair of me to tell my son “pick anything you want to eat for breakfast.” Because if he chose waffles and we ran out yesterday, that’s a bummer. And if then he chose a fruit salad, I’d say “I don’t have time to make that.” If then he said mac and cheese, then I’d say no, and then we have a power struggle on our hands when I describe all the rational reasons these choices are not an option, and he’d say “but you said I could choose anything.”

It’s just setting us up for frustration on both sides. (Or I could just give in and say yes to anything he demanded, but then I’d be cranky and resentful and he’d learn he gets anything he wants if he complains enough.)

Instead, before I offer a choice, I need to decide what acceptable options are. I can’t expect a young child to remember what food we have in the freezer right now, to know how long it would take to prepare food and whether that would make us late to school, or any of those other details I’m taking into consideration. So… first, I think about these things, I think about what options are possible, and then when I say “what do you want for breakfast – cheerios, yogurt, or an apple and peanut butter?” I know that all of these things are possible and that I would be fine with him making any of those choices.

I control what options are on the table, he decides which one of those to choose.

If he then asked for waffles, I could say “sorry buddy, we’re out of waffles – you can choose….” and reiterate the reasonable options. If he said “can I have grapes and string cheese?” I’d say “hmm…. that wasn’t one of my options, so I have to think about that… it is a lot like the apple and peanut butter option, and I know we have those things, so yes, you could choose that.” (Notice, I let him make a choice that wasn’t in the options but I was still the one in control of deciding whether that option was available. I set the limits that would work for us both and gave him some insight into my decision-making.)

How Many Choices to Offer

Some parents make the mistake of offering too many options, which can be overwhelming for a little one. Too many overwhelming choices in one day will lead to meltdowns. A good rule of thumb for little ones is to offer just one decision at a time, and for that decision, offer as many options as the child is years old. A 2 year old chooses between the red shirt and the blue shirt. (And you just put a pair of pants on them without them having to also make that decision.) A 3 year old chooses between cereal, toast, or yogurt. (You decide what dish to use, and where they sit.) A 4 year old has four bedtime stories to choose between. (You decide that they’ll brush teeth before you read the story.)

With More Choices, Offer More Guidance

As the child gets older, you may offer more choices, but give them criteria you would use to help make a good decision. For example, an 8 year old can go to a full closet of options and choose all their clothes (pants, shirt, socks, underwear), but the parent might offer guidance. “I know yesterday was super warm and you wore shorts, but today will be much cooler, so you’ll probably want to choose long pants. And you may want to wear your flannel hoodie this morning till it warms up.” Or “I know you want to play with Legos today. The other two things you need to do before dinner are bring in the trash bins and do your homework. You can choose what order to do them in, but they all need to be done. I’d probably do the trash bins first because it’s quick and easy and you’ve still got your shoes and coat on.”

Talking through this decision-making process helps them build the skills to do this independently later on.

When To Offer Choices (and when not to)

Don’t offer choices to a child in the middle of a huge meltdown. At that point, they’re in their “downstairs brain” and not capable of having a rational discussion and making decisions. I was once in the mall parking lot, and a child was having a massive meltdown, and the mom kept saying “You can’t run in the parking lot. You have three choices – you can ride in your stroller or I can carry you or you can hold my hand while we walk.” This was a kid in full meltdown – he wasn’t processing anything she was saying, even though she said it over and over. It would have been better to say “it’s not safe for you to be here, so I need to carry you” and when the child starts to calm down, then offer the other options.

An even better approach was to offer the choices before the situation and long before the meltdown. While the child was still buckled in his car seat and calm, she could say “Remember in the parking lot, it’s not safe for you to run off. You have three choices….” (Or actually, I would have offered two choices – three is a lot at that age, even when the child is calm.

Don’t offer choices to bribe your child out of a tantrum. Imagine you’re in a store and your child asks you to buy an expensive toy, and you say no, and they meltdown, and then you say “OK, fine – you can have one of these cheap toys – do you want the dog or the monkey?” Your child has now learned an effective technique to bully you into getting them something. Instead, if you’re willing to buy a cheap toy, say that going in. “In the store, if you can behave well while I do my shopping, then I will let you choose one toy. But it has to be something little and it has to cost less than _____.” If you’re not willing, don’t offer. Say “We have to buy a birthday present for your friend today, but we’re not buying anything for you. But if you can behave well, and we can do this quickly, then we’ll be able to play in the playground for a little while when we’re done shopping.”

Again, you’re in control of what options are on the table. They choose between those options.

Let Them Make Bad Choices

Now, we obviously can’t control everything our kids do. And we wouldn’t want to. They need to have plenty of times where they’re making their own decisions (in environments that are reasonably safe for them to do this in.) And when given freedom, sometimes children do dumb things. They make bad choices. You gotta let them do that sometimes. You can’t protect them from all dumb things and from the consequences of all bad choices.

If you rescue them from the consequences, they never learn to make better choices. So, some times, you should let them suffer some consequences. I empathize, but I don’t immediately rescue. (But I do have a plan for how we’ll move out of this.)

For example, my child wanted to wear her slippers to play outdoors. I would say “it’s wet out there – your slippers aren’t waterproof. Your feet will get wet.” One day she begged and begged to wear the slippers to the park before story time. Her feet got wet. I said “I’m sorry, I know you hate wet feet.” But I didn’t fix it. We played in the park with wet feet and she hated it. When it came time for story time, I said “I brought shoes and dry socks along for story time – would you like to change into those now?” Her slippers were too wet to wear when we got back home, so she had to go without the, for a day. After that, she knew not to wear her slippers outside.

Learn more about natural consequences and about other tools in the discipline toolbox.

Words Matter

We recently did an exercise in a parenting class that I teach, where I talked with parents about discipline and ways to speak with our kids to increase the chance that they will do what they are supposed to do. How you talk to your kids and what you say effect the chances that they’ll listen.

Here are some ineffective communications techniques and ways to turn them around to make them more effective:

Vague Commands

What you may be saying: Be good. Behave better. Be nice. You better behave well at the restaurant.

Why this may not be working for you: Saying “be good” implies they are bad. And, these vague commands require them to guess what it is that you want them to do. (What does “be good” look like?)

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Set clear expectations in advance about what good behavior is in that context. “At lunch, you’ll need to sit in your chair or my lap and use a quiet voice.” If issues arise, give very clear, concrete instructions for what they should do. “Please sit on your chair now or you can sit in my lap.”

Try re-writing these sentences:  “Be good at the movie.” “Be nice to her.”

Broken Record

What you may be saying: We’re late, let’s go. Come on, we’re late. Can you just put your shoes on? We’re late, we need to go. Come on!

Why this may not be working for you: If you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over, you should ask yourself: can they hear you? Do they understand what you want them to do? Do they have the skill to do that? What’s stopping them from doing it?

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Connect to Correct. Make sure you have their attention first, then tell them what the behavior issue is. Go near them, get down to their level, establish eye contact, and use a calm voice. Once you have their attention, then offer clear guidance – say it once – loud and clear!

Try re-writing this sentence: “Stop jumping on the couch. Cut it out. No jumping. You know you’re not supposed to jump on the couch. Stop it.”

Only telling them what NOT to do

What you may be doing: Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door

Why this may not be working: If you just say what not to do, they have to first stop their impulse, then figure out what they can do instead. Both are hard for young kids to do!

Alternative approaches: Tell them what to do: “Carefully hand that to me. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t throw your Legos.”  “I hate it when you slam the door.”

Dismissing their Feelings

What you may be doing: I don’t care if you’re mad – we don’t break things…. You know we need to leave the park now – crying won’t change that… I know you’re excited, but you need to sit down.

Why this may not be working: Dismisses their feelings as unimportant. Until the emotion is acknowledged, it may be hard to move past it. Saying “I know you have this feeling, BUT…” doesn’t count as validating, because that “but” implies you don’t care about their feelings.

Alternative approaches: Validate emotions first, then address the behavior or re-state limits. “I know you’re mad. It’s not OK to break things.” “I can see that makes you sad. I get that – I’m sad too. And… it’s still time to leave the park.” “I know you’re excited and it’s hard to stay still. It’s important to sit down so other people can see.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t cry. You know I won’t give you more candy.” “I know you’re mad that he took your toy, but you can’t hit him.”

Over-using If / Then Threats

What you may be doing: If you don’t brush your teeth right now, then no bedtime story.

Why this may not be working: Could imply you expect they’ll do the bad thing. (Kids are good at living up to expectations!) Could imply you’re looking forward to punishing.

Alternative approaches: When / then – When you do [this good thing], then we get to do [something mutually enjoyable] together. “When you’re done brushing your teeth, we get to read a bedtime story. If you’re fast enough we get to read two!”

Try re-writing: “If you don’t help me clean, then you don’t get to go to the park.”

Note: there is a place for using if/then threats as consequences, but start with when/then.

Asking Questions when you mean to give Commands

What you may do: Would you please stop yelling? Are you ready to sit in your car seat?

Why this may not be working: If you ask it as a question, that implies they can say no, or opt out of what you’re asking them to do.

Alternative approaches: If you’re really offering a choice, make sure they know they can choose either option. If you don’t mean to offer a choice, then give a command not a question. “Use a quiet voice.” “You need to sit in your car seat now.”

Try re-writing: “Do you want to put on your boots now?”

Do Try This At Home

Sometime in the next week, test this out! When you find an opportunity to change your communication from your normal style to trying out a new communication strategy from above, then seize the moment and test this out.

Then reflect on these questions

  • What happened as a result of using this new communication strategy?
  • What did you notice about how it felt?
  • What happened with your child?
  • How might this support a relationship with your child?

Share your experience in the comments!

Here’s a free printable version of this exercise on Effective Communication Techniques to Improve Discipline.

Kids Do Well If They Can

To resolve problem behavior in children, first attempt to figure out why the behavior is happening. A key question to ask yourself is: are they capable of behaving better? Dr. Ross Greene argues that “if your child could do well, he would do well… If your child had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he wouldn’t be exhibiting challenging behavior.”

Let’s contrast this “kids do well if they can” idea with another common philosophy, which Greene calls “kids do well if they wanna.”

Kids Do Well if They Wanna

If a child is not doing well, this model assumes that it’s because they don’t want to do well. So, that implies that the parent/teacher’s primary job is to make him want to do well. Typically that would lead to rewarding the behaviors you like, or punishing the behaviors you don’t like. If you’re right and he IS capable of doing it, then this may work. If he’s not capable of doing well, all the rewards and punishment won’t change that. The problem behavior might not improve or might even get worse.

Under this model, you first ramp up the punishment, and if it still doesn’t work, you may decide his behavior is fully intentional… maybe he’s trying to manipulate you or get attention or test limits or maybe he’s just lazy and unmotivated. If you start assuming this kid is a bad kid who intentionally misbehaves, his behavior will not improve.

Kids Do Well If They Can

What happens if we instead assume that kids want to do well, but sometimes they aren’t yet able to? Here, the parent/teacher’s primary job is to figure out what’s getting in his way and how to help him get past it.

Instead of jumping ahead to fix the behavior, first figure out what the core issue is. What’s hard for them? Think about the environments / situations where the challenging behavior appears. What are the stressors in that environment and how could you reduce them? What skills are they lacking that would help them to be successful there? How can you teach those crucial skills? What unmet needs in the child might be causing this behavior? Can you address those?

Here’s a nice infographic (source: https://self-reg.ca/infographics/ ) that summarizes these models.

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Learn a lot more about this idea, and about Greene’s model at https://www.livesinthebalance.org/walking-tour-parents which includes several helpful videos of Dr. Greene sharing his ideas.