One of the first words we learn as children is “No”.

We learn the meaning of “No”  early in our development.  It’s a quick and easy instruction.  “No” is simple and used regularly – especially with toddlers because it is immediately effective at that age.  A stern “No”, and an action to stop the child quickly ends the behaviour that we don’t want.

The effectiveness of this strategy usually backfires for us when our child learns to parrot “No” back to us.  Often called the “terrible twos”, children start to assert their self-determination.  They learn that if “No” works on them it should work on everyone else.  From childhood, we become accustomed to hearing and giving instructions that start with “Don’t” and “Stop”.  We learn that “Don’t hit” or “Stop talking” is quick, clear and easy to comply with – but is it really?  In the long run, the “No” strategy often ends up creating more problems for us than solutions.

As parents, we often become frustrated and angry with our children because when we tell them what not to do, they quickly find something else to do that is equally undesirable.  “Stop talking” becomes singing or whispering, “Don’t hit” becomes poking or kicking.

Without clear instruction, children are often frustrated as well.   They  have followed your instruction, but now they’re in trouble for doing something else!  They have a multitude of other behaviours to choose from and feel overwhelmed, (or fearful), at the potential of further failure.  Children often prefer clear direction so that they can be successful.

In children challenged by Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), negative language usually ensures the child will do exactly what you told them not to do.  In our home, telling our child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder to not something prompts him to do it.  Then he will quickly apologize because he was compelled to do it, and in the end, everyone feels bad.

Consider this simple example of positive and negative language for instruction.

Positive language instruction:

Think of a green monkey.

What happened?  Did you comply with the request?  You probably did and even if you didn’t, I would bet that you didn’t think of a pink elephant which is exactly what I didn’t want you to do.


Negative language instruction:

Don’t think of a pink elephant.

What happened?  In order for you to NOT think of a pink elephant you were forced to think of a pink elephant.  This is called priming and prompts the child to do something.  Unfortunately for everyone, what they end up doing is what you didn’t want to happen.


What is Positive Language?

Positive language is a strategy that can be used to direct children and works especially well with children who have oppositional tendencies.  The opposition could stem from hyperactivity and attentional challenges, Tourette Syndrome or Oppositional Defiance Disorder.  Positive Language is the use of direct language that states what you want the child to do, increasing the chance that the child will be successful.

Positive Language tells the child what they can do.  Be as specific as necessary for the child to be successful.  An example that comes to mind is the direction, “relax” – positive language but difficult to do especially if the problem is that you are not relaxed.  A more simple positive language instruction than “relax” would be “take a deep breath”, “close your eyes”, or “think of a happy moment”.

Positive Language increases the chance of a child complying with your request without providing the idea of doing what you don’t want them to do.  Instead of telling them what not to do and forcing them to hear and think about it, clearly state what you want them to do.  Remember the pink elephant example.  We don’t want to prime the child and set them up to fail.

Positive Language reinforces desired behaviours by verbalizing exactly what is desired.  Undesired behaviour is prevented and not verbalized which would inadvertently give it undue attention.  Don’t focus on the behaviour that you want the child to stop.  By giving direction about what they can do or should do, the attention stays on the desired behaviour.  Children prefer positive attention so be sure to positively reinforce their compliance with your request with praise.

Using Positive Language

Positive language instruction may be kept very simple.  It may be a clear direction stating specifically what you want the child to do.  For example, “put your pencil down”.  With negative language you would say “stop tapping your pencil” which may be met with the child breaking it or chewing on it.  In my home, with a child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, “stop tapping your pencil” would turn into a drum solo!  “Don’t do that!”, using positive language, becomes “Please eat your dinner” or whatever else you want them to focus on.  Talking in class would be met with “Mouths closed, please.”  To regain the attention of my class, I would say “Knees under your desk, mouths closed with your eyes on me, please”.  To address running in the school hallway, I would say, “Everybody walking with your hands by your side, with one person in front of you and one behind you, please”.  Make your request as direct and simple as you need depending on the child.

Positive language instruction may be more complex.  The child may have options but is directed away from what you don’t want them to do.  For example, “you can stay in this room if you are being respectful to everyone”.  The child may choose to leave and do something else.  Be confident that the child is likely to make a good choice with what he goes on to do.  If the choice is likely to be a different undesired behaviour somewhere else, you may want to stick to a more simple use of positive language instruction.  In this example, using negative language you would have said, “stop hitting your brother” which may be met with the child then poking or making faces at his brother.  To address this behaviour using simple positive language you might say “Keep your hands to yourself, please”.  Occasionally, with challenging children I may have to make the request clearer, stating, “Please keep all your body parts to yourself”.  Fair enough – just keep it positive.

Positive Language:  Neurologically Gifted

Take some time to self-reflect on how you direct your child or students and try to add more positive language in your instruction.  We are often very pleasantly surprised by the positive responses we receive.

For information about using positive language as a strategy for coprolalia see:  Coprolalia Part 3:  Taking Action on Coprolalia

Emotional Dysregulation – Just like Regular Kids but “Only More So!

Emotional Dysregulation – Just like Regular Kids but “Only More So!

A very dear friend and expert special educator insists that kids who have neurological disorder are just like regular kids – “only more-so!”

Let me explain what that confusing statement means…

Kids who have neurological disorders have feelings just like everyone else, except their feelings are so much more intense. They feel so much more of everything. They experience more joy when happy, (hence their hyperactivity), they feel more pain when injured (we think they’re over-reacting), more anger when frustrated or disappointed (leading to rage) and more sadness (also misinterpreted as over-reacting).

This evening, my stepson erupted into a fit of screaming and pounding the floor in a rage over homework, then back to a total recovery and calm. Soon after, he collapsed into a heap of tears as he suddenly recalled the death of his grandmother from the previous year. The intense grief lasted about 2 minutes, and he recovered once again, to join his friends in playing basketball.

I shouldn’t be surprised by his behaviour tonight. He was bound to fall from perfection at some point. He’s been stable and even tempered for months – and it’s due to consistency at home and at school.

Kids with neurological disorders are incredibly susceptible to change, as we all are – “only more so!”

Change has an effect on us all, to varying degrees. Some people abhor surprises, which is just another name for change. Kids with neurological disorders often fall apart in these circumstances that arise from change.

Emotional dysregulation can be observed as intense or extreme emotional responses to a situation, aggression, impulsivity, avoiding behaviours, difficulty calming themselves and difficulty knowing what emotion they are actually feeling and especially, drastic changes in mood.

My stepson’s chemistry and subsequent emotional state is totally dysregulated today for any number of reasons. From my own personal Tourette experience, I know he could be unconsciously reacting to the onset of the Canadian winter – with a reduction of daylight hours and cold temperatures. This always messed me up. It still does, sometimes. When his chemistry is thrown into flux like this, Nathan’s behaviour is erratic and (almost) manic. He can swing from one extreme mood to another. As well, he is dealing with another ill family member. Although he seems calm, he is very prone to experiencing a quick thought of concern, then bursting into tears from a memory of his late grandmother.

By keeping Nathan’s life consistent, we greatly reduce the occurrence of mood swings and emotional dysregulation. At times of change, it is important to stay connected to any consistency and predictability you can find. For example, on a trip during the holidays, we can expect Nathan to be extremely dysregulated and prone to mood swings.

His normal routine of waking, going to school, coming home and going to bed ceases.

In these cases, we keep eating and bed times consistent. We maintain sleep hygiene so he can slowly unwind and fall asleep at a reasonable time using his normal bedtime routine.

We give him ample warning of the plan of each day with frequent recaps and updates to give him time to process the upcoming schedule and reduce over reaction when the changes happen.  Rules must be kept consistent, as well.  There are no exceptions such as, “just this one time”, or “it’s the holiday”.  There is no “flying by the seat of our pants” with our Nathan.

Keeping Calm

Meltdowns from emotional dysregulation can be minimized by maintaining routines, maximizing predictability, planning ahead, advanced warning of change and consistent rules.

For the times when dysregulation occurs, (and it will), it is helpful to keep in mind that kids with neurological differences actually do feel more, and they will respond more.  They are just like regular kids – “Only More So!”