Mistakes in behavior are often impulsive habit. It may be that a few first impulses to act out without thinking become a self-understood way of being. I act out; that is who I am. People learn what may be undesirable modes of responding to difficulty by hearing and seeing themselves do it, maybe also by being talked about or kicked out for acting out, and maybe a bunch of long lectures about the harm of acting out thrown in, too. Eventually they come to realize acting out is me, maybe it’s not so good to do that all the time, but I can’t really help it. A resonance of habit, internal dialogue, and reactions become an endless knot that keeps coming round again — creating worlds and creating ourselves — even though the results are not desirable. It’s hard for everyone to step off our circles and take a tiny step in a new direction.
Let’s offer the possibility of getting off the endless knot. Let’s warmly provide alternate ways of being, with a little bit of practice time, to alter these habits that cause problems.
Imagine that acting out person was you. You kept getting in trouble, coming around again into trouble. Then someone who cared about you offered a constructive way to act at the very moment of the mistake you just made. You try it, and then they insist upon and stay with you for a few additional rehearsals to get you more familiar with it. Would you, as someone on this acting out loop, accept a warm, positive, supportive chance to practice? Evidently the answer is yes for most people; Positive Practice is almost always welcomed by troubling children.
Positive Practice procedure is to stop everything immediately after a mistake is made, provide an example of the correct or more appropriate thing to do or say in that setting, and invite three more repetitions before going on with life. No anger. No disapproval. Full support.
A group of children run into the classroom at high speed and some adult yells, “No running in the classroom.” or “Walking feet!” I would be tempted to ask the adult, “How’s that ‘walking feet’ thing working out for you? Has it stopped the running?”
Positive Practice requires the children to go back to the doorway and walk into the classroom calmly. “I invite you to return to the doorway and walk into the classroom calmly. One. Now back to the doorway again. Two. Two more times. Back to doorway and back in. Three. OK. One more time. Four. There we go. You got it.”
I hold up four fingers as the signal. Each repeat lowers a finger. At the end I say something like “That works better.” or “Practice works.”
I was surprised at how well Positive Practice worked. The literature on Positive Practice — which you can easily find —said to require 10 repetitions, so I did. I soon found that making the person do something more than 4 times felt bossy and artificial, so I dropped it to 5. With some experience I found 4 to be about right. “Right” meant (1) 4 repetitions dramatically reduced the occurrence of the mistake, and (2) I felt myself being open, connected, and warmly on the child’s side.
Having used Positive Practice dozens of times, I have become convinced that children want to behave in more effective ways. There seems to be no other explanation for their willingness to practice a better way and then to change to that better way amazingly quickly. Every child I have used Positive Practice with has readily complied; not one has refused. Ever. Year after year, I hear the same reports from my students, too.
A child sneezes into the air without covering. Using Positive Practice one holds up 4 fingers and has the child fake sneeze into the inside of their elbow four times.
I see a child wipe her drooling nose with her sleeve. I invite the child to walk from where she stands over to the tissue box, pull a tissue, wipe her nose, toss the tissue into the waste bin, wash her hands, and return. Then I have her do the whole sequence a second, third, and fourth time.
A child roughly pushes another child aside to gain access to the block shelf. Positive Practice recreates that circumstance with the pushee and invites the pusher to say “excuse me”, move around, come back, say it again, move around, come back, say it again, move around, come back, say it again, and move around. Four repetitions.
On a walk down the street a child in your group sees a flower in someone’s garden and picks it. The group stops. The child practices 4 ways to adore the flower: smell it, touch it gently, say “I like that flower.”, and “Look at this beautiful flower.” “I wish I could take it to my mom.” After the child practices 4 alternatives, the group proceeds down the street.
A child pushes the grocery cart at high speed down the aisle. Positive Practice is to push the cart down the aisle at a calm speed four times: down and back, down and back.
A child grabs a toy from another child. Instead of saying “Use your words”, give the child the words. “Could I have that when you’re done?” Invite him to say something along those lines 4 times.
In a crossing a busy street a child in your group drops her partner’s hand and wanders outside of the marked crosswalk. The middle of a busy street may not be a good time for Positive Practice. Sometime soon you find a street crossing with no traffic and practice four times staying hand-in-hand with a partner and remaining inside the marked crosswalk.
Not Included Consequences: Overcorrection & Satiation
Some may find in the literature the idea of overcorrection, which is an aversive experience distinct from positive practice, even though the terms are often confused. I leave it out, because we have already covered aversives.
Satiation, which requires the child to do the mistake repeatedly, can also be found in the literature. It is in violation of my values and even my ethics to make a child practice an unfortunate, habitual mistake over and over, like these sad examples.
- Have a hitting child hit a punching bag for hitting others.
- Have a spitting child spit over and over into the toilet for spitting outside.
- Have a biting child bite a teething ring over and over for biting others.
This is negative practice, coercion practice for the adult, and obedience practice for the child. Positive Practice offers a new way to behave, so a person will be more likely to choose it at the appropriate time. How could negative practice ever do that?
All six alternative consequences are now complete.