Setting Your Child Up for Success: Top Five Effective Parenting Techniques

I feel extremely blessed to have been given academic training in a field that gave me techniques that I can use during the administration of therapy as well as in my parenting efforts.  I have compiled the top five effective parenting techniques I have acquired through my experiences as a Speech Language Pathologist.

  1. Look for the Positive: 

While completing my graduate work I attended a class in which the professor was teaching us about positive praise.  During the lecture one of my classmates asked the question “What if there is nothing to give praise for – what if the child is not doing anything correct?”  The professor’s answer was swift and clear “There is always something you can give positive praise about, and if you can’t find it – you simply aren’t looking hard enough.”  As a speech language pathologist I think back to the professor’s answer whenever I am working with a “difficult child” – but I really put it to the test during my second year of experience.   I was assigned to deliver services at a specific elementary school that also housed what was referred to as “the behavior unit”.  I provided speech and language services to approximately 75% of the children in the class over the next two years before the class was moved to another school.  The behavior unit is a special class that is made up of all the children from the school district that require a more restrictive environment because they are unsafe to the individuals in their regular education classrooms.  Most of the children in the class were placed there as a result of severe physical harm they had caused to their peers or teachers, or extremely inappropriate behavior they had presented.   At the initiation of services to the students in this classroom, I regret to say that I was apprehensive, nervous, and a little frustrated that I was going to have to learn to deal with these children.  Looking back now – I am grateful for the experiences I had with these children as they taught me more about behavior management and looking for the positive than any other of my therapy experiences.  I learned to love the children and found great joy in the progress they were able to make.  It wasn’t always easy to work with these children – as days could often be filled with threats of violence, abusive language, and extreme persistence to avoid any and all work that was presented.  Sometimes the only thing I could find to praise was the way the child was sitting in their seat or they way they produced a sentence without a curse word.  However, I found that if I focused on the child’s strengths – (even if they were trying at great lengths to hide any strengths they had) it helped make the child feel safe, appreciated, and open to trusting me and developing a relationship with me.  I truly believe that if you look for the positive in anyone – you will find it.  And if you take the time to let them know what you see  – they will be affected positively because of it.

2.  Communicate the Positive:

A great deal of research has been done regarding the power of positive praise.  Research was conducted to see how different outcomes correlated with different ratios of positive to negative feedback in a variety of settings (i.e. marriage, workplace, parenting, teaching, etc.).  The research revealed that the “sweet spot”; or the ratio that resulted with the most successful outcome was 5:1 (5 positive comments to every 1 negative comment).   This is especially difficult while administering speech therapy, as it often revolves around “fixing” clients’ speech and language errors.  If you are not careful you can find yourself providing an overwhelming amount of negative comments (“Don’t do that…” or “Fix that”).  However, the more you make an effort to be aware of providing positive praise – the easier it becomes.  It truly does make a difference in the lives of children, especially in the lives of children who suffer with communication disorders, as they don’t often feel successful.  Make an extra effort to praise them for their efforts (communication wise or otherwise) and I promise you will feel the reward when you see the satisfaction in your child’s face as they realize they have accomplished something great!

3.  Be Specific:

So now that we have discussed looking for the positive, and communicating the positive, – we will delve into even more detail regarding specific positive praise.  All children love to hear “great job”, “way to go”, and “keep up the good work”.  However, that doesn’t really give them any real information about what they did that was great – and what they need to continue to do to be successful.  Your children are learning and growing constantly.  They are experimenting with their boundaries and abilities continuously.  It is up to you to provide them with as much errorless learning as possible.  Errorless learning is extremely important – especially for children who have difficulty learning new things.  It is your job as a parent/teacher/etc. to set them up for the greatest amount of success.  One of the best ways to do this is to provide SPECIFIC positive praise.  For example, when praising your child – exchange a generic form of praise (i.e. “good job”) with “I love the way you…” or “I watched how well you … and it made me really happy”.  The “…” needs to be filled with as much specific information as possible and can be used when helping your child with his/her speech and language, with their behavior, or with any skill you are trying to teach.  I use specific positive praise every day, with my students, my clients, my own children, and even my own husband – and I have found this technique to be very rewarding and useful.  For example I might say to my husband “You are a great dad.  I watched how you patiently taught Brock how to kick the ball, and I saw how much he loved spending that time with you.”  This not only helps my husband feel good about his parenting moment, but it also helps me to clarify and focus on his strengths, which ultimately helps strengthen our relationship and our motivation to be the best parents we can be.  When used with children, specific positive praise produces an empowering teaching moment – in which the child doesn’t really even notice they are being taught, and they come out of it feeling good about their attempts and their success and are inherently motivated to continue working to be successful.

Although being specific is helpful when giving positive praise – it is also very helpful when giving constructive criticism.  In fact, I believe being specific and genuine is what differentiates constructive criticism from destructive (and ineffective) criticism.  This is helpful to keep in mind when your child behaves inappropriately, or when they fail to demonstrate a certain skill correctly.  In order for you to teach them and correct their errors effectively it is highly important to give as much specific information as possible.  Before instituting a consequence for inappropriate behavior you must let your child know exactly what they did that was unacceptable.  Otherwise, they are much more likely to be confused about why they are being punished and repeat the inappropriate behavior.  Then you also need to show them specifically what behavior would have been acceptable.  For example, while working with a child who suffers from asperger’s disorder I learned that I had to be extremely specific in order to teach him appropriate social skills.  If I told him to “be nice” to his classmates I noticed little improvement in his outward behavior.  If I discussed what it means to “be nice”, and I showed him exactly what that looked like – he was able to understand and demonstrate those skills so much easier.  I was amazed at the amount of progress he made quickly once those skills were explicitly taught.  But please be clear that being specific does not always mean being lengthy or necessarily even detailed.  It is most effective to explain yourself as simply and as specifically as possible.  This could consist of imitating the inappropriate behavior followed by a “no-no”.  Imitations and gestures are good for young children or children who have communication difficulties as they might not understand the language you would be inclined to use in your attempt to be specific.  My old supervisor used to observe me giving therapy.  If she ever caught me giving a command (especially to a child that was severely delayed) she would always tell me – show him what that looks like.  For example, I couldn’t ever get away with saying “use soft hands” and leave it at that.  I had to instantly demonstrate what soft hands looked like and then give immediate and specific praise if the child used soft hands.  This again teaches errorless learning.

4.  Be precise:

It is extremely important that children understand and know their boundaries.  Again this is a part of setting up your child for success.  I have found ‘precision commands’ to be the most affective form of boundary setting and consequence follow through.  When using precision commands you are setting up an errorless learning system for your child when it comes to expectations for behavior – on both their part and your part.  Click Here to learn more about directing and enforcing precision commands.

I love this technique for multiple reasons.  It allows the child to know what is expected of them very clearly.  It sets a very precise pattern which can be learned by all children – even children with severe learning difficulties or very young children.  It helps children feel secure as they know what to expect from you.  It provides a framework in which a child can receive the first command and will be able to accurately foresee the outcome based on their individual choices.  This helps children feel in control and greatly enforces cause and effect and personal responsibility.  Although, the technique is quite simple – there are a few very important things to keep in mind.  DO NOT issue a precision command if you are not willing to follow through with the entire procedure.  If you present the commands but do not follow through on the consequences, all you have done is made empty threats and taught your child that what you say does not really mean anything.  It is also important not to overuse precision commands – they do not need to be used all day long to get your child to comply with your every request.  Precision commands are meant to be used only in more difficult situations.  Also – going back to the first few steps – when the child does comply with your command, please remember to give them SPECIFIC PRAISE for doing so.

5.  Be a Teacher:

As mentioned previously multiple times – errorless learning is one of the most effective things you can provide as a parent and teacher.  There is no exact way to do this (which is funny seeing how I just got finished talking about the importance of precision and specificity).  Just keep in mind that when teaching a new skill, whether it be potty training, acceptable behavior in public, or how to read, your teaching will be the most effective if the process your child undergoes to learn it is as errorless as possible.  This can be accomplished in a number of ways.  I believe that errorless learning can only be taught using a hierarchy of support.  For example when providing articulation therapy I want to avoid allowing the child to produce an error in their speech – which further promotes inaccurate motor planning and processing.  However, not every child can be successful with each speech sound initially and they need to be taught.  This is done through support.  My support might consist of verbal modeling, tactile prompting, visual cueing, or explicit verbal descriptions (to name a few).  Basically I provide the child with whatever amount of support necessary for him/her to be successful.  I then “tip-toe” around the hierarchy – providing more or less support as necessary.  There are always two goals I have when trying to teach a child a new skill.  I ultimately want them to be successful  (meaning producing the sound or target correctly) and independent (meaning producing the sound without any outside modeling, prompting, or cueing).  In order for the child to be successful initially it typically requires a great deal of support.  The next step is to make the child successful independently – which can only occur if the prompting, cueing, and modeling is faded as soon as possible (without sacrificing the child’s accuracy and success).   I think the execution of this process is critical and can be the difference between a mediocre and a great teaching/learning experience.  A great teacher knows how to provide the correct amount of support in order to create success and then fade it as quickly as possible in order to create independence with the skill.  When teaching a new skill keep in mind that in order to be specific, precise, and simple you need to provide explicit directions, clear modeling, and direct cueing, and then fade these cues as soon as possible.  Please realize that there is not a magic recipe for how to teach things successfully – being able to move up and down through a hierarchy of support takes a great amount of focus, flexibility, creativity, and patience.