10 Phrases Parents and Teachers Can Use to Help Improve Children’s Behavior

A young girl and woman high five while planting a tree

Don’t we all sometimes wish that parenting and caregiving came with a handbook? 

In times of struggle (or even in times we’re just tired!), we may wish we had automatic responses to our children’s behavior that are only helpful and useful.

Something close to a handbook is a list of 10 “life value terms” or “scripts” that Maine Children’s Home (MCH) loves to share from Dr. Karyn Purvis’s book The Connected Parent: Real Life Strategies for Building Trust and Attachment, and Theraplay®.

These phrases are designed for families or classrooms to learn and practice together in a way that builds connection. Once children understand the behavior each phrase represents, the phrases can be used by parents or teachers as reminders when children’s behavior is disrespectful, unkind, or when children are dysregulated. 

The 10 phrases for improving child behavior are:

1. “We treat people with respect”

“We treat people with respect” can be used for teaching how we behave toward the people around us.

2. “Gentle and kind”

“Gentle and kind” can be used for encouraging the consideration of the feelings of others.

3. “Let’s work it out”

“Let’s work it out” is a used for teaching how to work together and share, how to cooperate and compromise.

4. “Are you asking or telling?”

“Are you asking or telling?” can be used to teach respectful speech toward others. We don’t tell people to do things for us, we ask them nicely.

5. “Listen and mind”

“Listen and mind” can be used to encourage being present and to remind children to follow the instructions of trusted adults.

6.“No hurts”

“No hurts” can be used to teach respect for the bodies and feelings of ourselves and others. 

7. “Stick together”

“Stick together” can be used for teaching listening and cooperation skills, as well as to help keep groups physically together.

8. “Use your words” or “Use good words”

“Use your words” can be used to teach communication skills, respectful speech, and to encourage children to use their voice to express their needs.

9. “Accepting ‘no’”

“Accepting ‘no’” can be used to teach respect for the boundaries set by others as well as for rules.

10. “With permission and supervision”

“With permission and supervision” can be used to encourage communication with trusted adults, as well as to emphasize the role of a parent or teacher in the safety of children.

Three ways to make these phrases effective

Obviously, these phrases aren’t magic spells. They need to be taught, modeled, and reinforced with praise. Here are the three tips to make these phrases effective.

1. Tailor each phrase to your family’s or classroom’s language

The key to using these phrases effectively is to tailor them to the language that is familiar within your family unit or classroom Also, it is important to teach the phrases and their lessons in small increments of time when children are calm, regulated, and have the capacity to learn. 

For example, the time to teach your children how to be “gentle and kind” isn’t when a child is having a temper tantrum. You need to find time to teach and model the behavior of being “gentle and kind” before ungentle and unkind behavior occurs.

2. Reinforce the meaning of each phrase with praise

Another important part of teaching the meaning of a phrase — let’s say the phrase is still “gentle and kind” — is to go out of your way to praise children when you see them modeling “gentle and kind” behavior themselves. 

Through modeling the behavior and praising, your children will understand the meaning of “gentle and kind” and how it feels to be “gentle and kind”. When they're being too rough with their body or disrespectful with their words, you remind them:

Remember, we want to be gentle and kind"

Once children have a frame of reference for what this phrase means, you won’t have to try to teach an important lesson while children are dysregulated or don’t have the capacity for the lesson.

3. Tone is everything

Once your family or classroom understands the meaning of each phrase, you have to respect the phrases yourself with your tone. A phrase may lose its meaning or effectiveness if it is spoken with frustration or negativity. Remember that you want your children to respect these phrases as tools that help them, not tools that are used against them. A firm but calm tone will do.

Make it fun

Using these phrases can be fun for everyone. If you can designate time each week to learn and model a phrase with your children, you can have a positive learning experience with your children that makes everyone feel good, and gives you another tool for your parenting or teaching toolbox.

Try focusing on one phrase at a time, and practice it with your kids until it feels comfortable. You can even work on making a poster of phrases together as a family or classroom.

Children of all ages can benefit from these phrases, and you can make them age appropriate. For example, a teenager might not respond well to the “gentle and kind” phrase as much as they might “easy does it” as a reminder when behavior gets heightened or emotionally dysregulated. You can use the idea behind these phrases and how to implement them in a way that fits best with your family or your classroom.

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