By Mary Jamsek

Working with children who have challenging behavior is a perennial and popular topic for conferences, webinars, inservice trainings and coaching. There are many ways to approach this topic, many of them center around classroom management. An alternative approach is to practice positive guidance strategies. Positive guidance is rooted in the concept of mistaken behavior, that children make the best decision they can based on their circumstances at the time. These circumstances include family situation, life experience, peer influence, ability to understand what is being asked of them, emotional engagement, and the ability to express their needs and wants clearly.

Positive guidance requires an understanding of human development and a teacher who can observe, facilitate and scaffold children’s emotional and social development. As in all human relationships power matters, in positive guidance the adult-child relationship is power with rather than power over the child. Positive guidance helps children develop an internal locus of control, knowledge about themselves and the skills to interact productively with others. Positive guidance occurs within an authentic relationship between the adult and child. It starts with helping children identify and name their feelings, learn to express them to others in a clear and constructive way, and to develop a sense of self that does not depend on what others think about them.

When practicing positive guidance, teachers model and give children opportunities and feedback to practice self-discipline skills, which lead to self-management. This may sound like more work than simply telling children what to do but the payoff is children are able to function more independently in the classroom as they learn these skills. Rather than teachers solving problems and disputes for children, they give children the tools to solve problems on their own.

While there are many strategies in positive guidance the ones you will find below are useful in classroom settings.

Use people first, objective and descriptive language.
Human relationships are complex and liking some people more than others is natural. Teachers are responsible for providing an equitable educational experience for all children in their classroom no matter their feelings. Acknowledge your feelings about the children in your class and then use people first language. Language really does matter and referring to a child as bad, lazy, a class clown or defiant negatively affects your interactions with the child. Try instead “X did not complete the assignment today.” or “X interrupted our reading circle by making faces at other children.” Rather than “X is disrespectful.” With this re-framing you can see the situation more clearly and start to work on a solution.

Provide clarity in expectations.
Talk about what to do rather than what not to do. From the time children can understand spoken language adults tell them no. We spend the time to tell children what NOT to do; positive guidance practice is to tell children what to DO. Although we often think children should know what to do (sometimes they do) they often don’t know what to do. Telling children what you need them to do provides a clear direction of what you expect to happen. It also eliminates all the other options a child can choose when their only direction is what not to do.

Break the generalized praise habit.
This is often incredibly challenging and it is helpful to look at feedback on a continuum from praise to encouragement/recognition. Children need feedback to gauge whether they are meeting expectations. Rather than generic praise, look for specifics to provide feedback. This may take a bit of time in the beginning of the relationship but it results in great benefits. When you note specifically what a child is doing, for example “I saw you got stuck on a math problem and kept working until you figured it out,” you tell that child you see them as an individual in the classroom. Generalized feedback and praise tells people you don’t know them as individuals. Children, especially, learn quickly to recognize and quickly tune out generalized praise. Additionally, providing recognition of specific effort supports the development of growth mindset and grit.

Provide limits and choices.
Positive guidance is not a free for all and providing limits and choices is one of the primary examples. Life is not a buffet of unlimited choice, particularly for children in school. Children appreciate having options rather than continually being told what to do. Think about places in your day where you can provide students with choices. It might be in the timing of when an activity or assignment is due, it might be providing several problems or activities for children to learn about or demonstrate mastery of a concept.

Equally as important to providing choices is to let children know when there are NOT choices. Children may not choose not to participate in safety drills for example. However, we can explore fear around safety drills and make accommodations, if possible. But when the task is non-negotiable, be clear about this from the beginning. When setting a limit, set it clearly, have a fair reason for setting that limit, and stick with that limit. If limits are set and broken children learn quickly that limits don’t matter. A common misperception about positive guidance is everything is negotiable. This is not true and setting clear limits will reduce unproductive negotiation.

Model conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution IS a place where negotiation is useful. While it seems faster to intervene and solve the problem for children this robs them of the opportunity to learn these skills for themselves and means that the teacher will continue to be needed to solve conflicts. Teaching children to negotiate conflict is a lifelong skill and if children can negotiate their own conflicts teachers have more time to focus on content.

With younger and inexperienced children the teacher will initially need to model the steps. To successfully negotiate a conflict the participants must first name the problem as well be able to recognize and name their emotions. Second, each party states their perception of the problem. Third is brainstorming solutions. It’s important to allow true brainstorming. This allows children to stretch their perspective and creativity. Fourth, agree upon and implement the solution. I urge you to go with the children’s solution. It may not be the solution you would choose but if it is safe then try it out. The fifth, and often forgotten step is to evaluate the solution. This can be as quick as ‘I saw you were arguing about how to do X and you figured out that each of you would take a part. It looks like it worked.” This provides an opportunity for the teacher and the child to evaluate the solution, celebrate a success and modify if necessary. If the solution doesn’t work, then return to step three.

Once children understand and can utilize these steps they often solve conflicts without the assistance of adults. It is important to notice over time if the child developed solutions consistently while not favoring a particular child. If this is the case, intervention about fairness for the group and stronger self-advocacy for the child who is marginalized may be necessary.

Encourage problem solving.
Problem solving is often confused with conflict resolution but generally involves things rather than people. Encouraging children to engage in problem solving allows children to generate and test hypotheses (making connections), try them out (persistence, focus), evaluate and work to find better solutions (critical thinking). Creating or choosing problem solving opportunities enables children to engage in self-directed learning. The role of the teacher becomes one of facilitator and cognitive challenger. Rather than giving children the answers, the teacher observes and offers observations, and sometimes suggestions, for example “I see you’ve been working on this construction for a while.” If the child seems to be nearing unproductive frustration an adult might add “It seems like you might be stuck. Have you thought about X?” This gives children an option to explore rather than a direction of what to do. Teaching is an art and a skill and in this case the art is determining whether the frustration is fostering persistence or defeat. We all learn better when we are engaged and participatory in our learning. Executive function skills are necessary success in school, at work and in life. Positive guidance strategies provide a foundation for many of these skills. Effectively utilizing these strategies takes intentional and reflective practice. Supporting teachers in acquiring these strategies can happen through professional development, coaching, walkthrough-forms, and modeling. The strategies shared are just a few, and the explanations are brief. If you are interested in pursuing positive guidance topics further I recommend the following resources:

Positive Guidance Theory and Practice

  • The Power of Guidance by Dan Gartrell
  • Education for a Civil Society by Dan Gartrell

Executive Function

  • Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky

Grit and Growth Mindset
Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential by Carol Dweck
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Mary Jamsek was a teacher for 30 years, focusing on early childhood. She taught in public and private settings as well as in higher education in child and human development. She is currently the Pritzker Community Fellow at City of Austin, Austin Public Health.

This article is published in partnership with the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children (TXAEYC). Learn more at

Instructional Leader, November 2018, Vol 31, No 6

Copyright © 2018 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

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