FocusEd on Positive Behavior

FocusEd on Positive Behavior

You’re here to teach the child.

To make sure every kid can learn in the way their brain will process it best.

That’s your ultimate goal.

But sometimes, a child is challenged in other areas.

She struggles to focus.  He struggles to keep his stuff together.  She has a hard time sitting still for periods of time.

How can you even start teaching a child when there’s no discipline?

You can’t.

You first need to set the stage for the child and create an environment that is calm, safe, and productive.


  1. Establish authority
  2. Help the child regulate emotions
  3. Create visual schedules


In order for any progress to be made the therapist must first be in a position of authority in the eyes of the child.

Establishing authority is pretty simple.  Here are some ideas:

  1. A Rewards System

Set up a reward system in which you provide small, yet frequent rewards. This will balance out the inevitable negative consequences and punishments that sometimes need to follow when a child is noncompliant.

  1. Play the Compliance Game

Give the child 10 simple directions to follow.  For every compliance, the child receives a reward. This reinforces your position of authority.  The child realizes two things:  You will be giving the directions, and following them will lead to a reward.

  1. Authority Ladder

Draw a ladder and put different people at different rungs in a hierarchical order.  That puts the levels of authority in visual perspective for the child.  Then, play a little activity of “Who has to listen to whom – game” with the child so they can grasp the hierarchy on a practical level.


Authority established.  The child understands the relationship structure.  You’ve put the first piece in place.

But what happens to a child that gets triggered fast?  Annoyed?  Impatient?  Many children have a hard time regulating emotions and that can be a serious roadblock for learning.

Fear not.  There’s a process for that, too.

The ultimate key to help a child with emotional regulation is to create, build, and expand their emotional vocabulary.

Every child knows about happy and sad.  But do they know about the different levels of anger?  About guilt and shame?  About disappointment and frustration?  About pride and excitement?

Building an emotional vocabulary is a must.  And it is simple.

Create a page per emotion with the child, along with events that trigger each emotion.

  • I feel annoyed when…
  • I feel angry when…
  • I feel joy when…

Review it with the child and keep adding more emotions and more triggers as they occur.  In that way, any time a situation arises, you refer to the list and help the child identify his emotion and what caused it.

Although this increases the child’s emotional awareness, you still need a process for when the emotion shows up:

  1. Validate. Empathize with the child in a real way until the child is visibly calmer.
  2.  Rationalize.  See if there’s a solution to the predicament once the child is calm enough to think rationally.
  3. Teach Coping Skills. Using a coping poster, ask the child to choose how they wish to calm down.  Once they’ve chosen a coping skill, reinforce them for using it.

Visual Schedule

Authority?  Check.  Emotional regulation?  Done.  Now all you need to do is teach.

Not so fast.

There’s one more thing you should do before you dive into the lessons.

Create a visual schedule of what the day will look like.

This removes any chaos from the child’s brain and gives them a global picture of what to expect of their day. It also puts you into the position of authority if you require the child to follow the schedule once it’s set. And if the child refuses to do items on the schedule, keep pointing to the schedule and insisting that it needs to be followed. The fun activities can only happen if prior work activities are completed.

Here’s how.

Organize index cards vertically.  Each card gets a title, a picture, and a time slot.  Before the day starts, review the schedule with the child and as each activity passes, remove that card.

Here are a few helpful tips:

  1. Make the schedule fun and colorful. It’ll be much more fun to look at!
  2. Intersperse fun and pleasurable activities throughout the day so that the child has something to look forward to after doing various challenging academic or therapeutic tasks.
  3. Allow the child to choose the fun activities so that they have some power over their day.

This takes out the fight as the child knows what’s coming with finality and clarity.

And a child that knows what to expect of the day is a lot calmer and feels assured of the structure.

The stage is set.

Now, you teach!

By: Devora Samet, PsyD