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This is a story about a little girl, about five years old. Before she learned where things went, she learned where they DIDN’T go.

(First, a note to the teacher or student in all of us: Do you notice that adults often tell us what NOT to do? Sometimes it’s easier for adults to think about what NOT to do than what TO do.

But do you also notice that when little children hear what NOT to do, they don’t automatically understand what TO do?

This makes sense!

If it’s hard for US to articulate, it’s even more difficult for children or students to understand.

It takes practice, but you can learn to give almost ALL instructions or requests, in a way that lets the person know exactly what to do.

It’s the first lesson of being a great therapist, and it’s better than wishing a significant other could read your mind.

And you can do it. These stories show two different ways this strategy could be used.)

Carlie was a little artist and avid reader, and with alone time, loved nothing better than taking out ALL the art supplies, all the stuffed animals who needed to watch, and surrounding herself in the bedroom with piles and piles of STUFF. She changed clothes often, and changed shoes just as often, and the piles grew every afternoon.

Often at night, before getting tucked into bed, she scrambled to push the piles to the corners, and artfully arranged pillows over the piles. Other piles she pushed under her bed, where a perfectly positioned bedskirt hid them from mama’s eyes during a bedtime story or conversation about kids at kindergarten that day.

And it worked for a while. But one rainy Saturday morning, her other chores were all finished, and Mama said the dreaded phrase: “Why don’t you clean your room? I can help if you need me to.”

No! Not the offer to help! And sure enough, the little girl sat sobbing on the floor for what seemed like hours, as Mama lay on the bed, sometimes only her feet showing, as she pulled out pile after pile of clothing, moldy bowls and cups, ruined art projects and half-eaten cereal science projects. And the little girl was embarrassed, for now Mama knew her messy (somewhat naughty) secret.

But wait!

Now that Mama knew the secret, Mama could solve the problem. Now she knew that the REAL secret was this: The little girl, even after all this time, had no idea where to put things! At least, it hadn’t “stuck”. Now, Mama and the little girl organized the room TOGETHER. The little girl decided where everything went. Mama helped her make places for things: they hung up a net for stuffed animals, Carlie made colorful signs labeling spots for books, art supplies, and even “things to take to the kitchen”! Now she had a place to put everything. And Mama had a much more specific way to help. Saying “clean up your room” hadn’t usually resulted in a clean room. Instead, saying “put everything back where it goes” somehow made a huge difference for Carlie.

It’s not that hard, unusual, or impressive. 

But if you’re not already helping kids figure out where they CAN put things, try it: it’s a lot easier to clean up when you do!

It’s true for their behavior too.

A couple of years ago, three year old Carlie had just graduated to a “big girl seat” but was kicking at the breakfast table. Every day mom threatened to put her back in her “little girl”seat and every breakfast ended in tears with Carlie back in her “little girl” seat.

But wait, thought Carlie’s mom. She’d just enrolled in a parenting course, and remembered to apply a strategy from class. “Where CAN Carlie kick? When can she kick? Who will play with her? And most importantly… what can Carlie do at breakfast, INSTEAD?”

Fast forward 1 day. Carlie’s mom has purchased a tiny stool. Carlie’s feet rest there. Each breakfast begins with a happy discussion of what she can do with her feet. She can put them on the stool! Then they discuss what they can do after breakfast. We can go outside in the yard and play ball! We can practice our kicks, we can bring our dolls, and we can have fun!

Fast forward 2 minutes. Usually, Carlie starts kicking about 3 minutes after breakfast started. So today, Mom said “Wow, Carlie! Your feet are safe on the stool! I love it. It’s fun having breakfast with you in our big girl chairs!”

Now, this was just one example, with a minor behavior. The behaviors some parents think are problematic are not priorities to other parents. Find what will work for YOUR family or team. Cusp Emergence offers family empowerment coaching. Contact us for more information or to share your story!

Bottom Line: Give clear instructions and involve learners in creating and enjoying supportive structure or alternative behaviors, the way Carlie learned to enjoy active playtime after her breakfast, or participated in creating her bedroom’s “places to put things”.

Note: Did you wonder why this post is in the “behavior cusp” category? Giving clear instructions is so important a skill for caregivers and teachers, that I have often observed them able to access new levels of teaching and instruction when they learn how. Mastering a strategy like this can be a “cusp” for teachers and parents, making it easier to promote appropriate behavior and engagement in their families and teams.