The approach to parenting which we teach, Positive Discipline , was developed primarily by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott. Jane and Lynn, who trained us, were inspired by the visionary work of Dr. Alfred Adler to create a program accessible to anyone, not just professionals in psychology and education, which would foster a more effective and respectful way of being with children of all ages for teachers and parents.

We stumbled across Jane and Lynn’s books when working in a wonderful international boarding school in the heart of the Swiss Alps. We thought we were well prepared for the task. After all, I was a trained clinical social worker and family therapist and KC a secondary school teacher. We were already the parents of two boys, then aged 5 and 7, and had considerable experience in working with children and teens. Boy, were we wrong! At our new job, in addition to our teaching responsibilities, we were responsible for a group of 12 teens who lived in the house where our apartment was. They ranged in age from 11 – 20 and hailed from various countries and languages. They were all quite “normal” teens but many experts have posited that normal healthy teenagers meet many criteria for psychiatric illnesses. 😉

After struggling through this task unhappily for a few years, I was feeling desperate and finally found the book Positive Discipline with Teenagers as well as Positive Discipline in the Classroom. BINGO! I had discovered an approach which fit my own notions of being with children, namely one that is mutually respectful and encourages participation and self-responsibility AND discipline. Freshly outfitted with tools which instinctively made sense to me, I entered my classroom (oh, and did I say that I had also never taught nor been interested in teaching before coming to this school?) with a new confidence and began applying what I was reading. It was brilliant! I was finally able to be with students in a way that felt good and very clear and squirrely groups settled down. I began to really enjoy teaching.

In the glow of our positive experiences in the classroom, KC and I began to explore ways to implement some of the tools in our school residential group, referred to there as the “school family”. As our first foray into this world we chose the appreciation or compliments round from the classroom or family meetings. It was a bit awkward at the beginning as the students were so unaccustomed to it, but it soon took off and even when we limited it to one compliment per person for the sake of time, they would often beg to be able to give just 1, 2 or 3 more please…

Our relationships with our students shifted imperceptibly at first and eventually became near paradigm shifts. Wow! We were on to something.

After 18 years of working and living in the school, we left to pursue other interests as well, including sharing Positive Discipline with more people. I want to share this tale with you before going on to share a bit of this approach with you.

Within psychology there are literally countless models outlining basic human needs. Adler distilled these down to four for children. That’s right. Just four. I will concentrate on the first one:

Belonging and Significance.

In our live workshops, we demonstrate this with a drawing of a tree. A healthy tree has roots and needs the usual elements for growth, always reaching towards the sun. The sun is the life-giving warmth of a sense of Belonging and Significance.

Naturally, life is comprised of experiences, perceived as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Adler referred to children experiencing encouragement or discouragement. Rest assured. It is not all about you as the source or cause of this determination. Whether a child feels discouraged or encouraged has much to do with the temperament of that child (more on this in another post), their personality and other factors.

When a child feels discouraged, she or he feels cut off from the sun, the source of life and security, and so the child acts in ways that we call mis-behavavior. She feels discouraged and is actually trying desperately to get back to the sun (notice how plants do the same) in the only way she knows how. To demonstrate this crucial point, here is an anecdote shared by a graduate of a parenting course of ours:

Preface. They have a 6-week-old baby.  Yesterday, 5-year-old  Tommy got more and more challenging as the day progressed. By the end of the day his “wiggles” were in full swing and his two-year-old brother Josh was bearing the brunt of his bad mood. They’d play nicely for a while and then Tommy would hit, slap or push Josh. At the same time Tommy had been calling his dad and me stupid and saying he hates us all day. This tension in Tommy has been building up for a week, with many sweet moments but also some really challenging ones. And yesterday evening right as they were going to bed, the boys were wrestling and having fun and then suddenly Tommy sort of bit Josh in the mouth. Josh was bleeding and Luke (my husband) and I just had had enough with Tommy. We were both stern with him and Tommy was laughing and crying and wiggling around and saying we were stupid and he didn’t care. Luke was first really mad at Tommy, then held him and talk to him about why it was not OK to hurt his brother, and then sort of ignored him while he took care of Josh. I first took care of Josh and then I switched with Luke and started telling Tommy that it was not OK to hurt his brother, bla bla bla. I could tell that what we were doing wasn’t super and wasn’t working at all, but we were tired and fed up and honestly I couldn’t think of what else to do.  Tommy’s behavior was exasperating and all the ideas I had were not working.

It’s around this time that the mantra of ” a misbehaving child is a discouraged child” pops into my head. But It feels VERY counter intuitive for me  to think of Tommy as needing more love instead of harsh words or strong boundaries, but I  pull myself together and try to hold Tommy and try to remember that he’s not feeling well and that’s why he’s behaving this way. Changing my behavior feels like lifting a very heavy weight, nearly impossible but I just rather all my strength and force myself to do it.

Meanwhile Tommy is swinging on his bed and then he suddenly flips back and hits his head hard.  He starts to cry. Luke puts the swing away, which makes Tommy really mad. I then just  hold Tommy and try to reflect his feelings back to him. “You’re really mad” etc etc and then suddenly Tommy  melts into my arms and begins to sob, deep, deep sobs,  he says his body doesn’t feel good, that his body wants to hit Josh. I keep reflecting and asking questions about his body, and he cries and cries and somehow it becomes very clear that Tommy just needs his daddy and doesn’t want to share him with Josh (and though he always insists he LOVES the baby the most and that Josh is the problem, I’m pretty sure somewhere he doesn’t want to share his dad with her either). At this point Luke is trying to clean the kitchen and is super fed up with Tommy, but we go to him together and we ask together if Tommy can as an exception go to bed alone with Daddy and Tommy asks for extra snuggles. Luke (god bless him) overcomes his annoyance and lets go of the need to clean and brings Tommy to bed.  I put Josh and baby to sleep, which takes about 5 minutes and then tidy up (normally I bring all three to bed while Luke cleans).  Tommy goes to sleep with his dad and is very happy. /*Names changed

This morning I had an extremely delightful, happy and surprisingly helpful little boy in front of me who is playing sweetly with his little brother.


A happy graduate of a PeaceWorks Parenting course


Give us one example of an incident in the last week where one of your child seemed to feel DIS-COURAGED and one where they seemed to feel ENCOURAGED.