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Proactive Discipline

Proactive discipline builds on a foundation of nurturance with specific strategies to promote appropriate behavior and to prevent inappropriate behavior. When mothers use proactive strategies as well as just reacting to misbehavior, their children behave more appropriately (Gardner et al. 1999). Cognitive developmental psychologists and behavioral parent trainers have emphasized different kinds of proactive discipline skills.

George Holden (1985) studied specific proactive strategies for two-year-old children during shopping trips. Mothers shopped when the store was not busy and when the child was not hungry or tired. Among other things they instructed the child ahead of time, kept the child occupied, and diverted attention away from tempting items.

Proactive strategies can be taught. For example, Matthews Sanders and Mark Dadds (1982) trained parents to plan daily activities, which reduced deviant child behavior in most families. Another strategy states that parents can reward a disliked activity (e.g., cleaning one's room) with a desired activity (e.g., playing outdoors).

Child behavior can also be improved simply by improving parental instructions or requests (Green, Forehand, and McMahon 1979; Roberts et al. 1978). Child cooperation is more likely when parental instructions are direct and specific, and designate a one-step task that the child is capable of (Hembree-Kigin and McNeil 1995; Houlihan 1994). Instructions are also more effective if phrased positively (do versus don't) and followed by a five-second pause (Houlihan and Jones 1990; Patterson 1982).

"Catching them being good" is another important aspect of proactive discipline. Parents of well-behaved children tend to recognize and praise appropriate behavior more than do parents of disruptive children (Grusec and Goodnow 1994). Every time a parent misses an opportunity to catch a child being good, they miss a chance to teach that child appropriate behavior (Christophersen 1988). As a result, parental attention to misbehavior may be more rewarding to children than being ignored when they are behaving appropriately (Shriver and Allen 1996).

Prime opportunities to learn new abilities were called the "zone of proximal development" by Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky [1934] 1987). He noted that new abilities are learned one step at a time. Parents can facilitate children's learning by first demonstrating a new skill, asking leading questions, introducing the first parts of the new skill, and then giving the children more independence in performing the skill. Such skillful coaching by parents may enhance children's social skills and thereby their popularity.

Monitoring children's activities is another important proactive strategy. Supervision tends to prevent delinquency and drug abuse while enhancing popularity and scholastic achievement (Chamberlain and Patterson 1995). Monitoring takes different forms depending on the child's age. During the preteenage years, the important dimensions of monitoring include parental involvement and responsiveness. Later, knowing an adolescent's whereabouts and activities becomes a more important aspect of monitoring, reflecting an appropriate balance between parental influence and the teenager's growing independence.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodDiscipline - Goals Of Discipline, Foundations For Discipline, Proactive Discipline, Discipline Responses, Conditional Sequence Of Responses