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    Tool 23 … Descriptive recognition

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    A summary of ideas for discussion

    • Learn the art of descriptive recognition and use it when you catch children doing something right!
    • Behaviours fall into one of two categories. Helpful, healthy, acceptable behaviours fit into the first category. These behaviours are always worth keeping an eye out for in order to encourage.
    • Learn to catch a child doing something right!
    • Message: When you … … … I feel/think … … … because … … … [look for response]

Correction does much, but encouragement does more.
‣‣‣ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Behaviours generally fall into one of two categories. Helpful, healthy and acceptable behaviours or unhelpful, unhealthy and unacceptable behaviours. The focus of this tool is on the first category and these behaviours are always worth keeping an eye out for.

Learn to catch a child doing something right! Find a way to affirm that behaviour in a well worded couple of sentences and then even reward it in some way. Often the verbal encouragement is reward enough! The challenge here is to make sure that your encouragement is as positive and as clear as possible.

On one level, “Good boy!” is OK but on a deeper level it can be confusing. When you say, “Good boy” what do you mean exactly? Is that meaning clear to the child?

For example, if a child has made a complete mess of something but you can see the effort and courage in the attempt, a phrase like “Good boy” in response to the effort or “Bad boy” in response to the mess is inadequate because it doesn’t describe what it is you have focussed on. A child may be focussing on the mess and will be confused by, “Good boy!” You see where this is going?

Take the few seconds required to tell a short, descriptive story that gives a powerful recognition to the essence of what is happening:

  1. When you … (describe the facts/ situation)
  2. I feel/think … (Describe your feelings and/or thoughts)
  3. Because … (Say why you are feeling or thinking this way; say what it means to you; describe the good consequences flowing out of this behaviour)
  4. Wait for their response; acknowledge it without being distracted by it; repeat steps one to three as necessary until you judge that your child has received your message.


Here’s an example:

Thank you for your help in putting everything away when we finished. When you help me like that (1) it makes me extremely pleased and happy. (2) It meant we could leave sooner to go to the park. (3) A big smile from your child (4) followed by a big shared hug!

After a while of practising the pattern, you can mix it up so it doesn’t sound so formulaic.

Another example:

I was just so excited and so proud and I was sooooo happy (2) when I saw you share your toys with your sister. It shows me that you are thinking about the feelings of others and what makes them happy. (1) I’m sure you were a bit worried on the inside about whether or not she would break them but you didn’t let it stop you! (3) I was rapt! (2)

Your child says, “But she wouldn’t share her toys with me, it’s not fair!” (4)

Your reflection: “Maybe so.” … (4) … don’t get into a discussion here. Focus on your child’s behaviour, not a distraction from the main issue.

Repeat your descriptive recognition. (1-3) Do this until you sense your descriptive encouragement is received by your child. Perhaps a smile, a hug or a ‘thumbs up’ can seal the interaction.


Writing these sorts of things in greeting cards, sms, notes or emails is often a great way to practice before you say them out loud.

Further Research:

  • Write down one or two descriptive recognitions related to real life situations in your family. Practice delivering them out loud in a role play with someone near you. Even write them in a card or an SMS. What have you seen or heard or tried?
  • Is a child ever too young or too old to start hearing this sort of encouragement? Why/why not? What have you seen or heard or tried?
  • For the second category of behaviours containing unhelpful, unhealthy and not acceptable behaviours, how could this same tool be adapted? What have you seen or heard or tried?
  • Have you ever considered telling ‘stories’ using this pattern of ~ facts ~ feelings/thoughts ~ outcomes/consequences? e.g. We threw a surprise party for Annie which she just loved because she was really feeling down and she said it showed her just how much people cared. What have you seen or heard or tried?
  • Have you ever asked questions to uncover these story elements when listening to your child’s stories? What have you seen or heard or tried?

Most recent edit: 27FEB17~pd

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