Attributing positive intent is one of the tenets of Conscious Discipline that we find particularly powerful when confronted with conflicts in the classroom or the playground. It consists in short-circuiting all our “natural” impulses to jump, judge and scold, instead calmly coming up with and articulating aloud a plausible positive reason for the child / children behavior. If at a loss, not worrying about plausibility and going straight for “calm” and “positive” can go a long way. The reason why attributing positive intent is so powerful is that, most of the time, children at the origin of a conflict do not have a clear idea of why they did whatever they did. And they can't think about it because they are too busy with the conflict itself, defending their position and accusing the other side. Pondering aloud over a possible reason for the initial behavior that does not make the children look “bad” trumps their defenses, distracts them from the crisis and get them to actually think about what happened. They may very well set you straight then, saying “Actually I did it because ...”
Dr. Bailey refers to the process as “lifting the child into higher centers of the brain.” Entering a conflict typically shatters one's sense of safety, and, with it, one's ability to reason. If an adult steps in with only negative things to say (“you clearly hurt him on purpose,” or, “you know better”), the sense of insecurity deepens, and the chances for a violent meltdown increase. Whereas if an adult steps in calmly with a positive statement (“looks like you wanted this ball badly”), the child's sense of safety can be restored quasi-instantly, after which the child is ready to listen to whatever else the adult has to say (“I understand how frustrated you must have felt, however, it is not OK to hit. Instead you could have ...”).
The procedure is also very beneficial for the other children involved, whether “victims,” “tacit accomplices,” or onlookers. They may be deprived of the short-lived satisfaction of seeing a teacher rushing in to scold the “culprit.” By witnessing the teachable moment, however, they gain an insight into the motivations of the said “culprit,” they hear the teacher acknowledge that it was not OK, in some case they may even realize that part of their own behavior may have been a trigger, or they may make parallels with prior situations where they were the culprit; in short they get to think themselves, and chances increase that they may pause before attributing evil intent to one of their peers in the future.
Attributing positive intent is by no means easy, as all of us on the staff can testify; I suspect some of the parents who volunteer in the classroom would agree too. It means controlling our own impulsivity and anger, and practicing verbalizing what sometimes seems like the opposite of what we are tempted to say. As with everything else in Conscious Discipline, it involves changing our own perception or behavior first. Practice is essential because, as Dr. Bailey emphasizes, “faking it does not work. Kids can see right through fake caring.” Nevertheless, we cannot stress enough how powerful and worthwhile the concept is, what shifts we witness when we manage to do it right and how satisfying it is to see a child who “hates you” one minute, accept you as a guide the next and improve his/her self-control over time.
To learn more on positive intent and the other powers of Conscious Discipline, consider reading: “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline,” by Becky Bailey and/or consider registering for the Conscious Discipline workshop that will be offered free of charge at the school on Sunday, April 29, 1–4 pm. There are also webinars to be watched on her website, either in real time or from the archives.