The power of positive language.

14th June 2009  |  by Greg


It’s hard to do, isn’t it? To not think of yellow, the best strategy is probably to think of another colour. So, if I really wanted you not to think of yellow, it would be better to ask you to think of green and get a big bit of green for you to look at instead. Simple really.

So why then, would so many adults use the first method when giving children instructions? For example:

“Don’t run!”

Now I may have graduated from the School of Stating the Bloomin’ Obvious but I reckon it has got to be better to say:


This is especially true with very young children. Saying “Don’t throw your food on the floor” is even more pointless with little ones. I’m not entirely convinced many of them fully understand the concept of the negative contraction. All they hear is, “… throw your food on the floor”. A much better phrase would be, “Keep your food on the tray”.

Now using positive language by itself does not make children behave but this simple exercise shows the undeniable power of framing instructions in such a way that a description of what you want is included.

When we give instructions positively, we present an image of success in the child’s mind. In my last post, I talked about the importance of planning in achieving my personal goals. In giving positive instructions, we are sharing a plan. We are describing the future as we’d like it to look, not the present scenario that we don’t like.

Now I must apologise in advance. Everytime you hear yourself, partners, other parents or fellow teachers use negative language you’ll notice it. I have deliberately programmed your reticular activating system (RAS)- that’s the same bit of your brain that, without being asked, listens out for your name at parties and your flight number at the airport. You won’t be able stop yourself noticing- sorry.

Let’s try again using the power of positive language:


(By the way, if I haven’t successfully programmed your RAS, you won’t remember I haven’t, so I can’t lose.)

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