The Power of Positive Communication

By Dave Sylvestro with Eve Kessler, Esq.


Parents play a key role in helping a child with a negative attitude adopt a more positive outlook • Being intentional in how you communicate is fundamental to building confidence, resilience, and independence • Even when resolving conflicts, choose your words carefully

2.6.10-Positive-CommunicationIt’s important for parents of children with LD and ADHD to help their kids live independent and responsible lives. However, even the most well-intentioned parents often struggle with how to help their child become self-reliant.

Below are guidelines to encourage your child to move from a “can’t-do” attitude to a “can-do” attitude.

Principles to Encourage Independence
  1. Communicate values to live by. Model responsibility, accountability, and independence. Be a “human highlighter” by pointing out your behavior, attitude, and values, while keeping his struggles in mind: “This is a task I have such trouble starting, but when I finish it, I feel so good!”
  2. Encourage strengths. Help your child tap into his strengths and be specific in your praise:“It’s so terrific that you’ve been able to stick with the history project that was so hard for you at the beginning!”
  3. Focus on the “cans.” Reinforce things your child can do and behaviors you’ve witnessed that demonstrate his know-how. Celebrate all areas of competence. Don’t harp on what your child cannot do, what you think he should be able to do, or what you wish he could do. Even if it’s not what you’d choose—Minecraft, for example—your child’s persistence and ability to learn the game reflect valuable learning skills.
  4. Start small. When selecting skills to work on with your child, begin with those that are easy to achieve. State the target goal clearly. Keep your child from attempting a goal he has little chance of accomplishing. Start by giving him choices of projects that are challenging, yet possible to complete: “I love your vision and your confidence in your ability to build a whole tree house. But even big projects begin with something small. Let’s start with something a little simpler and build up to your goal. Would you like to start building a rope swing or maybe a wooden ladder?”
  5. Provide opportunities for your child to stretch. You want your child to live on the edge of competence—to push for things, not to be content only doing things within his reach. Balancing “too easy” and “too difficult” may be tricky. If he keeps failing, he will become afraid of failure and reluctant to try new things.
  6. View learning as a process. Think of completing a task as an exciting journey, rather than as a single performance. Don’t wait until the goal is accomplished to applaud your child. Reward positive direction, and tune into the effort as much as the end product. Make sure he feels your praise as he moves through the steps to reach his goal. Let the process breed confidence and positive risk-taking skills.
  7. Give frequent praise and recognition. A change in behavior requires positive, not negative, reinforcement. Most parents overestimate the amount of praise they give their child. The magic number is 5 praises for every 1 negative comment. Even if your child demonstrates a problem behavior—for example, does not complete a project, begins to interrupt at the dinner table, or returns after curfew—you can clearly target your praise: “Nice job finishing numbers 1 through 3 of your homework;” “Thanks for letting her finish her story;” “You’ve shown you can be so good about curfew. What happened tonight?”
Discussing Problems: Positive Talk

Parents have many opportunities throughout the day to discuss specific conflicts with their kids. Although you may want just to fix whatever the problem is, that would further enable the child. Instead, discuss the problem in a positive, respectful way. Before beginning the conversation, have a clear idea of what you want to say from an adult perspective. You can then choose the words and delivery style suited to your child’s age and understanding. The goal is to discuss and resolve conflicts in a way that helps foster independence.

  1. Clearly identify the problem. Focus on the main issue and tease out less significant details. Check frequently and respectfully for understanding.
  2. Choose the right time to talk. Although it is helpful to discuss a problem close in time to the event, it is more helpful when there is less anger, fewer words, a low volume, and privacy: “I am too upset to talk to you right now; we will talk later when we are calmer.”
  3. Identify the primary feeling. Your child might say he feels angry about a situation—for example, having his peers laugh at him for falling down at recess—but his primary emotion may be something else—in this case, humiliation or embarrassment. Don’t try to correct his feelings. Instead, restate them and tell him what you see: “Wow, that sounds embarrassing. Maybe next time you can laugh it off and say something like, ‘Oops, that was clumsy.’” If he is stuck in his anger: “Pause and think about what you were feeling before you were angry.”
  4. Check for mutual agreement on the facts. Summarize the situation: “Now as I remember it, we talked about X. Tell me how you understand it.” If there is a difference of opinion: “I wonder why I might be remembering it so differently?” Shape the discussion and make sure your child has a turn to speak.
  5. Create a solution-oriented plan. Articulate a goal; brainstorm possible solutions; anticipate possible snags; set a time for a progress check; and assess the process and make adjustments, as needed.
Are You Part of the Problem?
While many parents of kids with LD and ADHD try to be supportive, expedience often wins out over instruction, and they end up doing tasks and projects for their child rather than with him. “Able-ing” becomes “enabling.” Other parents have unrealistic expectations and become frustrated when their child doesn’t meet them. They focus on his disabilities rather than on his abilities, giving negative behavior attention and ignoring the positive. Kids pick up on their parents’ disappointment and, feeling a sense of failure, they adopt a “cannot do” attitude. They then rely on their parents more, and the cycle continues. Only you can change the pattern.

This article is based on presentations given by Dave Sylvestro at a conference co-sponsored by Eagle Hill School, Greenwich, CT and Smart Kids, and a workshop co-sponsored by SPED*NET Wilton, Norwalk SPEDPartners and Norwalk Public Schools.

Sylvestro has been a school psychologist at Eagle Hill School for over 30 years. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate lawyer with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder and President of SPED*NET Wilton, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT),, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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