Introduction to "The Nurtured Heart Approach"

Written for:
10-year-old boy
Fetal alcohol effects
Self-contained special-education class
One-on-one aide
By Terri Mauro

[Editor's note: "The Nurtured Heart Approach" is from the book "Transforming the Difficult Child" by Howard Glasser, MA, and Jennifer Easley, MA, and is copyrighted by them. You can learn more about their methods from their Web site at This is an attempt to distill a little of this wonderful, very helpful book into brief readable form for teachers.]

[Child] had a SPECTACULAR day on Sunday. He was quiet in church, said "Amen" when he received the Host (he's been tending toward either "thank you" or "excuse me" in recent weeks), was very helpful all day, self-corrected nicely when he was near a slip-up, and only ended up in the time-out chair once, right before bed, when the fatigue sillies were setting in. I hope that's the same kid you see today, because he was pretty awesome.

We've seen a lot of that kid over the past few weeks, and whether it's really a product of the new behavior management scheme we're using -- and not aftereffects of a cold, or a maturity growth spurt, or the aftereffects of a developmental growth spurt (which usually leaves him pretty disorganized while it's going on) -- I wanted to tell you some of the things we've been doing, in case they're really what's making the difference.

One simple change has been phrasing requests with the words "I need." The presumption of the book ("Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach" by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley) is that any request worded more softly than that -- with words like "please" and "why don't you" and "can't you" and "I'd like you to," as I've been prone to do -- give the child the impression that there's an option to just say no. This seems impossibly simplistic, but I can't deny that since we've started saying "I need you to ...," his compliance has increased to almost 100%. Sometimes we have to add a NOW at the end, but it works. Amazing.

Another big element of this approach is an avalanche of positive statements through the day. The theory here is that intense kids get a bigger emotional payoff for negative behavior, and though they may not like it or do it consciously, they become addicted to that energy. I would not have thought that true for [child], but he does often seem to want to get the worst reaction out of the way when he feels he can't control himself anyway. And again, I can't deny that the endless positivity has made a difference -- in him, and maybe in me, too, charged with constantly finding good or neutral behavior to promote. The statements fall into three categories:

Video moments: Just observe what the child is doing, in a neutral way, when he's not breaking the rules. Some examples from the book: "I notice that you're working hard on your drawing. It looks like a fancy car with green stripes and a red top." "I saw you dribbling the ball up to the hoop. You looked disappointed when your shot bounced off the rim." The idea is that even a rule-breaking child spends much more time not breaking the rules than breaking them, but tends to receive our notice and energy much more dramatically when the behavior is negative. I know I've been guilty of fending [child] off when I'm busy with something, but then, when he misbehaves, being 100% present and on the problem. Wrong strategy.

Proactive recognition: Provide an energetic verbal response when rules are NOT broken, instead of when they are. Any time [child] gets anywhere near another child without pushing, praise him enthusiastically for not pushing. If he goes five minutes without saying words you don't like, make a big deal about how he's controlling his words. Pull successes out of neutral behavior. If you see he's getting fidgety at his desk, praise him for staying at his desk so long. I would have thought that, with [child], these comments would have put the thing we don't want him to do in his mental loop and he would immediately do it, but this has not been the case at home, and I think it's because they're presented in a positive way. Some examples from the book: "Brandon, I appreciate that you have not used foul language all morning long. Thank you for following the rules." "Frankie, I like how you are using your power to control your strong feelings. You did not take your frustration out by breaking anything or hitting anybody. Keep up the good work."

Creative recognition: Use simple, clear and specific requests to "create" successes. Pick ones the child is likely to do anyway. Provide specific information about what you see him doing. This is where the "I need you to" wording above comes in. Praise even partial compliance ("I see you were really trying to...").

This is what we've been trying to do for positive or neutral behavior. Negative behavior gets a quick consequence -- a brief time-out -- but no energy at all. At times when he's seemed ready to slip out of control, I've told him "I'm not going to give you any energy when you're like this," and he's pulled himself back from the edge. He's been extremely cooperative about going to the time-out chair, and incidences of rule-breaking behaviors have decreased dramatically. NO ENERGY for bad behavior. No berating or blaming, but also no cajoling, no pleading, no bribing, no talking it over, no active attempts to turn the behavior around (and I know I've been guilty of all those). Just a quick trip to the time-out chair, and move on. No conversation after -- he's done his time, and he's a free man.

This is all accompanied by a credit system that allows us, at the end of the day, to give him tangible rewards for not breaking the rules, and additional rewards for specific chores, responsibilities and nice things he does. (More importantly, it's an additional opportunity to make a big deal over all the times he did good and didn't do bad). I don't know how motivating this is for him at the moment, but he's participating, which I didn't think he would. He bought a car over the weekend with credits he earned, and was very keen to do so. So I have my hopes.

Thank you for all your help and understanding.

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