Develop a Habit of Yes


It was my second year teaching in the toddler class at a sweet Waldorf school in Colorado, and I was looking for a new story to tell. The children never tired of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks,” but I was sure ready for a change. I tried to think of an appropriate tale, and came up with a great idea: the story of “The Little Red Hen.” The story had lots of repetition and our class made bread together regularly, just like the little red hen; this would be perfect! That night I read the story through a couple of times, and the next day I started telling it at the snack table.

“Who will help me knead the dough?” said the Little Red Hen.

“Not I,” said the dog.

“Not I,” said the cat.

“Not I,” said the duck.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

I told the story, and an uncomfortable feeling developed in my stomach. I pushed through, feeling increasing uncomfortable as the story progressed. The next day I told it again, and it felt just as bad. I wasn’t sure why, but I was positive that I couldn’t tell this story.

I abandoned the Little Red Hen and found another story to tell, and life moved on, but my discomfort with the story stuck with me. Why had it felt so strange? This was The Little Red Hen, a classic children’s tale! In a conversation with my assistant, it dawned on me: I didn’t want to tell a story about the consequences of saying “no” when someone asks you to help, because I didn’t even want to bring up the idea to the children that they might say “no” to me when I asked them for help. The children in my care were an eager and cooperative bunch, and I wanted it to stay that way. There was no way I was going to tell them a story, day after day, about animals who said “no.” I wanted them to say “Yes!” I didn’t want them to have to think about consequences and decide to say “yes;” I wanted “yes” to be their automatic response. I wanted it to be a habit.

I was quite taken with this idea of a “habit of yes,” and I decided that I would work to establish it and see what happened. I didn’t want to have to convince a child every time we needed to do something, I didn’t want negotiations; I wanted them to do what I asked, eagerly and joyfully. I didn’t know it at the time because I hadn’t read much research on Early Childhood yet, but I had hit upon something profound.  The research shows that interactions between adults and toddlers go smoothly when they are mutually responsive, where both parties respond quickly and positively to one another.  Sounds an awful lot like a “habit of yes,” doesn’t it?  So how do we do it?  How do we establish a habit of yes in our toddlers and preschoolers, especially if we’ve fallen in to negative interactions and regular tantrums?    Let’s take a look at some of the ways I worked on helping these toddlers become more responsive to me, and you’ll see how they unexpectedly strengthened my own responsiveness in return.  It strengthened my relationship with each of them and completely transformed my class.


Give Them Things to Say “Yes” To

The first thing I realized was that if I wanted the children to say yes without having to think about it, I needed to say things in a way that the preferred answer would always be positive: I needed to give them things to say yes to. For this I focused on telling the children what I did want them to do, rather than what I didn’t. Instead of saying, “stop banging your spoon on the table,” I’d say, “You can use your spoon to take a bite.” Instead of saying, “Don’t throw the sand,” I’d say, “You can put that sand into a bucket.” Instead of saying, “Don’t grab,” I’d say, “You can find a toy that nobody is using.” In phrasing things in this way, the children didn’t have to stop doing something and think of an alternative on their own; instead, they could just say yes. It made it easier for them to be responsive to me.

The idea of saying what I want may sound simple, but the reality of doing it was actually quite challenging, especially in the moments when I needed something to change. The phrase “stop it” came so quickly to my lips! I really had to practice and work on it. Here’s an example of how things tended to go:


My toddlers and I are looking at the baby chicks that our school has gotten, which are “visiting” our play-yard for the day in a collapsible playpen. I look over and notice one little girl leaning hard against the playpen ‘wall’ to peer over, making it bow in dangerously. My immediate thought is to say, “Stop leaning against the playpen.” I stop myself before I open my mouth, committed to practicing this new technique. My next thought is to say, “Be careful.” But I know that isn’t quite right either. Although it is what I want her to do, I know it isn’t specific enough, because “careful” means something different in every situation: being careful touching the cat is different from being careful carrying a bowl of soup, which is different from being careful walking across a slippery, ice-covered sidewalk. Gah! I take a deep breath. What do I actually want her to do? Finally I figure it out: “Stand up straight and tall,” I tell her. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, she immediately stops leaning against the playpen and stands up straight. Success!


Wow.  It felt like magic! She didn’t have to think about it, she just did it. I was amazed again and again at how effective this positive language was in getting kids to do what I wanted, without their even having to think about it. I was helping them cultivate a habit of yes.

One reason that this technique is so startlingly effective is that we all think in images, and the modifier “don’t” means very little to our ancient brains. To prove this point, let’s do a quick little experiment right now. First, what image comes into your head when I say:


“Don’t run out into the street.”


Close your eyes for a moment if you need to. What image is there? It was an image of someone running out into the street, wasn’t it?

OK, now for the second part of the experiment. This time, what image comes into your head when I say: “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.” A much different image, isn’t it? Words create images in our heads, and modifiers like “don’t” mean very little to the image. This is true for us adults, who have a lifetime of experience with modifiers; how much stronger it must be for young children, who are just starting out.


As I worked on changing my language to say what I wanted rather than what I didn’t want, I developed four tips that helped me to be successful:

Be Specific!

As I hinted in my story about the girl with the chicks, I learned to avoid using nebulous phrases like that mean different things in different circumstances. One of these nebulous phrases is “be careful,” for the reasons described above. Other such phrases include “watch out.” and “use your words.”  Be specific! If he’s zooming his bike toward his friends, don’t say “watch out;” instead, say “Please go around your friends.” If she’s climbing recklessly, don’t say “be careful;” say, “Make sure each foot is solid before you move on.”   If you want him to say “More, please,” don’t say “use your words;” instead, tell him, “You can say, ‘More, please.’” Our children often are happy to be responsive to us if we let them know exactly what we’d like. When we use nebulous phrases, we’re counting on them guessing correctly what we mean by “careful” in this context, or which words we’d like them to use.

I discovered that I could also use this type of specific instructions to create images of how I wanted things to go before we went into a new situation. For example, “When I unstrap you, you can take your bag straight to the door and sit down on the step until I come to unlock it.” Then, when I got to the door, “When I open the door we’ll go right to the boot place and start taking off our wet boots.” Being very specific like this provided an image for kids to live in to, and made it easy for them to say yes with their actions.

Respond to their Urges

Another thing that helped me in my efforts to suggest effective alternatives was to look at their urges: if a child was throwing blocks, I’d make a quick assessment: which seemed more important to the child, interacting with the blocks, or the act of throwing? Depending on the answer, I’d either emphasize what she can do with the blocks, or I’d emphasize what she can throw. “Uh-oh, those blocks are for stacking! Will you stack them, or find something to throw?” I made sure that I always had a basket with soft balls that were appropriate for throwing indoors. Even with a young one-year-old, a question of, “What CAN you throw?” would soon lead to an eager child running over to the basket of balls.

This two-pronged approach can also work with location. If Mason is yelling in the kitchen, I’ll ask myself which seems more important, the act of yelling, or the being in the kitchen. If it’s the yelling, where could he yell? Outside? In the bathroom? Into a pillow? There’s almost always somewhere or some-how that the actions our children can do the things they feel compelled to do.

Don’t Get Stuck in a Rut

With a few kids it seemed like I kept keep repeating the same request over and over again: “Please keep the sand in the sandbox.” “Please keep your hands to yourself.” “Please talk in a quiet voice.” “Use your walking feet.” I discovered that these “please dampen yourself down” requests were often not as effective as I wished, and the more times I repeated the same request, the less responsive the kids became. I found that when I switched things up by suggesting something silly or unexpected, the kids’ responsiveness would go way up.   When a child was annoying someone else, an unexpectedly successful device was to suggest that they do it to themselves: “You can put sand on your own head.” “You can pull your own sleeve.” “You can poke yourself!” I’m not sure why this worked, but it often did.

Instead of endless requests for “walking feet,” I’d suggest hopping like a bunny or crawling like a kitty-cat. Instead of a call for “inside voices,” I’d suggest whispering, singing, or speaking in a French accent. Humor and imagery are both powerful tools in developing the desire to say yes; we’ll talk about those more in the next chapter.

Ask Your Child for Alternatives.

Sometimes I’d tell a child what I wanted him to do, but I didn’t get easy compliance.  He might ignore me altogether, launch into an elaborate explanation of why he NEEDS to be doing this thing, or veer off to do something completely different.

Whether a child ignored me or launched into an impassioned speech, my response would be the same: I’d ask him to suggest a solution himself. “Well, what CAN you do?” Occasionally a child might need a little more guidance to know what the parameters need to be: “What CAN you do that keeps water off the floor?” “What CAN you do that keeps our things safe?” “What CAN you do that’s as quiet as a mouse?” (If they’re resisting because it’s time to stop doing something fun, this may call for a special kind of help; we’ll talk about this in the Transitions class.)

If I gave a child something to say yes to (“You can pour that sand on yourself”) but he turned to do something else instead (put it into a bucket, or leave the sandbox) I’d simply say, “That works too. Thanks.”


Using using positive language and telling children what they CAN do didn’t happen overnight, but with practice it began to come more and more easily to me. Eventually I didn’t have to think about it at all; that was just how I spoke. When I was able to use this type of language, I found that things went significantly more smoothly. I discovered that I was able to set clear boundaries without saying “No,” “Stop,” and “Don’t” all the time, and the kids were able to be responsive to me more easily and effectively. We were well on our way to developing that habit of yes.

While this was a good start, using positive language was only one of the tools I used to help children be responsive. In addition to that, I assumed positive intent, and I helped them get started if words didn’t work.


Assume Positive Intent

In addition to using positive language, I also worked to assume positive intent on the part of the kids. This technique is subtle but can be very powerful. It takes telling children what they CAN do, to the next level. I wanted the children to feel that saying Yes to me was easy and natural. I wanted them to feel like they did it all the time, without even having to think about it. One of the ways I did this by making the conscious decision to assume that the children wanted to be enjoyable and helpful.

I worked on assuming that the children wanted to be enjoyable and helpful even when the things they were doing didn’t seem especially enjoyable or helpful at the moment. I discovered that when I was able to assume positive intent, I was often able to transform borderline behavior into something that actually was more enjoyable. When I was folding laundry and little 17-month-old Tal would throw the washcloths into the air, instead of saying, “You can fold the washcloth,” I’d assume helpful intent: “Thank you for these washcloths! Can you find another one for me?” When he did, I might throw in something for him to say yes to: “This time, you can put it right here,” and I’d pat my lap. When we were eating and two-and-a-half-year-old Jay-Jay started making loud droning noises, instead of saying, “Please make your voice quieter,” or better yet, “Take a bite!” I’d assume positive intent: “It does seem like it’s time for a song, doesn’t it, Jay-Jay? Let’s sing together,” and we’d sing “The Wheels on the Bus,” or “The Muffin Man,” or “Three Little Ducks.” I would assume that the children wanted to be helpful and enjoyable, and I’d give them a little nudge to make it so. They were then able to be helpful and enjoyable in actuality, and through this they came to see themselves as helpful and enjoyable people. It was win-win for us all. Everyone wants to be around people who enjoy their company.


Help Them Get Started

Finally, I realized that if I wanted yes to be a habit, it had to be automatic. In order for it to become automatic, I’d need to make sure that they always got started right away, and I’d need to help them if it didn’t happen on its own.  Ideally, I wanted to help them get started in a way that would make them more likely to say yes to me in the future, not less likely.

After some experimentation, I discovered that the most effective way was to help them physically.  After all, young children are always in motion (unless they’re asleep), so often all I needed was to get them moving in the right direction.  And I made it as enjoyable as possible. After all, we all do things that are fun last time more eagerly than things that were unpleasant the last time around. So if I want them to jump to do what I say, then doing what I’d be smart to make doing what I say enjoyable. (add examples: throwing sand in the sandbox. Getting shoes on.)

So that’s it: I’d ask them once, and if they didn’t jump to it, I’d say cheerfully, “Oh, it looks like you need some help,” and then I’d get up and help them physically. Sounds simple, right? Largely, it is. Simple, and effective. Unfortunately, I hated it. I hated hauling my adult body up and down all the time. I was often busy with another child. It felt so much easier to talk than to get up. But I saw how much more effective it was, and I was determined to help the children develop the habit of Yes, so I stopped sighing to myself and just did it. I stopped saying things again in a louder voice. I stopped explaining why they needed to do the thing I’d asked. I stopped telling them that they needed to do it ‘right now,’ or that I needed them to be a big boy or a big girl. I stopped counting to three. Now, I do only one thing: I go over to them and help them physically. I incorporate imagination and humor when I can, but it is the physical nature of my help that is the key.

Young children live through the will, and are happiest in motion. Sometimes, the only help that is needed is to point them in the right direction. More often it means taking them by the hand, and sometimes it means swooping them up and flying them over like and airplane. My help is not punitive; on the contrary, it’s generally fun and connecting. Saying Yes should bring us closer together! But it comes each time after asking only once.  As the children learn that I will ALWAYS follow through immediately, the habit of Yes grows.


The Habit of “Yes”

After several months’ hard work helping the children to develop a habit of Yes, our days were going more smoothly. There were fewer struggles, and I found I was enjoying the children in a new way. I was busy patting myself on the back for my good work when I had an epiphany: this new ease wasn’t because the children were different. The reality was that I was the one who had changed, and the children were merely responding to that. The person I’d transformed through my hard work was myself. It had become natural for me to say things in positive ways, talking about what I liked and what I wanted. I almost never said No, but expectations were firm and boundaries were clear. I didn’t waste my time explaining, complaining or cajoling, but moved into action to help children as it was needed. I rarely minded giving help to those who needed it, since I saw it as a chance to connect, using humor and imagination. I had evolved into someone with whom the children could float through the day, being successful, helpful and enjoyable. But they weren’t the only ones: I, too, could float through the day, being successful, helpful and enjoyable. I, like the children, had developed the habit of Yes.


This is the magic of helping our children become more responsive to us. In order to establish patterns where they would say yes eagerly and joyfully, we actually strengthening our own responsiveness, even as they strengthen their responsiveness to us. Having these expectations of our children, and helping them to follow through, strengthens our relationships. As being responsive to us becomes a habit for our children, power struggles can begin to melt away, giving us the time and the space to start enjoying our children more and more. We are establishing a mutually responsive relationship, where both parties matter.




  1. Some FAQs from previous classes:

    Q: What about safety issues? If my child is about to do something unsafe, I’m going to give a sharp “No!” Is that wrong?

    A: In safety situations a strong NO! is absolutely warranted. Of course, the real purpose of the “no” is to get the child’s attention very quickly. One way that I do that is to clap twice, VERY loudly. That almost always gets a head-turn my way, and gives me a millisecond to think of what to say. Of course, in real safety situations you don’t want to have to stop and think about what to do, so a sharp “No” is just fine. But even if you do use it then, the less frequently you use it in other situations, the more impact it will have when it really matters.
    Of course, in safety situations getting the child to stop is only the first step; they can only freeze for an instant and then they need to do something. What is that something? So even when I use that “No” in a safety situation, I will still try to immediately follow it up with a statement of what I want the child to do: “Pull your hands back!” “Step back, please,” or “Come stand by me!” Saying what you WANT is much more likely to have a child doing what you need them to do.

  2. Another FAQ:

    Q: My daughter is 19 months and is a big pusher of other kids. I’ve been working on her to develop those “gentle hands,” but wouldn’t it just be clearer boundaries to say “Do not push”?

    A: Remember, the “do not” has very little effect on the picture that’s created in our heads. So what is it about the “Do not push” that feels clearer to you? Is it the tone of voice? You can absolutely use that tone with a “Oh no. You may touch gently or you may step away.” If she can’t remember (and choose) to do this, then you help her, physically. That may be by helping her practice touching gently, or it may be by removing her from the situation, letting her know, “You’re having trouble remembering. You can be with me until you’re ready to touch gently.” That boundary feels VERY clear, and is more likely to be effective as well.
    One more thought about repetitive actions like pushing in very young kids: there are two pieces to this: interacting with her friends, and pushing. Which feels more important? If she’s really having a hard time controlling that urge to push, it may be that she needs a place or a way where it IS appropriate for her to push. Where could that be? Could she push YOU, if she asks first? Can there be a “push spot” on the wall? Some 19 month olds really love pushing very heavy things like full-sized chairs around; could she do that? Then she can choose: “If you want to push, you can push on the wall. If you want to touch your friend, you MUST touch gently.” This type of language can be both clear AND effective.

  3. Brittany Longhurst says

    A step-by-step printout of this would be GREAT. 🙂

  4. For an interesting article on why negative comments affect us more strongly than positive ones do, read this article:

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