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The Nurtured Heart Approach to Developing Greatness in Children!

A wonderful resource for building relationships with children and nourishing their positive qualities comes from Howard Glasser, who developed the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA). The goal of NHA is to develop character, self-control and self-awareness in children by focusing as little as possible on negative behaviors, directing a great deal of focus on behaviors that are moving in the right direction, and by setting limits and consequences which again, guide children toward positive actions. NHA requires that you change how you view difficult behaviors and challenging children—rather than seeing their challenges, develop your ability to perceive their successes and what those successes say about the child’s abilities.

The NHA is based on the idea that we often invest great energy or attention on children’s negative behaviors. If a child misbehaves, especially in a way that concerns us, we might get close to them, eye to eye, and explain with intensity and emphasis what they did wrong and why they shouldn’t do it again. The child comes to understand that the most powerful interactions with the significant adult in his life, and the most efficient way to get a connection with that person, is through misbehavior. The goal of NHA is to give very little time, energy or attention to negative behavior, and invest all that energy, focus and attention to their behaviors that represent their potential.

For example, perhaps a child fights regularly with a sibling. On those (even if they are rare) occasions when the child is playing without fighting, invest energy, time and enthusiasm bragging about the child—they are spending time getting along, and you notice in a big way.

Recognizing and validating behaviors that are examples of a child’s “greatness”; or incremental steps toward good choices, is a core tenant of the NHA approach. There are several ways to celebrate the child’s successes.

  • The child’s behavior can be described without judgment. “You have been playing without fighting for some time now!”

  • A judgment of a character strength or attribute that might underlie behavior indicates can be commented on. “I can see your patience and caring for one another!”

  • The values or rules being followed/upheld could be highlighted, underscoring that the child is making a choice not to break rules or misbehave. “You could be fighting and squabbling, but you are choosing to share and get along”.

  • Make a request of the child, then when the child complies, recognize that listening and following the directive requires certain attributes and/or values. “I asked you to quiet down, and you listened and showed good self-control” (never mind that you may have had to ask a few times—remember, you are focusing on the fact that they did it).

  • Notice the absence of negative behaviors, and the success, self-control, and character this represents in the child. “You have been playing in your room instead of bothering your brother—that shows real self-control! I can see that you are working hard to get along!”

If this all sounds like the old “catch ‘em being good” approach to recognizing and reinforcing the good behavior, it is similar in that you are looking for opportunities to focus on what the child is doing that is appropriate and positive. A big difference is the theory behind the NHA, which is not strictly behavioral but more relational. The adult connects intensely with the child, recognizing and believing in her inner wealth and capacity, and providing intense positive feedback about her behavior and potential. NHA builds on a child’s self-awareness of herself as a person who is progressing toward a more responsible, disciplined, focused and caring individual. It also reduces the child’s need to act in ways not consistent with this view of herself, as behaviors that don’t fit with that view are not energized, or reinforced.

Rules are set, consequences are imposed for negative behaviors with NHA, but there is little emphasis or time spent on rule violations. A quick time out or “reset” is imposed, just long enough for the child to stop the behavior and return to calm, and then recognition of those behaviors that move toward positive choices. The book for parents is called Transforming the Difficult Child, but aspects of the approach can be used effectively with all children. I recommend it!

Howard Glasser, Jennifer Easley. 1999. Transforming The Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach.

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