Positive Language Patterning

A key principle in Neuro Linguistic Programming is:

“The meaning of communication is the response you get”

In other words, if you aren’t getting the desired outcome – you need to change your communication, not blame the other person. This can be hard when we feel we are “right” and the young person is “wrong” but ultimately, we are responsible for ensuring we communicate well.

Neuro Linguistic Programming works on the assumption that our brains work in a particular way when we hear instructions or phrases.

For example, have you ever had a colleague or friend tell you “don’t worry” ? Do you continue to worry or even focus more on your feelings of worry? Positive Language Patterning works in the same way as this by leading the young people we work with to make better choices by:


  1. Showing them we believe they can behave by presupposing positive outcomes before they happen
  2. Making it easy for a student to back down from poor behaviour or make a better choice by communicating more effectively.

Some quick fixes

NLP takes a bit of practice and works best when as many people as possible in your organisation are committed to using it. There are some really quick language fixes that will allow you to lead the young person you are working with to make good choice without them even realising it.

Can’t vs. Can

Showing a young person that you believe in them, even when they are so challenging that nobody else does, is very powerful. This approach is likely, with some time and practice, to instil a sense of confidence in a young person and make it more difficult for them to continue to misbehave. By swapping can’t for can, you invest your faith in the young person’s desire to do better. For example:


  • “Donna, you can’t sit there” becomes “Donna, you can sit over here please”
  • “James, I cannot understand why you are so hyper today, you can’t jump on the sofas” becomes “James, I can understand why you are hyper after all that fizzy drink – you can come down off the sofa please and sit over there”
  • “Michael, you can’t smoke in school” becomes “Michael, I am not keen on you smoking but if you have to do it you can smoke in the smoking shelter outside please”

Don’t vs. Do

When you say “don’t” or “stop” to a young person, it will be exactly what they are expecting to hear. They may have heard it a million times before and the words may have lost all their power. Imagine how may times a challenging young person has been told not to do something!

By swapping “don’t” or “stop” for positive words like “do” or “start” you are telling the young person, clearly, what you do want them to do, making it easier for them to follow the instruction. For example:


  • “Ben stop hitting Matthew” becomes “Ben, sit over there and leave Matthew alone please”
  • “Chris, don’t sit on the table, you are always doing this and it is really disruptive” becomes “Chris, sit here please, you are doing so well today and we’re going to get this work finished now.”
  • “Craig, stop it, you are being so annoying today” becomes “Craig, start collecting up the stationary so we can all get out of here on time please”

If vs. When / Try vs. Do

If there is any implication of doubt in the instructions you give a young person, you allow for them to make a negative choice by highlighting that poor outcomes are a possibility. We need to always presuppose positive outcomes by removing any sense of doubt that we have about the young person’s ability to behave. For example:


  • “Ben, if you finish your work we might be able to go our for football” becomes “Ben, when you finish your work we will go out for football”
  • “Craig, I need you to try and do your maths please” becomes “Craig do your maths please, you are doing so brilliantly so far”
  • If you behave this morning, I might feel like rewarding you” “When you have a brilliant session this morning, you will get a reward for good behaviour”

But vs. And/While

Like swapping if for when, swapping but for and or while removes any doubt buy showing the young person that you know they can and will behave – that you think well of them and reflect that in the way you talk to them.

By introducing “but” into your language, it undervalues what the young person has already done well, and they are likely to only focus on the negative comment that follows the positive.  For example:

  • “You are doing pretty well today Lee, but if I see you doing that again you’ll lose reward points” becomes “Lee, you are doing so well today and I know you are going to keep going and get your reward points”
  • “Mark you have finished the first part of the test but I need you to stop messing around now or you won’t finish the second part” becomes “Mark, you have finished the first part of the test and when you finish the second part you’ll have done amazing today!”
  • “Beth you are managing much better today, but I need you to keep it up or it’ll be a waste” becomes “Beth, you have achieved so much so far, and while we finish off I know you can keep it up”

When you are ready, complete the activity below to practice using positive language patterning.