useful phrases for working with children

I collect phrases. When I hear a string of words that resonates, I try to capture them in my mind or on paper. We are constantly trying to find the words to use with children — words that set limits, words that encourage, words that include.

useful phrases for working with children


During my school’s work week, while carpet was being installed in my class, I chatted with the teachers and administrators — what are some of your favorite phrases to use with children?

Here are 13 phrases, covering general interactions, alternatives for “good job”, conflict resolution, and the big one, redirection and limit setting. As you can see, most of them don’t just tell, rather they engage the child, help the child recognize their needs, and give the child the opportunity to be a problem solver. It’s not “Carry the tray right”, we say “Remind me, how do we carry a tray?” By engaging the child with these underlying ideas, we are giving them autonomy and a sense of control, rather than being controlled and just telling them what to do.


I see. . . or I notice. . .

Phrases that help redirect behavior and set limits

Remind me. . . (where you should be) (how we carry a tray)

What can you say?

You are showing me. . . (that you are not being safe with the scissors)

What would be a safe way to do that?

I found something that belongs to you! (usually a work that is left out, a jacket on the floor)

Would you like ______ or _______, you choose. (Would you like to put on your pjs or brush your teeth first? Would you like to put away the puzzle or the art work?)

Conflict resolution

Tell me a way that you would like me to help.

How can we work to solve this problem?

What do you need to feel better?

Words that encourage and recognize effort

It looks like you really enjoyed that work.

Tell me about your work, what’s your favorite part?

That’s a tough one, but I think you can work it out.

What are some of you favorite phrases? Leave them in the comments so we can all share!

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14 thoughts on “useful phrases for working with children

  1. For toddlers, mostly.

    When a child is asking for help rather than do the task for the child, I say thing like “Hhhmmm, I’ll watch you” “you do ___ (put the shoe on) and then I’ll ____ (tie it)” “I have a suggestion. (then wait for the child to stop struggling with the task)Try this. (demonstrate task)”

    Conflict situations, stopping them (when dangerous), “I won’t let you____ (hit, push)” as I extend my arm to prevent the action

    Conflict situations, mediating them, “you can say: ____” (supply short phrase like “that’s my work” “please don’t touch me” etc – toddlers should NOT be told “use your words” because when the chips are down they don’t necessarily *have* any words and lots of toddlers often don’t have many words to begin with) (Actually I’d like to abolish that phrase entirely; most older children and adults have a hard time finding “their words” when they are having really strong feelings. /soapbox)

    To encourage concentration, say nothing.

  2. How do you respond to a child who mulishly answers “Nothing!” when you ask “Would you like to put away the puzzle or the art work?”

    1. I would start with — I see you’re not ready to make a choice, so I will pick. Let’s put away the puzzle first.

      If they don’t make a choice, it becomes your choice.

    2. I would say: “Nothing” is not an answer. I will wait here until you choose between putting away the puzzle or the art work.

  3. I saw a mother in the park last week whose 3 (?) year old was refusing to leave the park with her. The mother was anxious to make it to an appointment, and was threatening to take away the child’s toys if she didn’t co-operate. What would you have said, do you think?

    1. I would say: “it is time to go, would you like to go to the car jumping like a rabbit or running like a dog?” The child wants to be in control, and giving two choices that you selected first, makes them feel in control and give them the opportunity to practice making decisions.

  4. Plz I have an appointment today. I will definitely bring you another day when you can spend a lot of time in the park. Now we have to leave can plz come. Plz…..

  5. Great post. I know when it comes to children certain phrases you say really work with them and others go right over their For example..for the last 2 years my daughter was in preschool I would ask her every day “what did you do in school today?” and her response everyday “I Dont remember..i think we played with *** or maybe we did ***” But every time I asked her what she did or learned she just couldn’t remember. Then I heard a mother ask her daughter “what were your 3 favorite things you did in school today” and the child rattled off a list..was her daughter just brilliant and remember everything? Nope, it was just that phrase. I asked my daughter and BOOM she remembered everything she did in was a miracle!
    I will say that a lot of moms and I talked about this and it seemed to be the going census that their child “couldn’t remember” anything from school..the moms changed their wording and it worked great! So this post really hits home and makes you wonder what else you are saying that they do not understand!
    Great chatting with you..stop by my blog and see my daughter off to Kindergarten and DIY projects @
    Have a great day

  6. Love! I worked with older elementary children and have tried different phrasings to encourage self-evaluation of work. I like, “Do you notice anything that you would like to change? Take a moment to see.” If they don’t notice anything, then I might make a mental note to highlight a particular lesson again.

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