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Tolerating "No" Part 1: Early Learners

Updated: Feb 16, 2023



Does your child have epic meltdowns hearing the word "No"?


Do you get anxious when your child asks for something that you know you'll have to say "No" to?


Well, here are some tips to try with your early learner. These strategies could be for anyone, but are even more relevant for children (with our without a disability) who are under the age of approximately 6 years, or who are developmentally in the early stages of learning.


Tip # 1 - Change your language


For some children, even hearing this word is a trigger for them to react.

This strategy is recommended if your child is having intense reactions to hearing "No" and you want to try a strategy that might initially reduce your child's reaction quickly.

  • Avoid saying that actual word "No"

  • Try using language such as "Not yet", "Not right now", "Maybe later" etc.

  • If possible, tell your child WHEN they can access the item or activity e.g. "We can't go to the playground today, but we can go tomorrow morning"

This recommendations is not a guarantee that your child's reactions will reduce. For some children this can help, for others more scaffolding and teaching is required.


Tip # 2 - Give a choice


Providing choice to children is a powerful tool and something we want our children to use as much as possible (when it's appropriate). The more choice out children have, the more they can develop their independence, feel empowered and in control. Providing choices also helps with cooperation.


  • In a "No" situation you can provide choice by giving two alternative options e.g. "Cookies are finished, you can have a cracker with cheese or blueberries".


**Warning** Avoid getting into a back and forth battle with your child and providing an endless array of alternative options because they keep refusing your suggestions. If you child refuses the options you gave them, you can:

  1. Give them a more general choice (rather than two specific options) e.g. "You can choose another toy to play with" or "You can choose any food in the red bowl"

  2. Stop offering lots of different choices and start to engage in one of the alternatives that you think your child likes (e.g. you told your child that they can play with bubbles or Lego. So, you start to play with bubbles on your own or with other children). This can help to re-direct your child to one of the alternatives.


Tip # 3 - Create a "Not available" board


This is a great option for activities and items that are requested regularly and you find yourself having to say "No" at similar times of the day or repeatedly.


  • Create a board (you could use a whiteboard or a laminated piece of colored paper) that has the words "Not available" written on it with a symbol to represent this.

  • Put images or write words for items that aren't available at that point in time.

  • Remove the image or rub out the words when the items/activities are able to be requested.

  • If you child requests for something that is on the "Not available" board, you can simply point to the image or word (sometimes less talking is better) and then provide them with the alternative options.


Tip # 4 - Teach and reinforce tolerating "No"


The purpose of this step is to simply help your child to remain calm and accept hearing the word "No". We are working to un-pair the negative association and reactivities that children have when they hear "No". The aim is to show them that it's not always that bad being told "No" and that they can cope with this.


Practice set up situations to teach and reinforce your child for tolerating "No".

  1. Determine a reinforcer - something your child really likes that they can have once they have finished practicing the skill of tolerating "No".

    1. I know that you might want your child to be internally reinforced or just do what they are told without having a 'reward'. But, in this situation we are teaching a skill that your child hasn't yet mastered, so we need to 'up the ante' and use reinforcement to help the new behavior to stick. We also want them to gain some enjoyment during this process.

  2. Set your child up for success by using a token or points system. Start off with 3 points and increase to 5 points once they understand the process. This helps your child know how many times they will practice for.

  3. Prepare 4 toys or activities that your child likes to play with. Have the 2 most preferred toys in a bag or box so your child can't see them.

  4. Place the other 2 toys in front of your child and start playing with them to entice your child to ask for one of the toys. If your child doesn't ask, you can prompt them to request.

  5. Hold the item they want and say "No, you can't have this" then put it away.

  6. Immediately take the other 2 preferred items out of the bag or box and tell your child "But you can have this toy or this toy".

  7. Now you can provide the child with the toy they chose. If they want both of them, give them both!

  8. Praise your child for accepting "No" and give them a point/token.

  9. Allow them to play with the preferred toys for a couple of minutes.

  10. Finish with the preferred toys and practice this again. You can swap around different toys each time you practice.

  11. Once your child has all of their points or tokens you can provide them with the reinforcer they were working for. It's okay if the reinforcer is one of the toys you were using in the teaching process.

Make sure you use direct and specific praise throughout this process. When you child remains calm and chooses a different toy praise them by saying "Wow, you accepted 'no', well done!".


Tip # 5 - Make it harder


Once your child is tolerating 'no' in step # 4 we need to progress your child to tolerate less preferred choices (because this is the reality).

  1. Write a list of 10 different toys or activities (or foods and drinks) that you child enjoys and allocate a rating to them from 1 to 5 (1 being the best and 5 being less preferred but something your child still likes).

  2. Using the same process as above you will slowly work through the levels below. You will slowly change the items or activities that your child can choose from, so they become less preferred.

"No" item - the item you will say "No" to when the child asks for it.

"Yes" items - the 2 other items that your child can choose from.

  • Level 1

    • "No" item rated 5

    • "Yes" items rated 1

  • Level 2

    • "No" item rated 4

    • "Yes" items rated 2

  • Level 3

    • "No" item rated 3

    • "Yes" items rated 3

  • Level 4

    • "No" item rated 2

    • "Yes" items rated 4

  • Level 5

    • "No" item rated 1

    • "Yes" items rated 5


Tip # 6 - Generalization


You can start to generalize this skill from the beginning (don't wait until your child has mastered the levels before generalizing).


Generalizing the skill means that you apply the strategy to your every-day situation as much as possible. So, when you have to say "No" to your child, be prepared to offer them 2 other options that are likely to be preferred.


I know that you will probably still have meltdowns (because we aren't all perfect) but as your child learns to cope with not getting what they want and make another choice, the meltdowns should reduce. If they don't, there may be other factors influencing your child's behavior or other techniques might work better for them.


HAPPY "NO" TRAINING!


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