Ask Ann:

"IDEAL Response"

(Ann Houck is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working with at-risk children in the foster care system and in orphanages. Her childcare approach uses Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a framework for parenting children of trauma, developed at Texas Christian University.)

By Ann Houck

QUESTION: Two of our children regulary fight with one another. It often becomes physical. No matter what we do, they will not stop fighting! What do we do?

Anonymous Caregiver

Ann answers:

In our previous Journal article, we addressed a difficult situation:  Two children who regularly fight to the point of becoming physical.  Today we will look at an acronym developed by the Karen Purvis Institute of Child  Development to remind us of how to respond—The IDEAL Response.

I. immediate

D. direct

E. efficient

A. action based

L. leveled at behavior

Before we look at the acronym and its meaning, remember—what we are trying to achieve in any interaction with our kiddos is a strengthening of our connection. We also want to share problem solving moments with them, which gives them a voice to speak for themselves and get their needs met.

Yes, we want to change their behavior, but not by fiat. Instead, we must work through a trusting connection and the process of relearning.  We want the child to have an experience of empowering behavior instead of maladaptive behavior.  And it all begins with us, the adult.  So with that in mind, we want to remain calm, see the need expressed in the behavior, meet that need, and never, never give up.


Immediate is just that; right away. See the situation and respond.  Don’t wait!  A three to five-second response is the goal.  Stay calm; stop whatever you are doing and respond.  You notice that two children are beginning to escalate. One of them has raised his voice.  You must now move toward them in a playful, but calm, manner.


Direct means getting into relationship. This begins by physically getting on their level. Using a calming, reassuring voice, try to get eye contact. Watching your body language, get down and level with the children.

Then, you quickly assess the situation; how well do I know these two?  Do I have a strong, trusting connection with them?  Can I make eye contact with the most aggressive one?  Can I reach out and touch their shoulder?


Efficient looks at the child and asks, “What does this child need right now?  What is the most important thing for me to do to help this situation?”  Do a quick assessment of what is happening right now, and ask yourself, “Have I seen this happen before?  How serious is the behavior I am seeing?”

What is in your toolkit to meet this child’s needs at this very moment?  They are tussling over a ball; can you make a little joke about the ball?  They need to know that it is OK to “back down” and become playful.  Perhaps ask yourself, “How structured do I truly need to be in my involvement?”


Action-Based gets you and the child focused on the situation.  “Can we try this again?”  Guide the children—“Toss me the ball; bet I can make a basket with it!”  “Can we try doing this together?”  

Is a “redo” in order?  Engage the child(ren) in doing the behavior in an empowering way.  “Can you show me how to do this with respect?”  Redoing the behavior allows the child to have an experience of getting it right—of actually creating a “body memory” of what it feels, looks and sounds like to behave in an empowering manner.

Leveled at the Behavior

Lastly, make sure your response addresses the behavior, not the child.  Keep in mind that the behavior is a way of communicating a need; it is not an indication of willful disrespect.  The behavior is not the child, it is a way for a child to express him/herself.  Praise the child’s behavior when possible—“Way to go, that was a great job using your words!”

We, the adults, are key.  Our job is to connect, empower and correct the behaviors of these children from hard places—the behaviors, not the child. Every child is precious and just fine; it is his or her behavior that is not OK.

After intervening in an IDEAL manner, ask yourself, is the child content?  Do both the child and I feel more connected after my intervention?  Is the child ready to return to their activities?  Have I given the child the opportunity to learn how to meet their own needs? If the answer is yes, then congratulations! You have had an empowering encounter.

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

Ann Houck

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

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