The Teacher is Talking
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The Teacher is Talking: 1-2-3 Magic with Dr. Thomas Phelan

By Leslie Lindsay

When I was a young R.N. working at the Mayo Clinic in Child/Adolescent Psychiatry, we used a program called 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan.  I had no idea what it was all about at the time…but I quickly learned –and loved it.  In fact, it’s America’s #1 child discipline program!  Years later, as a mom of an almost 8-year old and 6-year old, it definitely comes in handy.  (image source:


Here’s how it works:

  • Your child is engaging in an activity or behavior you don’t like or want to redirect (change).  For example, “Kate, you need to make your bed.”  (Grumble, grumble).  As a parent/caregiver you say, “That’s one!”  and pause.  (1)
  • If your child doesn’t make any progress towards the goal you initiated (they are still grumbling, stomping feet, etc.) you say, “That’s two!”  And pause.*  You are watching to see your child make some movement towards the goal/direction given.  (2)
  • Hopefully she is moving her buns in the right direction (setting her book down and moving towards her bed, or whatever).  If you have to say, “That’s three!” then a consequence results.  That consequence should be something you have predetermined and your child expects, a five-minute time-out, for example is what we typically do around our house.  (3)
  • MAGIC!!  The task is done, your child avoided danger, or the behavior/attitude was redirected.  See how easy that was? 

[* the pause is actually a very important part of the program.  It allows you and your child to calm down and consider consequences].

How is this different than just saying, “Go to your room?!”  Well, your child is given an expectation (I want you to stop hitting your brother).  They have a minute to stop the action and pull themselves together before being hauled off to their bedroom.  Your child understands that you mean business and they are ultimately in control, (“hey, if I stop hitting my brother, I won’t have to go to my room.”)  If you ultimately make the descision without involving your child, they really learn nothing.  1-2-3Magic-Book_T.gif

How is 1-2-3 Magic different than just counting to 3?  Most parents count too quickly.  Know how hard it is for you to stop doing something you’re really engaged in?  Say you are reading a really great book?  Watching a good movie/television show?  Cooking?  How often to you say, “Oh, just a minute?”  Can you stop something immediately?  Probably not. So, you give your child a warning…”hey, a consequence is coming if you don’t pull it together.”  You’d appreciate the same thing, right?

That’s it!  Class Dismissed : ) 

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