Have you noticed how kids behave differently at school than at home? As an early education teacher, one of the most common questions I get from parents how I get the children to behave. Here are the discipline techniques I've learned that work at both school and home.
When parents see their kids voluntarily cleaning up the classroom or sharing happily with other kids, I often hear something alone these lines:
How do you do that? My son always throws his stuff around at home and doesn't like sharing toys with his brother! How do you get him to clean up and share here without grumbling and drama?
I am also a mother of four. Over the years, I've taken some of the effective classroom discipline techniques and applied them at home. And they're as effective at home as they are in the classroom.
Today, I'd like to share with you the 6 secrets of highly effective discipline.
#1: Effective Discipline Is Not About Punishment
Discipline comes from the Latin word " disciplinare," which means, "to teach." Discipline that actually works is never about punishment. Discipline is simply a way to guide and manage a child's behaviour.
Discipline is based on the quality of a child's relationship with the care provider (a teacher in the classroom, and mum and dad at home). When a child receives consistent response from a caring adult, trust, deep attachment and a sense of being wanted develops. This forms the foundation of good behaviour and effective discipline.
The key is to ensure that these relationships are respectful, responsive and reciprocal.
As a teacher, I understood that establishing a daily routine and frequent communication was vital to developing respectful and meaningful relationships, which directly affect behaviour and a child's ability to learn.
For instance, as children arrive into my classroom, I always make sure to greet them at the door, just as they greet me. I'm never "busy" planning curriculum, checking attendance or talking, texting or tinkering with my phone at drop off and pick up times. To take no notice of a child left in my care would send a message saying "you're not worth my time", which begins a cycle of mistrust.
At home, I put being respectful, responsive and reciprocal into practice by setting my alarm clock 30 minutes before my daughter needs to start getting ready for school. Not so I can begin my day with peace and quiet, but so I can wake her gently.
First I turn on the light and call out her name and announce it is time to start thinking about getting up. After two or three minutes, I go to her room again, pull the covers and hair away from her face and tell her "it's time to start getting up". She'll usually mutter along the lines of "I am trying" with her arms wrapped around my waist and her head buried in my stomach. I give her a big squeeze and a smooch on top of her head and tell her "go to the bathroom".
In a few minutes I go into the bathroom to find her mostly asleep on the toilet, with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. I call out to her again "wake up and brush your teeth" and she rises from her throne before I head downstairs to make her lunch.
I can hear the resounding "ain't nobody got time for that!" echoing in my head, but how would you react if your partner came running into your room quarter past seven, hollering for you to get up, tearing the blankets off of you, pulling you out of bed and shoving you into the bathroom? I know in my house there would definitely be a fight.
My daughter isn't trying to be difficult. Nor is she spoiled and she certainly doesn't stay up late. She just needs some time in the mornings before she is ready to take on the day.
When I adjust my expectations of her behaviour instead of punishing her, things go more smoothly.
#2: Give Specific Positive Reinforcement
You've probably heard it before, and you'll hear it again: positive reinforcement is key. It can come in many flavours: smiling, sharing a high five and giving effective praise.
But you shouldn't just spout insincere praise without thought. In the classroom, I've noticed that effective praise is selective, specific, encouraging and positive. It avoids comparisons and competition. It compares a child's progress with his/her past performance rather than with other children and it's delivered in a caring, natural tone of voice. Believe me, children know when you're just blowing smoke.
I try to avoid using blanket phrases like "good job," or "good girl/boy" and be specific about the action or observed good behaviour.
The most effective of all techniques though is to catch children being good or in an act of kindness. The reward and acknowledgement will be more genuine than if your child runs up to you and exclaims he cleaned his room or shared his cookie with his baby sister.
When an older child tied the shoes of a younger child in my class, I was all over it. I told him what he did was caring and kind. Then I drew attention to the facial expression of the girl he helped; she was smiling. When I asked her how she felt she replied, "good".
At home this translates to making sure we stay away from comparison between siblings, calling names or using labels, and copping out using standby phrases like "good job".
Positive reinforcement can also be tangible, if you give small rewards like stickers or prizes but perhaps best used sparingly, and for a short amount of time.
#3: Model The Right Behaviour
In addition to offering positive reinforcement, modelling appropriate behaviour is equally important. Be mindful of what you say and how you say it -- not just when you are talking to your child, but when dealing with others as well.
Modelling provides visual clues to what acceptable behaviour is and indirectly reinforces the appropriate way to act.
As an example, consider what happens in your car when you have a frustrating encounter. Suppose you're driving down the highway when suddenly you notice the car behind you is barely inches from your bumper, and then the driver begins flashing their high beams and leaning on the horn.
Most people would let loose a slew of obscenities, jam on the brake and maybe throw up a "friendly" hand gesture, but suppose you instead slowdown in an attempt to get the aggressive driver pass you or you change lanes and let the hurried driver pass.
The first scenario can be confusing to your child if you're always reminding them to "use nice words" and showing joy when you catch them using nice words. What is being demonstrated is the opposite -- a lack of self-control -- which conveys that you don't have to use nice words when you're angry. The second scenario demonstrates proper problem solving skills by remaining calm and not endangering others on the road, despite being angry.
One of my worst habits when working with toddlers was sitting on tables and other furniture (because the toddler furniture was appropriately toddler-sized). I wasn't aware I was doing it until I found myself in a full blown conversation with a tot sitting beside me on a shelf. And even though climbing is important to motor development at this stage, climbing furniture isn't something that I wanted to encourage my kids to do (especially if I'm not there to provide the necessary supervision!) I had accidentally demonstrated to them that it was OK by doing it myself.
#4: Provide Direct Guidance And Explain Your Reasoning
When you guide your kids, always be direct. Give reasons and explanations for rules (keep it simple for young children).
And always, make sure your directions and requests state what to do, as opposed to what not to do.
For instance, in my classroom, I focus on reminding children to "walk their feet" and explain how walking keeps them from getting hurt, instead of saying "don't run". It can help to drive the notion home if you retell a story of when your child was running and got hurt.
I even speak to my teenager in a similar way. I might say, for example, "It's late and you have practice in the morning. You should get to bed in 15 minutes so you won't be too tired. Last weekend you were late because you overslept." Sometimes he does go up on his own, and sometimes 15 minutes pass and I need to jog his memory again. But he hardly ever gives me a hard time if I provide a relevant past example.
#5: Prevent Bad Behaviour Before It Happens And Seek Out Support
This kind of "discipline" in my opinion is what will preserve your sanity. Why would I tell my baby to stay off the stairs a million times a day when I can install a safety gate? Or make extra work for myself lifting children to the sink every time they need to wash their hands, whereas placing a stool at the sink will allow them to access the soap, water and paper towels themselves.
Prevention not only is a great form of discipline, but also supports self-help skills and builds self-esteem.
An important aspect of prevention is planning. Don't go grocery shopping with your toddler during a time he normally rests. Do not abruptly interrupt play (or other activities) and expect your child to cooperatively and quickly get ready to leave so you can try to be on time for your appointment. Your lack of planning and foresight will only confuse them about their own behaviour.
Also, be proactive. If there are specific shows or channels you don't want your child watching, set parental codes on your TV. The same can be done on computers and mobile devices.
Being proactive prevents most arguments and negotiating, allowing you to spend more quality time with your child, instead of putting out fires all day long. Here are a few more tips to embrace the prevention attitude:
- Avoid speaking to your child from across the room or the playground -- it's easy for them to not hear you or ignore you, and that can result in unnecessary issues.
- Give children as much notice as possible when changing activities, leaving the house, or a change in the schedule. At school, five minutes before I need children to start cleaning up to transition to the next activity, I tell them that "in five minutes we'll start cleaning up so we can do music time". Similarly at home, before heading out to pick up my older kids from school, I tell my younger ones that "in five minutes you need to put away the crayons and we're going to get your sister and brother".
- Young children are concrete, literal thinkers and the concept of time is way too abstract for them to grasp. Try setting a timer or pointing to where the minute hand on the clock will be at clean-up time. Alternatively ,you can completely avoid time and use a different format that they can grasp -- for instance, if you were leaving the park you might say, "Two more times down the slide and then we are leaving".
And sometimes, you just need to walk away and let another adult handle the situation to prevent it from escalating.
I will never forget my first experience with a child who had a behavioural disorder. He wasn't able to lie down on a cot and rest. He spent rest time at a table usually working on jigsaw puzzles (he was a puzzle machine!) and helping with tasks such as sorting toys and games.
However, rest time is also used to give staff breaks and when teachers do most of their planning. This child would constantly interrupt me while talking with parents or other staff. Eventually the other teachers and I decided that I should take my break at the beginning of rest time while the other teachers helped the children who wanted to rest. Then when I returned (provided he had behaved while I was gone) I would spend about 20-30 minutes with him working on a puzzle or playing a quiet game of Uno.
As a parent, you need to seek out a similar support system, so you can periodically step away from a situation and let another responsible adult (the other parent, grand parent, nanny, baby sitter etc.) take over.
#6: When All Else Fails, Use "Time-Ins"
"Time-ins" are helpful for children school aged and younger. Time-ins are similar to a "time out" in the sense they both remove the child from a situation that's causing them distress or harm. However, instead of sitting students down at an empty table alone, feeling bad about themselves, I created several spaces in my classroom where a child could go when feelings became so overwhelming they were interfering with the problem-solving process.
These areas were private, cozy spaces in the nooks and crannies of my classroom that included soft, over-sized pillows, a class photo album, a small selection of books and quiet objects such as sensory or calming jars, Magna-doodle-esque boards, and boxes sorted by themes of quiet, calming activities like magna-tiles or puppets.
Same as a time-out, a time-in should only last one minute per year of life (unless the child chooses to stay longer).
When the time is up I ask the child if he knows why he had to be separated from the group, then I help him think of better ways he could have solved the problem instead. At home I have a similar space in my living room. Taking the time to be alone and participate in a quiet activity allows the children to calm down without feeling guilty or punished. It de-escalates the situation.
So there you have it: classroom discipline secrets that are as effective at home. The above methods and examples help meet a child's basic needs, provide opportunities for learning and development, and improve competence and confidence.
Negative reinforcement, such as spanking or time-outs, only work at first because of their shock value, and over time it become less effective.
As you try them out, keep in mind that behaviour doesn't change overnight. Teachers like me work with scores of children on a daily basis. And still, discipline is something that takes us years of studying, practising, and reflecting to get a handle on.
As parents, it can be a lot more difficult. Give yourself a lot of grace. Get support; allow your partner, family and friends to pitch in and always remember to take time out to recharge your batteries.
6 Secrets of Highly Effective Discipline From a Seasoned Teacher [A Fine Parent]
Stephanie Byrne-Biancardi taught early childhood education in urban communities in and around Boston for 14 years before deciding to stay home after her 4th child. She keeps up with all things Early Ed. by following blogs such as A Fine Parent and staying current with her training, while she bides her time till she opens a childcare centre of her own.