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 when they see their kids voluntarily cleaning up the classroom or sharing happily with other kids is:
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 cleanup 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.”
I’m completely aware of Merriam-Webster’s definition as “punishment” and it is why so many parents dread being the disciplinarian, but discipline that actually works is NEVER about punishment.
Discipline is simply a way to guide and manage a child’s behavior.
Discipline is based on the quality of a child’s relationship with the care provider (a teacher in the classroom; mom 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 behavior and effective discipline.
The key is to ensure that these relationships are respectful, responsive and reciprocal.
As a teacher I understood establishing a daily routine and frequent communication was vital to developing respectful and meaningful relationships which directly affect behavior 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, one way I put being respectful, responsive and reciprocal into practice is 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 7, 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 according to that instead of punishing her, things go a lot smoother.
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#2: Effective discipline is about positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement comes in many flavors: smiling, sharing a high five and giving effective praise.
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.
Also, I try to avoid using blanket phrases like “good job”, or “good girl/boy” and be specific about the action or observed good behavior.
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; for example stickers, prizes and charts, but use it only as a last resort and for a short amount of time.
#3: Effective discipline is about modeling the right behavior
In addition to offering positive reinforcement, modeling appropriate behavior 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.
Modeling provides visual clues to what acceptable behavior is and indirectly reinforces the appropriate way to act.
Consider for example what happens in your car. Suppose you’re driving down the highway when suddenly you notice the car behind you is barely inches from your bumper, then the driver begins flashing the high beam 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 instead you 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 — and 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 in the toddler room was sitting on tables and other furniture (because infant/toddler furniture is infant/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 gross motor development at this stage, climbing furniture isn’t something that I want to encourage my kids to do (especially if I’m not there to provide the necessary supervision!)
#4: Effective discipline is about providing the right guidance
When you guide your kids, always be direct. Give reasons and explanations for rules (keep it simple for young children).
And always, make sure directions and requests state what to do opposed to what not to do.
For instance, in my classroom, I focus on reminding children to “walk their feet” and explaining how walking keeps them from getting hurt, instead of just saying “don’t run”. It will 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. 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. Sometimes 15 minutes pass and I need to jog his memory again. But he hardly ever gives me a hard time.
#5: Prevention is the most effective form of discipline
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 activity) and expect your child to cooperatively and quickly get ready to leave so you can try to be on time for your appointment that’s in 20 minutes, on the other side of town.
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 and 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 “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 “In five minutes you need to put away the crayons and we’re going to get 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 behavioral 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. He begged and pleaded for my undivided attention and company. It began to disturb the rest of the other children and he would call to them to leave their cots and come play with him.
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 go down. (This was hard for me because rest time is my favorite time to get in one-on-one interactions). Then when I returned (provided he had been behaving 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 causing them distress or harm. The difference however is huge. Instead of sitting students down at an empty table alone feeling bad about himself I created several spaces in my classroom where child could go to or be brought to when feelings become so overwhelming they interfere 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, Magana-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 and in the two younger children’s bedroom because they share.
The above methods and examples meet a child’s/children’s basic needs, provide opportunities for learning and development and improve competence and confidence.
Negative reinforcement, such as spanking or time-out only seem to work at first because of shock value and over time it becomes less effective.
So there you have it – classroom discipline secrets that are as effective at home.
As you try them out, keep in mind that behavior 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, practicing 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.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our two minutes contemplation today, let’s take stock of where we are at with the way we discipline…
- When you hear the word “discipline” does it automatically make you think “punishment”? How does this impact the way you approach a troubling situation?
- Do your kids see you as a loving guide or a dictator? How does this impact your relationship with them? How does this affect their motivation to comply with the house rules? What about when you’re not around – will they choose to do the right thing?
- What changes (if any) can you make to become more of a motivator and guide in your children’s lives instead of the cop, judge and jury?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Try a few of these over the course of the next week –
- Create a predictable schedule so your child knows what to expect; like nap time after lunch.
- Recognize problems as learning opportunities and give children freedom to solve problems on their own. When offering your solutions make sure your child is okay with and understands what you’re proposing.
- Give your child the chance to make choices. One or two is enough and make sure you can live with whatever your child chooses. An example of this would be asking your child if he wants a peanut butter sandwich or pizza for lunch and not trying to talking him into the peanut butter sandwich when he chooses pizza.
- Allow children to express their individual choices; don’t force your child to play with dolls if she’d rather play with monster trucks.
- Be aware of your child’s triggers — particular sounds, sights, textures, places, activities or people can all be sources of undesirable behavior.
- Keep track of times, places and what was happening prior to your child’s misbehavior — this will help you find out why your child is misbehaving and prevent it in the future.
- Learn your child’s unique way of communicating and teach yours.
- Be honest about your feelings and show how to express them appropriately.
- Save no for emergency and serious situations. You obviously wouldn’t say “Sweetie get back on the sidewalk before you wind up under that 18 wheeler.” But you can say “after supper” or “when dad comes home” in response to your child’s request for ice cream at 6:30 in the morning.