Written for Only About Children by Dr Kaylene Henderson, Child Psychiatrist and Parenting Expert
The word ‘discipline’ comes from a Latin word which literally means ‘education’ or ‘training’ – essentially teaching. Young children are not born with an innate knowledge of how best to behave and so it’s our role to discipline them – to teach them about socially appropriate behaviour. Just as we teach our children about nursery rhymes, animals, literacy and numeracy concepts, healthy eating and SO much more, we’re our children’s first teachers when it comes to learning how to behave.
So how do we do this?
Just as other experts in the field like Dr Dan Siegel have done, my recommended approach to discipline is to consider three guiding questions in a response to your child’s behaviour.
- Reason – what is happening for your child?
- Lesson – what would you like him or her to learn in this situation?
- Teaching – What is the best way for you to teach this lesson?
Reason, lesson, teaching.
The more often you ask yourself these three questions, the more quickly this approach will start to feel natural. But since this way of viewing discipline will be new to many of us, let’s dive a little deeper into this 3-question approach to discipline.
Let’s start with reason.
Of course, there isn’t just one reason behind children’s behaviour (just as there’s no single reason why we are sometimes not at our best). At different times, our children will communicate through their behaviour what they need (for example, food, sleep or comfort), what they’re struggling with (perhaps the birth of a new baby sibling or overheard fights at home) and what they’re yet to learn.
With this understanding, it follows that there is no effective one-size-fits-all strategy for addressing our children’s behaviours.
As much as we might wish there was, there is sadly no magical approach that can help address the behaviour of both a ‘hangry’ toddler and a speech delayed child who’s struggling to manage his frustration. In reality, children who are struggling with different problems, require different responses.
Often for these different problems, discipline isn’t even required. Remember, behaviour can communicate what our little ones need, what they’re struggling with and what they’re yet to learn.
It’s the last of these situations – when your child is demonstrating to you a task that they’re yet to master – that calls for discipline, that is, teaching. And naturally, you’ll be required to do this pretty frequently, given the age of your young learners.
So now that you’ve figured out the reason for your child’s behaviour and noticed what they’re yet to learn, let’s look at a few teaching tips for you to consider:
- Be a good role model. Treat your child with kindness, compassion and patience and say sorry when you muck up (none of us are perfect).
- Know that learning happens when your child is calm. If your little one is upset, you’ll first need to help them calm down before they’re ‘wired to learn’.
- Children don’t need to be made to feel bad in order to do good. Good teachers know this and and never seek to make their students feel bad as they’re learning to read, or swim… learning to behave is no different.
- Use language that aligns you with your child against challenges (rather than lining up against them in a power struggle).
- Coach your child to repair their relationships when they’ve made poor choices:
- “What do you think that was like for your brother/sister/friend?”
- “What could you do differently next time?”
- “How might you make this better? Do you need some help fixing this?”
6. Encourage your child to practise the social, emotional and behavioural skills they’re yet to master. We know that children learn through play and repetition so use lots of role play with your young learner and have some fun along the way.
As you figure out the lessons your children are yet to learn and decide on the best ways to teach these, remember that your goal is to help your children learn how to handle these situations better next time. Because that’s what good teachers do – they upskill our children. And they do so in ways that model, inspire and encourage our young learners.
While ‘old school’ discipline may have encouraged parents to see their children as being a problem, we now know that it’s much more helpful to see our children as having a problem, when they demonstrate how much they still have to learn.
Then, by being the firm but loving teachers that I know you can be, you will be perfectly placed to bring out the best in your young learners.
Dr Kaylene Henderson is a highly trained, Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, one of Australia’s leading parenting experts and a grateful mother of three. She is also a trusted professional development provider for the early childhood education sector and a sought after media contributor and conference speaker.
In her warm and relatable style, Kaylene shares practical, research based advice with parents and professionals alike in the hope that together, we can bring out the best in the children for whom we all care.
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