I’m not an avid reader of the Harvard Business Review, but I came upon an article in the July 1985 issue that caught me. It was titled “Discipline without Punishment: A Best Practices Approach to Disciplining Employees.” I read the first line and was hooked for the next 22 pages. The article was about Tampa Electric’s decision to switch to a non-punitive approach to discipline, something our school has been working on, which I was curious to see that corporate America was, too! But for now, let’s just consider children.
How can it be possible for children to learn how to behave if they don’t get punished? How will they learn the lessons of good behavior without a little sting from some discipline enacted by the caring adults? Forgoing punitive discipline lets kids get away with bad behavior, we believe. Without punitive discipline, kids become spoiled, we fear. Finally, punishments are something we all believe in, something we seldom question.
I lived and worked in California for five years where I taught first and second grades in public schools, and was also a math consultant to an inner city public elementary school in Oakland. The year was 1967. In those days California was a progressive state with what seemed like lots of money for public school education. They had recently been working with an innovation, which failed. They had made huge classrooms for 100 students (four classes) by taking out walls. Instead of each of the four teachers teaching three groups of reading, they divided the entire 100 into four reading classes, and each teacher only taught one class, one preparation, one set of papers to grade. It seemed then like a good idea, conservation of the teacher’s time and efforts. However, no one considered how difficult it would be to manage 100 six year olds in a gymnasium-sized space. So when I got hired, they were deconstructing the “pod” classrooms and putting the walls back in to the buildings.
Fast forward five years and I returned to Bradenton to live. I found Manatee County was unaware of what had been learned in California and upon hearing about “pods” were busy taking walls out of their elementary schools, creating huge classrooms for 100 students and four teachers. Predictably, their lesson was the same as in California, and so after a few years the walls returned to the classrooms here. I watched this happen with disbelief. How could this have happened? Doesn’t the right hand know what the left hand does?
But the truth was that each system was acting on their own assumptions of what they thought would work without using any evidence. And that, my dear parents, is what we all too often do. We ignore what is true because it doesn’t fit with our beliefs.
Let’s get back to discipline and children. Most of us believe that children need to suffer some form of punishment in order to learn the lesson. Punishments run the gamut from being sent to one’s room to being spanked. Children soon discover we’re in charge, and they learn to avoid giving us the whole story for fear of punishment. We end up punishing our children based on what we think has happened. Our children don’t reason that they deserved the punishment and thank us for administering it. Rather they go to their rooms with anger against us and a determination not to get caught the next time. They think they were mistreated by us, and they feel wrongly maligned. They do not say to themselves, “I learned my lessons. I’m glad my parents punished me because it taught me the lesson.”
And in fact research has shown that punishment doesn’t work. But we neither read the research nor do we believe this research.
None-the-less, for a moment just imagine that you are going to try something else when it comes to correcting your child’s misbehavior. You are not going to punish your child, but you are going to do something else instead. You are going to teach your child how to find solutions to his problems, which too often result in his misbehavior.
Here’s the outline of action:
Wait until you and your child are not mad and have calmed down.
Say non-accusatory statements like:
“Gee, you seem really upset at John.”
“Yeah, I am. He always tries to get me in trouble.”
“Oh, what does he do?”
“He tells on me for nothing.”
“What do you mean, nothing? Looks like he makes you mad.”
“Yeah, he makes me real mad.”
“Is that why you hit him?”
“Yeah, he was going to trip me so I hit him so he couldn’t do that.”
“How did that work for you?”
“Well, not that well.”
“Let’s rethink the problem and see if we can come up with a better solution, one that works for you and one you don’t get in trouble for doing.”
This is how we begin. Notice, we don’t take sides, we don’t accuse either child, we don’t judge any behavior. But we do address it and we are trying to teach the child how to make better decisions, how to deal with issues peacefully without resorting to fighting. If we don’t think of these times as teaching moments, we will find that when children have poor problem-solving skills, they resort to poor decisions that only make the situations worse. They’re not trying to be misbehaving; they just aren’t skilled yet.
Misbehavior means something, and it deserves adults taking time to teach children how to act better. Will this work magic? Will tempers get under control right away? No, it takes time and lots of patience and some parenting instruction! But it can be the start of really teaching children how to behave better and how to solve problems peacefully without hurting them or your relationship with them.
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Director/Elementary 1 Teacher