Discipline as an Equity Issue
We know that equity work, at its core, is about re-distributing power, access, and resources. As educators, parents, and caregivers, we hold immense power over the children in our care. When left unchecked, this can lead to an abuse of power by the adult (perhaps unconsciously). One way this might look is the formation of too many rules imposed on the child by the adult. Conventional ways of thinking about discipline lead us to believe that discipline consists of attempting to exert our power/domination over children by attempting to control their behaviors with a system of external punishments and rewards. However, there is compelling research, which suggests this way of thinking about behavior is ineffective at best and damaging at worst.
Why not Punishment?
Where did the idea that we could control behavior with a system of rewards and punishments even come from?
Developmental Psychologist Robert Wozniak (1997) suggested that we live in a society that is deeply influenced by the ideas of behaviorism, a school of psychology founded by Dr. John. B. Watson. The theory behind behaviorism essentially asserts that all behaviors can be trained and changed through conditioning. It is difficult to discuss behaviorism without mentioning psychologist B.F. Skinner, to whom “radical behaviorism,” a particular branch of behaviorism, can be attributed. McLeod (2007) highlights that Skinner’s work was largely based on Thorndike’s Law of Effect and that he conducted significant research in animal behavior and then applied those theories to human behavior. Skinner discussed the idea of “reinforcement” with regard to the Law of Effect, which essentially purports the idea that “behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened)” and that “behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened).” (McLeod, 2007) Thus, Skinner concluded that human behavior could be controlled by the systematic use of reinforcers and punishers.
Does this approach to behavior and discipline honor the fact that children are intrinsically motivated? What does it really teach them, if anything? Kohn (1994) believes that such practices are “worthless at best and destructive at worst,” if our goals are for our children to ultimately become self-reliant, responsible, socially-skilled, critical thinkers who carry a healthy amount of self-worth, yet are still able to handle criticism in productive ways. Though, he admits, such practices (e.g. external rewards and punishments) do produce temporary compliance.
If not punishment, then what?
When considering a child’s behavior, we should ask ourselves, first and foremost, if the child’s needs are being met.
Is the child….
- Feeling safe and secure?
*It is difficult to be our best selves when our needs aren’t being met. This is true for adults and it’s true for children too!
Always remember that behavior is communication. Ask yourself: “what might this behavior be communicating?”
- Offering encouragement. Children are immensely capable, curious, and intrinsically motivated. We have to show them that we honor their capabilities and trust their inner guides. Let’s encourage them toward independence, too.
- Creating an environment of mutual respect. What might this look like? Something as simple speaking to children instead of at them. Get down to their level. Look them in the eyes. Acknowledge that their feelings and concerns are valid just as yours are.
- Giving choice in order to win cooperation. Frame expectations in a positive manner. For example, say “walk,” instead of “don’t run!” Telling children what they can’t do is often met with resistance.
- Providing chances for children to contribute in meaningful ways. As social beings, we all have a desire to belong. Children will attempt to feel as though they belong by any means necessary and sometimes that manifests as misbehavior. Instead, be proactive and give children productive ways to participate in the life of your classroom/home community.
Finding a New Way:
From Punitive to Restorative
Let’s collectively imagine what it would look like to implement discipline practices that go beyond punishments to cultivate children who are motivated from within to control their actions for the sake of existing peacefully and productively within a community, as opposed to doing it out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. Which one is more important to our societies? If you answered "the former,” I’d have to agree.
What are restorative practices? Restorative practices is an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections in communities. Instead of isolation from the community (as with time out or incarceration), offenders take responsibility for their actions, figure out how they can repair the harm they’ve caused the victim, and try to mend matters for the sake of strengthening their respective community.
Adults, it’s time we transform the way we think about behavior and our responses to it. Behavior is communication, not a manipulation. Children are learning. It’s our job to help them in ways that are meaningful, that allow them to take ownership and responsibility for their actions, and let them know that they are always seen, heard, and loved… even when they’re misbehaving.
Are you ready to…
- transform your ideas about behavior & discipline?
- cultivate an environment of mutual respect?
- maximize independence, responsibility, and cooperation?
- minimize the power struggles?
If so, join me for an interactive, 90 minute webinar!
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