Discipline, at school and at home

The methods of discipline that I use with my daughter at home are different from what her teachers use with her at preschool. What is the best way to communicate this without making it look like I don’t agree with their methods at preschool? Is it okay for me to admit that we use time-out at home? —Christine

Discipline is a tricky issue—there are lots of big emotions for everyone involved, and it’s really easy for parents to feel judged. It’s no wonder you feel nervous about telling the teachers you do it differently at home!

Discipline (which comes, by the way, from the Greek word for “learning” and “guidance”) is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Different methods are more or less effective with different children, depending on their temperament and history, and different methods fit better or worse with different families’ goals, values, and culture. When helping families with discipline issues, I always ask about the methods they already use. Does your method get the behavior you want out of your child? Does your method make you feel good about yourself as a parent? Does your method make your relationship with your child stronger? If the answer to all those questions is “yes,” then you probably have a pretty good approach to discipline—one that meets both your child’s needs and your own.

Maybe your methods of discipline are different from your preschool’s. That’s okay! School is a very different environment from home, with a different rules and expectations and group dynamics and all sorts of other things. A method that works in one place may not work as well another. Sometimes it can be easier for children children if practices are the same at school and at home, but it’s far from mandatory. Kids are excellent at picking up on context and changing behavior accordingly. It’s okay if the rules are different at grandma’s house, and different when you’re shopping, and different when you’re on vacation—that’s life, and kids understand that just fine. It’s okay if there are different rules in different contexts, as long as the rules are consistent within each individual context.

It helps a lot to be able to be explicit with children about the different rules and expectations. A lot of challenging behaviors happen when children don’t notice something is different in a different context. It really helps teachers to be able to say, “Oh, I know that at home you get to open and close doors yourself, but at school that’s a teacher’s job.” (That one came up in my classroom all the time.) Or for parents to be able to say, “When you hurt someone I want you to say ‘I’m sorry,’ even though they don’t make you say it at school.” Those messages help a child clearly understand different behavioral contexts, and make it possible for them to behave in socially-appropriate ways.

To do that, of course, teachers and parents each need to communicate their expectations for children’s behavior, and their approach to discipline, with the understanding that it’s okay for approaches to be different. A good teacher won’t judge you for your approach (as long as there’s no physical punishment involved—that’s a whole other topic).

When teachers and parents are communicating about discipline, that opens a wealth of opportunities for both. As a child’s needs change over time, so do her behaviors and her response to discipline. Teachers and parents need to be able to come to each other and say something like, “We used to send her to time-out when she hit, but that doesn’t seem to be helping. Do you have something that works better?”

So please, tell your child’s teachers how you do discipline at home, and listen when they tell you what they do at school. Neither of you is required to change your approach, if your approach is working—but a lot of good can come of just understanding what your child is exposed to. If your teachers don’t respond as positively as you hoped, simply tell them that your approach works for your family and your child—which is all that really matters.

* * *

For more reading on a range of discipline-related issues, try this article about a high school in Washington, or this blog post about how adults try to control children’s behavior, or this article about less-authoritarian discipline styles.

And if you’re interested in parenting workshops or consulting around issues of discipline, please take a look at my website for parents.

Do you have a question for this column? Submit it!

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One thought on “Discipline, at school and at home

  1. […] my related thoughts on discipline and reinforcement and such, look here and here and […]

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