This is a blog about young children, but this is an article about a high school in Washington. It’s a long article, but you should go read it right now, at least the first section. Really. I’ll wait til you come back.
The high school, chock full of challenging behaviors, tries a whole new approach to discipline. When a child behaves inappropriately, instead of punishing him, they ask what’s wrong. “‘Teachers started becoming detectives,’ says Gordon. ‘We began focusing our concern on what we know that’s going on that might be causing behavior in a kid,’ versus what type of punishment to mete out.” As the article states, it may sound touchy-feely, but the quantifiable results are astonishing. The approach works.
For the high school, the approach was born out of the school’s recognition that most of their students were living with ongoing trauma, and that stress damages your brain and make appropriate behavior nearly impossible. And the approach is nothing short of revolutionary. But I bring this up here because the approach to discipline they arrive at sounds remarkably like standard practice in high-quality preschools.
A phrase preschool teachers often repeat is “All behavior is communication,” and it’s an incredibly practical perspective. When a child hits another child, they’re not “being bad”—they’re trying to tell you “I’m frustrated that he took my toy” or “I’m coming down with a cold” or “I want to be friends with this guy but don’t know how.” If you punish the behavior, it doesn’t teach the child anything useful. Even if you respond with a firm but kind, “Hands are not for hitting,” it does nothing to address what caused the hitting in the first place. But if you can figure out the reason for the hitting, you can start really addressing it.
That doesn’t mean there are no consequences for negative behaviors. Hitting is never okay, and there must be consequences. But keep your eye on the prize: your long-term goal is to teach the child not to hit, and you can accomplish that most effectively by understanding the cause of the hitting and dealing with that. Or, even better, helping the child learn to deal with that.
As the article says, that often involves “being a detective.” I remember a hitting incident in my 3’s classroom once where the hitter seemed more upset about it than the hit-ee. Instead of saying “You may not hit” or “Why did you do that,” I did some quick thinking about what I knew about the child. I knelt down and said quietly, “Are you thinking about your mom because she’s out of town?” The child nodded and fell into my arms. “I know,” I said, “It’s hard when she goes away. Let’s make sure your friend is okay, and then we’ll sit together and write your mom a letter.” (Note that, for a teacher to be successful at this strategy, it helps to know what’s going on at home.)
All behavior is communication. In this instance, when the child hit his friend, he was sending out frantic smoke signals saying, “Help! I’m falling apart because my mom is out of town.” Once we decode the behavior, we can give the child tools to deal with it better next time. “When your mom is out of town, come tell me and we’ll snuggle together and write a letter to her whenever you want.” We give the child tools to understand himself and control himself, and along the way we stop most of the hitting.
That preschool teacher you know who you think is some kind of wizard with the way kids respond to her? This is what’s going on. The key to effective discipline, for any age child, is understanding the behavior. Once you understand, you can respond to what it means instead of just what it is.
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For a brief primer on how you go about understanding your child’s behavior, read this article on observation I wrote for NAEYC’s blog for families.
And if you’re struggling with discipline at home, I can help! Contact me about consulting.