Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, you know that misbehavior is challenging. We all have days that end in frustration and exhaustion because of disruptive students or warring siblings.
And we all have days that end with regret for how we responded to these situations. We might lose our cool and then feel guilty for snapping, or we might bribe our children with cookies in desperation.
We keep ourselves up at night asking, “How can I make this child pay attention in class?” or, “How can I get my children to stop arguing?” Behavior management can be exhausting.
The first step, according to Conscious Discipline, is to reframe these questions.
Conscious Discipline is a trauma-informed self-regulation and social-emotional learning program used by school districts, teachers, and parents around the world. It was created by Dr. Becky Bailey, an educator and expert in developmental psychology. In addition to providing adults with new skills, it asks adults to make a mindset shift.
Shifting Your View of Behavior
So, what question should we ask ourselves instead?
According to Dr. Bailey, instead of asking, “How can I make this child _________?” or, “How can I get this child to __________?” we should ask, “How can I help this child be successful?” or, “How can I help this child be more likely to ___________?”
This is more than a simple shift in language. It’s a shift from coercion, manipulation, or punishing to teaching.
All Behavior Is Communication
In Conscious Discipline, adults are encouraged to view all behavior as a form of communication. Behavior is a child’s attempt to get his needs met. Children will use whatever skills they have “in their toolbox” to meet these needs.
Have you ever wondered why the same children are punished again and again, with no results?
From this lens, the answer becomes clear. Bribes and punishment won’t work when a child is simply using the skills they have. For behavior to change, the child must learn a new skill.
Viewing misbehavior as communication or a call for help empowers us to teach these skills to children. When a child misbehaves, ask yourself what skill is missing. Then, work on teaching that skill.
Often, we focus on what the child shouldn’t have done. But we forget to tell the child what to do instead.
Conscious Discipline does provide a method for facilitating consequences. Like punishment, however, this method won’t be effective until children have learned the required skill(s). In addition, Conscious Discipline says that consequences won’t work unless children feel safe and connected.
What Are We Teaching Children?
However we respond to misbehavior, we’re already teaching children. Discipline situations are always rooted in conflict, whether the conflict is between multiple children or between you and a child.
Through discipline, you model conflict-resolution. Whether intentional or not, you’re teaching interpersonal skills that children will bring to all future relationships.
When you view behavior as communication, you can teach children to meet their needs in a socially acceptable manner. Dr. Bailey defines socially acceptable to mean that “the self-respect and safety of everyone involved is preserved.”
Teaching these important lessons to children is much more powerful than using fear or coercion to change behavior. It’s also far more permanent. Sure, the cookie trick worked this time. But what about next time, when your child has another tantrum and there’s no cookie in sight?
How to Teach New Skills
There are several steps involved in teaching children new skills, and I highly recommend browsing Conscious Discipline’s website or reading one of Dr. Bailey’s books if you’re interested in more in-depth information. Here are the basics:
In general, the first step is gaining your composure. You can have every intention of teaching a new skill, but if you’re triggered by the child’s behavior, it won’t happen.
When a discipline situation arises, take a minute to calm yourself with deep breaths and/or by reminding yourself not to take the behavior personally. Remind yourself that this is an opportunity to teach.
Once you’re calm, you can demonstrate empathy for the child. Say something like, “You wanted ___________,” or, “You were hoping ___________.”
This acknowledges the need that the child was attempting to meet. If you’re not sure, guess. Children will often guide you in the right direction.
Teaching a Better Way
Then, provide the child with a better way to meet this need. “When you want __________, say/do ____________.”
If a child snatches a toy from another child, say, “You wanted the toy. When you want a toy, hold out your hand and say, ‘May I have a turn?’” (This is depending on the age of the child, of course. Younger children can simply learn to hold out a hand.)
Or, if your child pushes her sibling, say, “You wanted your brother to move. You may not push. When you want your brother to move say, ‘Excuse me.’” In this way, behavior management becomes much less punitive.
“They Should Know Better”
Of course, this behavior management mindset shift represents a big change, and it’s not easy. One reason it’s challenging is that we’re inclined to think, “They should know better by now.” We hear it (and probably say it) all the time.
For teachers, keep in mind that we don’t know what background our students come from. We aren’t sure what skills they’ve been taught at home. Depending on their situation, they may come to us equipped only with survival skills like fighting, stealing, and not letting anyone get too close.
It’s safest to assume that the only skills our students know are the ones we’ve taught them.
And for parents, have you directly taught your children what to do? If not, this may be the missing ingredient in your child’s behavior.
In addition, we get upset with children for throwing temper tantrums, getting grumpy, or being impatient. But how often do adults do the same?
It’s always helpful to teach skills, foster healthy conflict-resolution, and model positive interpersonal interactions.
Some behaviors that drive teachers and parents crazy are often labeled “attention-seeking.” Dr. Bailey explains that in most cases, these behaviors are actually “connection-seeking.”
Many times, our response to these behaviors involves ostracization. The child might have to sit alone or miss out on an activity. If the child is seeking connection, these responses naturally make the problem worse.
If all behavior is a form of communication, “attention-seeking” behaviors are communicating a need for connection. Try to spend a little extra time connecting with those children, and you’re likely to see a decline in those behaviors.
Any time you start a question about behavior with “How can I make ________,” Dr. Bailey says, it’s a cue that you’re seeking a strategy based on fear, force, or manipulation.
It also reflects that we can “make” other people behave a certain way, which is not true. When we believe we can make children behave, it puts unnecessary pressure on us as parents and teachers. It leads to tactics that make us feel guilty and rupture adult-child bonds: bribing, begging, threatening, intimidating, and so on. All of these behavior management strategies also tend to come with a heaping pile of exhaustion.
Instead, we can compose ourselves, try to understand what a child’s behavior is communicating, and teach them what to do in that situation to meet their needs. In this way, you can teach a child healthy skills that will last a lifetime while also cutting down on the time you spend dealing with behavior management.
You’ll also restore the joy in your relationship with your children or your students, fostering healing, learning, and growth.