Effective Ways to Discipline Kids

Take a minute to remember the best teacher that you ever had. What made that person so effective and inspirational?

I have been fortunate to have many great teachers throughout my years of training; and they share many of the same attributes. My greatest teachers offered a challenge but gave assignments within my skill set. They provided clear directions and expectations. Negative feedback was specific and constructive, while praise and recognition were abundant. There was an understanding of our roles and obligations that fostered mutual respect. Because of this atmosphere, I wanted to work hard for these teachers. I wanted to make them proud of my efforts. I wanted to accomplish what they asked of me, and maybe even a little bit more.

Now, take a minute to think about these attributes within the framework of discipline. As parents, we are teachers. Our kids need us to lead and teach in ways that set them up for success at home and in life, all while developing a positive and respectful relationship. So just like the great teachers that inspired us to do our best work, we must choose discipline strategies that encourage our kids to do the hard work of behavior change and fuel the internal motivation needed for accomplishment. This is effective discipline.

[Read: Why Schools Should Take a Restorative Approach to Discipline Issues.]

It’s no secret, however, that disciplining children is not easy. I think it’s helpful for all of us to remember that misbehavior is a normal part of growing up and cannot be eliminated. Every day our kids are fighting against natural self-centered tendencies, to make better choices, show empathy and be “good kids.” Some days executive functioning and common sense are working in full capacity to win this battle. Other days, not so much. As a result, the inconsistent behavior we observe as their parents can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed.

Despite our feelings of frustration, we know that within a healthy relationship, kids want to perform well for us. They want to make us proud. Our job is to set them up for success with strategies that work. By learning evidence-based techniques in behavior modification, we can make our discipline more effective and more manageable. Here are a few things we know about effective discipline for kids of all ages:

Behavior does not happen in a vacuum. No matter tot or teen, behavior is the effect of a complicated combination of factors. Things like a child’s genetic makeup, developmental level, learning history, present environment, physical state and emotional experience all determine how a child behaves. While we can change some of these things, others are already set. However, the more we understand the influence of each of these factors within the framework of a desired behavior, the better equipped we’ll be to manage the behavior. Through thoughtful observation, asking questions and a careful analysis of our expectations, we can determine ways to take our child’s strengths into account and create environments that promote success.

[Read: To Raise Independent Kids, You Have to Set Some Limits.]

Frequency and consistency is key. This is important. When rules and expectations are not enforced consistently, children ( and adults) resort to what experience has taught them. Most simply, experience trumps words. For example, let’s say that we are told not to eat something or else we’ll become sick, but we eat it anyway without getting ill. Our brains will pay more attention to that experience than the words of warning. However, if our experience is consistent with reality (the food did make us sick), we are much more likely to heed words of caution.

Discipline strategies work the same way. When children learn by experience that they only face consequences for their actions — or inaction — if you start yelling, they will choose to ignore any instruction that does not involve yelling. If the consequence is consistent after one calm ask, however, a child will learn to listen more attentively to instructions to avoid consequences. Desired behaviors will be best learned when discipline is consistent and predictable over time.

Verbal shaming and spanking do not work. Using these ineffective methods as punishment has been shown to amplify undesired behavior and encourage aggression in children as they age. In November, the American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed these findings in a policy statement that strongly discourages corporal punishment for any child. Corporal punishment — physical or verbal actions deliberately executed to cause pain or discomfort — has been studied extensively in family homes and academic settings where it has been allowed. The AAP provides more information on specific, evidenced-based discipline techniques at healthychildren.org.

Research consistently shows that physical and verbal punishment escalates undesired behaviors and increases the risk of poor social, emotional and behavioral consequences. The good news is recent surveys suggest today’s parents agree that spanking and verbal shaming are not acceptable methods of discipline. Corporal punishment is no longer viewed as a normal part of parenting.

[See: Why You Shouldn’t Spank Your Child — and What to Do Instead.]

Remember, if we want our kids to do the hard work of behavior modification and make good choices, then we need to be great teachers. We need to make are expectations clear and our responses to kids’ behaviors consistent. We must teach by example, demonstrating (over and over again) the behavior we desire, while creating clear boundaries and consequences when lines are crossed. Most importantly, if you find yourself choosing physical or verbal aggression as a primary discipline tool, ask for help. Counselors or therapists specifically trained in behavior management can help you regain control and build positive relationships with the young learners in your home.

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