Teaching self-discipline to children

Using ‘Time Out’ and ‘Naughty Steps’

When I had my Montessori Nursery School I used to have a chair in the coats’ lobby, just outside the classroom door. This is where, with the door left half open, children who had behaved unacceptably (say they’d hit someone or broken someone’s piece of work because they would let them ‘share’), had been remonstrated with (say they had been asked to recognize that the other person has every right to want to finish something on their own and does not automatically have to share their work) and still had refused to wait for them to finish (say crying angrily) – would be asked to go and sit, with a teacher for further chat about how to express themselves without violence or alone if they wanted to ‘to think about things’.

It would be explained to them that when they were ready they could come into the classroom and make things better for whomever they had offended, including themselves. This may have been a simple ‘sorry’ or a chat about how to do things differently or cope with sometimes different rules in school and home.

Children would occasionally choose to take themselves out to sit on this chair, even when there was no outward evidence of any problem. When asked if they were O.K. nine times out of ten they would say ‘I’m just doing some thinking’. They would bring themselves back into the classroom when they deemed themselves ready. This gave staff the chance to follow up at an appropriate time, checking for worries, acknowledging and reinforcing the usefulness of thought and self -control.

The ‘think about it chair’ was seen as a place to go or be asked to go when you or a teacher deemed it a good idea.: a place of refuge and focus, a safe place. The experience of sitting just outside the classroom was never one of exclusion. In fact the door would be held open by a wedge to make sure the thinker was obliged to perceive himself as included. Equally the rest of the group remained conscious of that inclusion to the extent that sometimes someone might just go and check if the thinker was O.K.

If ever a child was very distressed at ‘leaving’ the room, this would be interpreted as her having ‘blown a fuse’ (last straw syndrome, not rational) or frightened through lack of understanding. Staff would stay and comfort the child ‘til calm was restored and communication re-established, however long this took, coming back into the room together and staying close until issues were resolved.

Trouble happens when this sort of exercise is used as a sanction to punish  ‘naughty’  behaviour. All this does is deny the child the opportunity to learn self-discipline: buy himself back into the game through suffering a spell on the ‘naughty’ step. This sets up opposing roles; parent as punisher and child as punished. By the time the young child has grown into a 6 foot teenager, still dependant on his parents to discipline him, what sanctions are left?!  The rift between punisher and punished has done irrevocable damage to the relationship, mutual respect and communication has broken down and parenting has become (if it hasn’t already) a nightmare.

Effective relationships with our children are crucial because we need to be able to influence them to protect them. Strong relationships are grounded in continual dialogue and the value of mutual understanding and respect for differences. This is founded on collaboration and cooperation, not fragmentation and opposition. The trick is to get our children to recognise the value of working together for both them and the group. Working together must therefore yield benefits. Setting ourselves up as punisher and punished, controller and controlled can never achieve this.

So it’s important to lay the foundations of mutually respectful relationships early on in a child’s world. We all learn about ourselves, other people and our environment through our senses : watching, listening, smelling, hearing and copying others (modeling), acting out, engaging and interacting with others and our environment and storing information for recall and replay. So the more ‘controlled’ experience and chance to experiment we can give children the better.

Help them to learn to manage their human and material environment through the rules of natural consequences (even if you’ve ‘set them up’). For example, instead of banning the stairs by using a stair gate, allow controlled experimentation on the bottom half, put a pile of blankets half way up and a few at the bottom, turn your back and let her try it out. A few tumbles will help her find ways to avoid them!

I remember when my young son continually launched food across the room from his high chair tray: very messy when it was something with gravy. After repeated calm remonstrations and firm ‘don’t do that because I don’t want to have to keep clearing up the mess!” I am ashamed to say I picked up the bowl of food and inverted it on the high chair table, splashing myself  and the child in the process, saying ‘O.K. then’. This ‘natural consequence’ involved an apparently irrational response, which, in a perfect world should not have been indulged. Many would say ‘ never lose your temper’ with your child ‘ it always means you’ve lost the argument’.

I did not see the food throwing and me trying to stop it as an argument’. I saw it as my son pushing the boundaries and having fun with it. Perhaps I made myself vulnerable by exposing my own frustration. But it worked. I knew I did not intend to hurt him neither was I at any time out of control.

Most ground rules for behaviour are rooted in good reasons. If ground rules are not achievable without huge effort or pain for any party, they are not working and perhaps need to be recalibrated.

Early years controlled experimentation and investigation allows children to engage in their world (human and material) through a kind of scientific approach, through cause and effect. This establishes the value of acquiring knowledge and understanding, which leads to personal responsibility and fulfilment. Frustration is then limited and growth, personal achievement and happiness is enhanced. As language and dialogue grow, the thinking processes behind early explorative and experimental experiences, naturally transfer to verbal reasoning.

The name of the game is to avoid confrontation and maximize opportunities and strategies for understanding, mutual appreciation and respect. To start labeling behaviour as ‘naughty’ or ‘good’ rather than as trying out, pushing boundaries or testing, in my view, is asking for trouble.

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