Analyzing Discipline Problems (page 2)
The first step in exercising your judgment is to examine your goals for discipline. It is crucial that no discipline approach damage a child’s growth in self-esteem, self-discipline, and moral autonomy.. We attempt to explain how inappropriate forms of discipline counteract progress toward these long-term goals. Rewards, punishment, and other coercive approaches to discipline have become mainstream practices; teachers must understand that these practices work against their long-term goals.
Short-term goals are also important, although meeting them must not conflict with long-term goals. There are certain behaviors that are so disruptive or dangerous that they must be stopped immediately, leaving the teaching aspect of discipline for the next step. If children’s actions put them into danger, it is essential to act quickly and decisively. Talking directly to the children involved is much more productive than yelling directions across a room. An emergency situation may require a warning shout, which will be useful if the teacher’s voice is usually calm and controlled. However, teachers who routinely raise their voices in an effort to control a group will find that a raised voice quickly loses effectiveness.
Finding the Cause of the Problem
If the situation is not an emergency, or after an emergency situation is over, you are free to think about the most appropriate discipline approach for long-term goals. This step requires a search for the cause or causes of the discipline problem. Many times you will find several interactive causes of a problem. This means you need to address several causes in order to provide effective help. Discipline that deals only with the symptoms rather than the causes of behavior problems is doomed to failure; the problem behavior will continue to surface until the reason for that behavior is addressed. Too often teachers respond to the behavior instead of the causes (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). This problem is well demonstrated in schools with posted sets of rules and the pre-planned punishments for breaking each rule.
The causes of a problem are not always obvious, and it may take serious study and even some trial and error to get at the root of the matter.
As you start to search for the cause of a child’s behavior problem, first ask yourself whether the offending behavior may simply be typical of that child’s stage of maturation. Some adults don’t realize, for instance, that a 2-year-old is not being naughty when she wets her pants. These adults might punish the child or try bribing her in efforts to change this behavior, unaware that a 2-year-old who isn’t potty-trained is exhibiting maturationally normal behavior. The child can’t change the behavior until she is older. Your soul-searching may reveal that the “problem” is actually adult intolerance or a misunderstanding of childlike behavior (Landy, 2002). In that case, the cause of the problem is the adult’s attitude, therefore, that attitude, not the child’s behavior, needs to be changed.
Inappropriate Adult Expectations
The next step in finding the cause of a behavior problem involves examining whether or not inappropriate adult expectations may have created the problem. Inappropriate adult expectations may include those that are incompatible with an individual child’s temperament, those that conflict with a family’s culture, those that do not reflect gender differences, and those that are a poor match for children’s maturational levels.
When we reflect on the unique personalities of children in our care, it is clear that we cannot have the same expectations of all. As we become more aware of diverse ways of viewing and responding to experiences, we can better match interactions and expectations to those differences.
Adults create problems when they require young children to sit still and be quiet for more than a few minutes, to wait with nothing to do, or to engage in learning activities designed for older youngsters. The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers guidelines for appropriate programs (Bredekamp, 1997) and curriculum (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1995) that teachers can consult to make sure discipline problems are not being caused by an inappropriate environment.
If you suspect that the environment is causing children to react negatively, the solution is to change the situation rather than try to change the children. This preventive discipline approach saves both teachers and children a lot of trouble. The adult response in the following example demonstrates the value of planning to better meet a child’s needs.
After eating lunch each day, the children in the child-care program are expected to clear off their table setting and sit back down to wait for a teacher to call them to brush their teeth. Sometimes there is no wait time, but sometimes it can be a couple of minutes, depending on how many children have finished eating. Sheri knows this is not an ideal situation, but it seems to be the only way to handle the tooth brushing with 20 children and only two sinks.
The children don’t seem to have a problem with this, with the exception of Sam. Sam sits down for about 10 seconds and then has to get up and move around the room, usually causing a disturbance in the process, or he wanders into the unsupervised kitchen.
Sheri has repeatedly reminded Sam about sitting and waiting his turn. He seems to know what is expected of him but doesn’t seem to be able to do it. Sheri decides that this situation just isn’t appropriate for Sam and makes a plan to accommodate his needs. The chairs need to be stacked to sweep the floor after lunch. This has usually been done by the staff after the kids leave school, but Sheri asks Sam if he would like to help out and be the chair stacker after lunch. Sam jumps at the chance to do this real and important work—and to get to move around and use his muscles instead of trying to sit still. Now Sam is the proud official chair stacker instead of the kid in trouble every day. What a difference this makes to his self-esteem!
The good news is that most solutions to undesirable behaviors can be found by rethinking adult expectations and overall classroom practices (Fox et al., 2003).
Once you have satisfied yourself that you are accepting children at their maturational level and providing an individually appropriate environment and curriculum, you can go on to look for other causes of discipline problems. Young children have a lot to learn about how to get along, how to deal with their emotions, and how to communicate effectively. If you suspect that lack of skill in any of these areas is causing the problem, a discipline approach that works on needed skills is the solution. Most of us work at developing these skills throughout our lives, so it is to be expected that young children will need help with them.
Adults can demonstrate and assist in desirable modes of self-expression and interacting with others (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000). Probably the most important and difficult lesson has to do with perspective-taking—understanding other people’s viewpoints. This requires a combination of communication and social skills because people need to be able to express their feelings clearly in order to facilitate an exchange of viewpoints. Teachers can help children find words so that they can share their views and feelings with their peers, thus decreasing egocentricity. Helping children learn how to play with others and make friends goes along with teaching them perspective-taking. Other useful approaches include the use of “I messages” and problem-solving techniques to teach children effective conflict resolution (Gordon, 1989).
Emotion regulation is related to enhanced communication and perspective-taking skills. When children are able to find the words to express their sorrows and frustrations, they have a way of getting support and an acceptable way of letting off steam. When they begin to understand that there may be another side to a situation, they are often comforted. For instance, if children are able to understand that the child who wronged them did so by accident, it often has a calming effect. Similarly, beginning to learn that things don’t always go their way because others also want their own way can help children cope with a disappointment. In addition, most children need specific assistance with learning how to comfort themselves and how to delay gratification. Teaching children social skills, perspective-taking, effective communication, and emotion regulation are important discipline strategies that promote lifelong, harmonious social interaction.
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