Discipline: The Foundations

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OK, so you've established discipline with your toddler. Now see how it is important to carry on in order to build a strong foundation for the school years.

Imagine a world with no traffic regulations whatsoever. Someone’s in charge, but it is understood that everyone should be tolerant of each other’s driving choices. Everyone is free to drive as fast or slow as he likes, no one has to stop at intersections; in fact, there are no stop or yield signs anywhere. Accidents would rise dramatically, right? We would feel completely unsafe, and it would take forever to get anywhere because of the mass confusion. It would be utter chaos.

Now, let’s take that analogy into a classroom of students. Someone’s in charge (the teacher), but is told that the kids should be tolerant of each other’s behavior. So the teacher spends most of her time just trying to get kids quiet or calm so she can teach a lesson. No expectations are placed on the students.

They are free to complete homework whenever they want to. No one has to stop what she’s doing when the teacher asks. There are no syllabi, guidelines, rules or goals for learning or achievement standards. Just free reign to learn how and when you like. Just imagine. Utter chaos.

The idea seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? And yet, there is increasing evidence that today’s classrooms are leaning in that direction with the increasing need for behavioral specialists, behavior adjusting medications and behavioral classes. Maureen Stout, Ph.D. expresses the increasing concern on the part of American educators in her book, The Feel-Good Curriculum (Perseus, $16.00).

“Over the last 30 years, the self-esteem movement has so permeated the school culture that the traditional roles of teacher and student have been completely transformed. The authority that the teacher once symbolized has been almost entirely demolished. If they’re not being taught in the home, kids do not learn basic codes of civil conduct.”

Frustrated teachers are concerned that children are coming to school unprepared for the structure of learning and because of that, children are getting trampled in systems. Students who are eager to learn are often hindered because teachers are busy repeatedly handling discipline issues caused by a growing number of students who lack basic behavioral skills. These are often the children who become disenchanted with the education experience and suffer early burnout due to labels placed upon them. Once they have been labeled, it is difficult for these kids to have success in the classroom. So where does the problem start? And what’s to be done about it?

Discipline Begins at Home

Cynthia Lucas, a clinical psychologist in Nashville, says “The way a child is disciplined at home is important to make them receptive to authority figures. If the system is in place at home, then they will be more receptive to the same system in the classroom. They must understand that the ultimate decisions are made by adults.”

In this age of communication, although parents have so much information and resources at their fingertips, the many conflicting “expert” opions can leave parents confused about their roles. Gloria DeGaetano writes in her book, Parenting Well in a Media Age ($18.95, Personhood Press), that the media has sent a “message to parents, reflected through the lens of the industry-generated culture that they are ridiculously up tight and stupid if they try to exercise any authority in relationship to their children. Unfortunately this attitude has been supported by many ‘experts’.” If there is confusion in the home about authority, it will be just the same when the children go to school.

Megan, an elementary school teacher in the Metro school system, says, “Discipline starts in the home. How can we do our job if parents don’t follow through at home or back up the teacher? It is not just one child we are responsible for, but 20 others in the same classroom.”

Lucas adds, “It is very stressful for a teacher who has several children in a classroom to handle several different kinds of discipline issues. We are very busy today and many parents expect schools to teach the basics of how to behave when those systems need to already be in place before children are even of school age. It helps everyone have a better experience (at school) when teachers aren’t expected to teach basic behavior.”

Kathy Lee, a mastered guidance counselor at Davidson Academy, agrees that the quality of learning that takes place can become compromised. She says, “It ties the teacher’s hands. She spends so much time disciplining that she loses time devoted to teaching. It’s not fair to the other children.”

Developing Self-control

But kids are kids, right? How much can you actually expect a kindergartener to sit still? Lee says, “Teachers are professionals. They know what to expect from children of different ages. In kindergarten for example, 15 minutes is about the maximum amount of time that a child can sit quietly and focus on some work. So a teacher will structure the day with 15 minutes of quiet sitting and working then 15 minutes of an activity where the children can get up and participate with their hands and allow plenty of time for recess as well.”

Lee also suggests that parents can help prepare their children for the classroom setting. “A good question for parents to ask prospective kindergarten teachers is, ‘How long do you feel my child should be able to sit quietly? What is the length of sustained attention that you expect from my child?’ And then parents can work towards that at home.”

The ability to sit still and concentrate, by utilizing self-control, is something that grows, or should grow, as the child gets older. Parents can and should help their children develop this skill. Why, you may ask, is it essential for my child to be able to sit still, especially if he is active and excited about what he is learning? This structure is necessary for learning to take place in a classroom with several children, says Lee. When it is just mom and child, there is a different structure.

Learning takes place spontaneously and in moments of life, however, in a classroom there are several other students and Lee explains that one child cannot be permitted to distract the others from the learning at hand. She says, “There is a time for hands-on learning, there is a time for creative expression and there is a time for sitting quietly and listening.” This skill is necessary for life. “Teaching your child self control is the greatest gift you can give him,” Lee says.


What is self-control for a child in school?

“Self-control is taking responsibility for your actions,” says Megan. “It is knowing that you did something that the teacher and/or parents would not approve of. It’s catching that behavior before it happens and choosing the correct behavior.” And Lucas says that children should know what is OK and what’s not. “Self control is deciding the correct behavior despite the temptation to do otherwise,” she says.

But how do you teach a child to sit still? How do you help your child develop self-control? Lee explains that self-discipline is not taught overnight. “For a child to develop self-discipline, it takes years of consistent training. It is like developing a habit – such as brushing teeth. If you are consistent about teeth brushing every night, it becomes a habit. Eventually, they become uncomfortable if they have not brushed their teeth.

It is the same thing with homework. If parents establish a time every evening when homework is done and are firm that nothing else is acceptable during that time, eventually it becomes a habit and the mind becomes trained to focus during that time,” says Lee.

In order to prepare them for school, Lee says, “Parents should teach children to sit and play or read alone a certain amount of time each day. If mom becomes an entertainer or the TV or computer is the entertainer, despite whatever educational value they may have, then school will be very difficult for them.” Lee encourages parents that it is possible for their children to sit still. Start with short lengths of time, and gradually increase it.

“Start at the dinner table. Make sure the child understands that they must sit at the table until their meal is finished. Do not allow them to get up and down,” says Lee. Most importantly, she adds, “Parental consistency is what helps a child develop self-discipline.” And role-modeling.

“Parents model self control. They model for their children how to think through decisions. However, different ages are capable of different amounts of self-control. A 2-year-old still thinks it is fun to run out in the street, but parents don’t allow it and there won’t be much discussion about it,” says Lucas.

Megan’s advice for raising eager learners is, “Limit TV and video games. Engage them in activities that encourage thinking instead of just sitting and watching.” Dr. Robert Hill and Dr. Eduardo Castro, authors of the book, Getting Rid of Ritalin, recommend no television before the age of five saying “We can say with confidence that excessive television, particularly in young children, causes neurological damage, TV watching causes the brain to slow down, producing a constant pattern of low-frequency brain waves consistent with ADD behavior.”

Discipline and Self-esteem

Sometimes parents worry that disciplining their child firmly will crush a child’s personality or hurt their self-esteem, but the opposite is true. Lucas says, “Children like knowing what the expectations are and having boundaries. If the child knows that bedtime is at 8 p.m. and they are put to bed at 8 p.m., then they find comfort and security in that. Boundaries actually help them develop self-esteem when they can see themselves operating within that structure.”

“Self-esteem comes from doing what is right, from working hard. Accomplishing something is what makes you feel good,” says Lee. She goes on to explain. “Discipline doesn’t give low-self esteem; lack of discipline does. They are getting in trouble at school and the other kids don’t want to play with them. A child feels secure within boundaries. When there are no boundaries then learning is inhibited and they feel insecure because they don’t know what is going on.”

Classroom Preparation

There is a lot parents can do to prepare their children for the classroom setting – and life. Lucas says talk with your children about what their classes are like. She suggests parents set clear expectations for their child’s behavior in school and discuss what the consequences and benefits will be for following or not following them. Talk with children about their days. Find out when they are having problems and help them come up with resolutions.

Smith suggests, “Read, read, read. Read to your child as much as you can. Reading peaks their curiosity and teaches them that they can learn more about what interests them by reading some more!”

Lee says,” A parent’s enthusiasm for education has a large affect on the child’s own motivation for learning. Education should be emphasized as important in the home. Parents should read to their children and children should see mom and dad reading books as well.”

Problems Do Arise

What if there is a problem in the classroom? It happens. Despite a parent’s best efforts and training, sometimes children do make wrong choices just like parents do. No one is perfect. Lucas says, “By working together, parents and teachers gain information about the situation that they might not otherwise have.”

She says, “Parents and teachers should communicate openly and honestly about what both of them expect for the situation. Be specific and measure the behavior. For example, the teacher should specify that Johnny is out of his seat five times in 10 minutes, and tell parents what they all should work towards in changing the behavior. Keeping the goal in mind of helping the individual child and the classroom system to run more effectively can reduce the defensiveness that sometimes creeps in.”

Lee also states, “Parents should avoid an adversarial relationship with the teacher. Don’t blame the teacher but work with the teacher.
Set up conferences and communicate regularly. Teachers really do have your child’s best interests in mind.”

Just like every other aspect of parenting, discipline is a process. It is a process that continues all the way up until your child has graduated from high school and is ready to leave home. Someday your child will take those wonderful qualities of self-discipline, imagination and a love for learning out into the world to accomplish great things and make you proud.

They will apply themselves to their careers and families and become good, hardworking, imaginative citizens of America. Someday. But for now, let’s just focus on getting through class!

 

Jennifer Lee is a mom and freelance writer.

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