takes more time, and requires more work than punishment.
Discipline requires that we do a lot of thinking before and during
the intervention, and asks that we design, not merely administer, an
intervention that will teach the young person something about the
situation, or about him/herself, and that it will enable the individual
to handle it better next time. We must consider who are behaving in the
unacceptable way, what we know about their history and make-up that
helps us understand why they are meeting their needs in an inappropriate
way, and how we can provide an intervention and consequence which will
facilitate effective learning. Discipline, as a practice concept, is
often avoided in favour of more punitive interventions simply because of
the demands on staff time and energy. It’s easier to have charts on the
wall spelling out consequences for all manner of misbehaviour, to take
things away, to send someone to his/her room to "think", than to take
the time to evaluate each incident of unacceptable behaviour, to use our
knowledge of the child and of individual and group dynamics to
understand the reason for the behaviour and to devise a consequence
geared for the needs of the individual youngster.
Discipline requires a focus on the
Similar behaviour does not spring, necessarily, from similar or
predictable motivation. Each child must be considered in terms of
his/her background, present coping skills, treatment needs, and
abilities for learning. Six children may run away together, but each
will run for his/her own, individual reasons. Punishment may, but
discipline will not allow all six to be given the same consequence,
because the necessary learning will be different for each. Who left
because they have trouble controlling their impulses? Who left because
they couldn’t say "no" to others in the group? Who left because in the
past it has been safer to leave than to stay? Each has something to
learn; each has a different capacity to learn; each deserves the respect
to be seen and treated as a unique person with unique needs. Each
Discipline cannot be forced.
Punishment can be forced, but we cannot force anybody to learn. It
thus becomes our task to provide the opportunity, to structure a
learning situation, to give it our best shot. It becomes our task to
give the learning the time.
Discipline enhances a child’s
Punishment damages a sense of self-worth. I don’t believe that it is
true that children enjoy misbehaving and falling out of favour with the
important adults in their lives. I believe, instead, that "acting up" is
all that some children know. It feels comfortable, it makes them feel
like themselves, it reinforces their negative self-images. I have never
seen any evidence that it makes them feel good. Learning new ways to
behave and handle emotions and difficult situations, learning more about
themselves, learning that someone cares enough to struggle with them to
help them change; this, I believe, feels good. Discipline allows the
development of personal competence, and the sustaining of positive
relationships with important adults, building a sense of worth and
value. Isn’t this our commitment?
Discipline is hampered by previous
Kids who come into placement are, for the most part, undisciplined.
They have been punished a lot; they have been ignored. Neither
punishment nor uninvolvement teaches responsible behaviour. A lifetime
of being ignored or punished does not make it easy to receive
discipline. Children tempt us to do what would be easier for us anyway,
to ignore them, or punish them. It is a challenge for us not to respond
in the way they seem to be asking and which makes them feel comfortable.
Abused kids elicit abuse; they act as if they would rather be made to
suffer, to be called names, to be yelled at or hit. They would rather be
sent to their rooms (ignored) than to be disciplined. Most don’t feel
they are worth discipline! They don’t understand our willingness to
invest the time and effort. This willingness and investment, I believe,
is at the heart of treatment! This is hard to keep "up front" in our
minds when they get up in our face and beg us to punish them; when they
wreck our nights and ruin our days.
Discipline is hard just because
Sometimes we have bad days. Sometimes we envy them the treatment
they are getting at our hands because we’d like to have some for
ourselves. Sometimes we’re just plain tired and irritated. These times
call on all of our reserves, and all of our personal and professional
commitment. We are here to treat them better than they were treated
before we met them; to treat them better than we were/are treated; and
to treat them better than we’d sometimes like to treat them.
Discipline, like love, requires
patience and kindness.
Punishment can be swift and impulsive. Who hasn’t, in a flash of
anger and frustration, been tempted to take away someone’s bathroom
privileges, to ground them for two years, to send them to their rooms
until they "grow up"? The commitment to provide discipline in these
moments is much like the commitment to love the unlovable. It takes
patience to explain and relate a consequence, to be sure that the
behaviour enables us to provide a clear explanation for intervention,
and to construct a consequence that changes, rather than confirms, a
negative view of the world.
Discipline can be proactive as well
In fact, it is possible on many occasions to recognise that
corrective discipline is necessary because of a failure to provide
preventive teaching interventions. Selfishly, it is far more useful,
less exhausting, and more pleasant to spend time with youngsters
preventing misbehaviour than anxiously awaiting its occurrence and
having to react to it when everyone involved is in an emotional state
that decreases the chances of effective teaching and learning taking
place. Too often we seem to wait for something awful to happen and then
spend countless hours in meetings, consultations and ruminations
deciding what to do in response. The beauty of the discipline framework
is that it reminds us that, unlike punishment, which is only reactive,
discipline/teaching can be done at anytime. We can talk in advance about
how to keep windows from being broken when Frank loses his temper; how
we can handle feelings and challenges other than by running away, how to
direct aggression into acceptable activities, etc. We can provide
discipline in advance of disruptive behaviour. We can use that
well-developed ability to pick up on the warning signs, the "vibes"
which signal the potential for something getting out of hand. We can
teach as prevention and save all of us the bad feeling which results
from "acting out" behaviour. This focus on prevention may, in many
cases, cause us to re-evaluate our reward systems for direct care staff.
It is unfortunate that so many strokes are given to child care workers
who are good at "handling" difficult situations. To reinforce a focus on
discipline, we should commend the child care worker who provides such
good discipline that there is very little to handle. We also need to
reward creative and constructive consequences, even if they appear
"soft" in a context where punishment seems called for. In considering
the difficult task of maintaining discipline in classroom settings,
Silberman (1970) reminds of the difficulty arising when teachers become
obsessed with silence and lack of movement in environments where this
becomes the chief means by which their competence is judged, since this
atmosphere hampers real learning. He reminds us that a group cannot
achieve enough maturity to keep itself under control if its members
never have an opportunity to exercise control. Rewards need to be given
to workers who do not "control" the group, but who struggle with the
group and its members to learn self-control, with the understanding that
while learning anything, the practice cannot be compared to the desired
proficiency. Learning to type means a lot of misspelled words at first.
And learning new behaviours requires tolerance for the approximations
which will eventually lead to the desired performance.
Discipline is one of our primary tasks as caretakers of children. It
is also one of our greatest challenges. It can be, when done as a way of
life with those in our care, one of our greatest rewards. Discipline
gives kids what they come to us to get; it is easier on us than any
amount of punishing; it works and it feels terrific. Watching young
people change their feelings about themselves
— recognising their own value and worth
— is a thrill that never leaves a
worker who has toiled with and on behalf of this young one. Recognising
that disciplinary interactions, teaching kids that they deserve our
time, our thought, our planning, our creativity; teaching them that love
and respect can be found in this world as evidenced by the love and
respect we can share with them; teaching them that they can learn to
meet their needs in a way that enhances their own feelings about
themselves as well as the feelings toward them of others around them;
sharing the joy and confidence that comes from learning
— these rewards will energise us and
give us the motivational push to keep on for another hour, another day,
Direct care workers tow a difficult
line, searching for a blend of structure and freedom which allows
children and young people the right to learn from their own mistakes,
but which still lends them the protection of our experience as a buffer
against unnecessary disasters. There will be times when the consequences
we mete out will seem unreasonable to the child. At times like this, we
need to examine ourselves to make sure they are indeed reasonable, and
necessary, even if not understood. Anyone who has witnessed a
two-year-old running out into traffic, convinced that all cars will stop
while s(he) retrieves her/his ball, has experienced a moment when
preventive discipline was the order of the day, whether the process was
able to be mutual or not. There are other dangerous situations which
call upon our best skills in attempting to provide preventive
discipline; most of us are not willing to allow teenagers to learn from
the mistake of cutting their wrists, or taking a dangerous drug. It
requires careful thought and lots of discussion between adults, to
determine which situations we should step into and which we
should allow to play out so that
learning can occur from natural consequences. We need also to recognise
that there are times when kids are not available for discipline: when
they’re on drugs or alcohol; when they are blinded by rage; when they
are out of touch with reality. Most often, these times will pass and the
opportunity for discipline (as contrasted with control) will present
itself and we will then buy up these moments after the storm, to try to
teach another way of handling stress or peer pressure, remembering that
the goal of discipline is self-control, self-discipline. It is when we
see a child or teenager learn a better way to handle his/her feelings
and impulses that we are paid for our work, not when we pick up our
Alt, H. Residential Treatment for the Disturbed Child.
International Universities Press Inc., New York, 1960.
Critical Incidents in Child Care: A Case Book. Behavior
Publications, New York, 1972.
Blos, P. On Adolescence. The
Free Press, New York, 1962.
Glasser, W. Reality Therapy.
Harper and Row, New York, 1965.
Problem Solving Therapy New strategies for effective family therapy.
Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1976.
Josselyn, I. M. The Adolescent and
His World. Family Service Association of America, New York, 1952.
Krueger, MA. Intervention Techniques
far Child Care Workers. Tall Publishing Inc., Milwaukee, WI, 1980.
Long, N.J. and Newman, R.G. Managing
surface behaviour of children in school. Conflict in the Classroom
The education of emotionally disturbed children. Fourth Edition,
Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont, MA, 1980.
Redl, F. and Wineman, D. Controls
From Within: Techniques for treatment of the aggressive child. The
Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1952.
Redl, F. When We Deal With Children.
The Free Press, New York, 1966.
Redl, F. The concept of
punishment. Conflict in the Classroom:
The education of emotionally disturbed children Fourth Edition,
Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont, MA, 1980.
Silberman, C.E. Crisis in the
Classroom. Random House, New York, 1970.
Smith, J.M. and Smith, D. Child
Management: A program for parents and teachers. Research Press,
Champaign, IL, 1976.
Thelen, H. Dynamics of Groups at
Work. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1963.
Trieschman, A.E., Whittaker, J.K. and
Brendtro, L.K. The Other 23 Hours. Aldine Publishing Co.,
Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J.H. and
Fisch, R. Change: Principles of problem formation and problem
resolution. Norton, New York, 1974.
Watzlawick, P. The Language of
Change. Basic Books, New York, 1978.
Wells, C.F. and Stuart, I.R.
Self-destructive behaviour in children and adolescents. Van Nostrand
Reinhold Co., London, 1981.
Whittaker, J.K. Caring for Troubled
Children. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1979.
This feature: Extract from Lorraine Fox. Teachers or
Taunters: The dilemma of true discipline for direct care workers
with children. In Readings in Child and
Youth Care for South African students. Cape Town: National
Association of Child Care Workers. pp.48-52