Principle-centered discipline

Erik K. Laursen

The author contrasts system-centered and principle-centered disciplines and provides examples of effective strategies that use discipline encounters to build strengths in children and youth.

In working with troubled and troubling kids over the last 30 years, I have been through the gamut of discipline procedures, including point systems, lists of violations with associated punishments, reward systems, and praise, none of which had lasting results. Hundreds of staff have asked for methods that “work,” usually meaning ways of getting kids to comply with adult demands. In this article, I will suggest some principles that can guide our practice as we help kids to develop self-discipline and self-worth. These principles are aligned with strengths-based practice.

The word discipline is rooted in the word disciple and is therefore best understood as a teaching process free of intimidation, humiliation, and embarrassment. The goal of the teaching discipline is twofold:

  1. To provide a safe and consistent environment where children can learn reasonable rules, limits, and consequences, as well as the reasons for them

  2. To develop self-discipline and self-control

A review of the literature on discipline reveals an abundance of different approaches, some advising that immediate, consistent consequences for “misbehavior” are warranted (e.g., Applestein, 1998; Canter and Canter, 2002), some recommending the importance of positive discipline (e.g., Nelsen, Lott and Glenn, 1999), some warning against punishments and praise (e.g., Kohn, 1996), and still others recommending the importance of making kids aware of the consequences for rule violations (e.g., Curwin and Mendler, 1997). Most of the approaches can be grouped into two categories: systems-centered and principle-centered.

In the systems approach, the agency has a preset list of rules, and staff are expected to take action when the rules are violated. Punishment or consequences are prescribed and are to be administered in the same manner to all violators, without regard to the situation or the person or whether they produce a change in behavior. An example of this approach is the zero tolerance approach enforced in many school systems across the nation. The following example shows why this approach is not often successful:

Recently ]essica, a 13-year-old girl, was expelled from a school system because she brought a bread knife to school. Upon arriving at school, she told a teacher that she had the knife in her locker. The office and security were dispatched and the knife recovered from the locker. Subsequently ]essica explained that she brought the knife to school because her mom was suicidal and had been cutting on herself the previous night. She said, “l took the knife so she wouldn’t use it to kill herself. That’s the only thing l knew to do.”

The other category of discipline is based on principles (e.g., Brooks and Goldstein, 2001; Cline and Fay 2001). Agencies using this approach to operate on a set of principles or values, which are disseminated to students and staff, and rules based on these principles are developed. Staff are expected to respond when any of the rules are violated. Discipline, however, is individualized and based on the situation and the person(s) involved. Therefore, similar situations may be treated differently. Let us return to ]essica’s story. lf the school’s discipline had been based on principles of developing safety, care, respect, and concern, the teacher would have notified the office and security and the knife would have been removed. Next, the adult with the closest relationship to ]essica would have taken time to listen to her story. As the context emerged, the adult would have appreciated her concern for her mother’s safety and, at the same time, talked with her about not bringing a knife to school. They would further have developed a plan so Jessica would have someone to contact in future situations — a family member, a friend of the family or maybe the local crisis intervention center. The result of this approach would lead to increased insight for Jessica, teaching her to access support systems during difficult times.

Debunking common myths about discipline
There are numerous myths about disciplining that sound plausible but do not hold up under careful scrutiny. Let’s consider three:

 Myth 1: All kids should be treated the same
I often hear that all kids should be given the same consequences for misbehavior because it is only fair. However, we do not treat all people the same. For example, I do not treat my children the same way I treat other children, and I would not treat your spouse the same way you treat her! However, I think all would agree that we should treat other people with respect, i.e., treating people equitably rather than equally.

Myth 2: Kids need to be warned about consequences
I have never heard anyone claim that warning kids about the consequences deters misbehavior. For example, I know of an independent living program that for years had a “no fighting” rule with a $25 fine as a consequence. The threat of the fine never deterred kids from fighting. When youth felt other means of conflict resolution had been exhausted or they felt their “reputation” was on the line, they would often resort to fighting. When I asked staff how often during the program’s 10-year existence they had heard kids discuss if a fight was worth $25, they unanimously answered, “never.” Further, kids rarely break expectations according to our rulebook — they always find a loophole! This means that we have to deal with a variation anyway.

Myth 3: Consequences must be administered immediately
Most off-the-shelf discipline programs advise that consequences, if they are to have any meaning for kids, must be administered immediately. David Funk (Fay and Funk, 1995) relates a story of a youth who was constantly talking back to his teacher. The teacher thought he should do something about the situation, but was too busy teaching the rest of the class. He told the student, “That kind of talk is not acceptable in this classroom. I’m going to have to do something about it, but I don’t know what it will be because I’m too busy teaching right now. I’ll let you know what I decide in the morning. Don’t worry about it tonight” (p. I6).

Delaying the consequence serves several benefits. Most important, both the youth and the adult have time to cool down. In addition, it is very likely that the youth will worry about what is going to happen. Often when I have used this response, the first thing a child asked me the next morning was, “So, what is the consequence?” It is obvious that they have been thinking a lot about the situation. One of the best ways to develop self-discipline is for people to think about what they have done.

Principles of strength-based practice
Strength-based discipline or behavior management is based on core values such as respect, caring, collaboration, resilience, and possibilities. Kids’ struggles and violations of expectations, rules, or values are considered as opportunities for learning, and discipline is viewed both as the process of teaching and the practice of self-discipline and self-control.

Strength-based practice is not a program or specific service, but rather is built on a set of principles. Table 1 lists the principles of the Strengths Perspective (Saleebey 2002), Strength-Based Practice (Laursen, 2000), and Positive Peer Culture (Vorrath and Brendtro, 1985), which guide the theoretical foundation and the daily practices of many youth programs. While the term “strength-based” had not been coined in 1974, when Vorrath and Brendtro wrote the first edition of Positive Peer Culture, their thinking has shaped the development of strength-based practice with kids. lt is no surprise that a comparison of the principles listed in Table 1 reveals a tight fit of the three strength-based approaches. Vorrath and Brendtro summarized the core value of strength-based practice when they wrote, “Positive Peer Culture does not seek to impose specific rules, but to teach basic values. If there were one rule, it would be that people must care for one another” (p. 3).

The principles outlined in Table 1 serve as a guide for the culture created for children and youth by strength-based agencies and individuals. Connors and Smith (1999), writing from an organizational perspective, highlighted three components — experiences, beliefs, and actions —that work in combination to create the culture. These “components work together because experiences foster beliefs, beliefs drive actions, and actions produce results” (p. 13). In this article, we will examine the experiences, beliefs, and actions required to produce principle-centered discipline for children and youth.

Table 1 . Principles of Strength-Based Practice

Strengths Perspective Strength-Based Practice Positive Peer Culture
Caring, caretaking, and context Build authentic relationships with children and families People must care for one another
Every individual, group, family and community has strengths Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses The strengths of the reformed
Every environment is full of
Believe that all people and all communities have resources Greatness versus obedience
Trauma and abuse, illness and struggle may be injurious, but they may also be sources of challenge and opportunity Believe that change is inevitable Here and now versus then and there

A climate of change versus a climate of security
Assume that you do not know the upper limits of the capacity to grow, change, and take individual, group,
and community aspirations seriously
  Problems as opportunity versus  problems as trouble
  Facilitate children’s service to others and to their communities Helping versus hurting
We best serve clients by collaborating with them Team with children, families, and other professionals in the reclaiming process  
  Commit to cultural competence
Respect children’s and families’ right to self-determination
  Embrace empowerment as a process and a goal  

Principle-centered discipline
So, what do strength-based practitioners recommend when it comes to discipline? We recommend discipline based on principles, rather than on practices of rewards and punishment that are spelled out. Principle-centered discipline is rooted in the belief that as youth — and for that matter, all people — embrace universal human principles, they will develop the ability and freedom to effectively navigate a wide variety of situations and to solve problems based on these principles. The outcome of principle-centered discipline is self-discipline and self-control, which empowers kids to self-regulate when adults are not present.

The parallel to principle-centered leadership is obvious. According to Covey (1991), employees are empowered “to create a wide variety of practices to deal with different situations” when they focus on principles rather than rules. The results of principle-centered leadership are more expertise, creativity and shared responsibility at all levels of the organization.

Discipline begins with relationships
Resiliency literature has consistently demonstrated the importance of relationships in children’s lives (e.g., Werner and Smith, 1992; Garmezy and Rutter, 1988). While resiliency research has primarily focused on the importance of adult relationships, the importance of peer relationships as a protective factor has also been described. The behaviors and beliefs that characterize adult caring relationships are out-lined in Seven Habits 0f Reclaiming Relationships (Laursen, 2000). The core components of caring relationships are trust, attention, empathy, availability, affirmation, respect, and virtue. Adults who use these behaviors create different experiences for kids while providing a consistent, safe, and secure environment in which children not only learn that reasonable rules, limits, and consequences exist, but also that they exist for a reason. “Self-discipline implies that a child has internalized rules so that even if a parent is not present, the child will act in a thoughtful, reflective manner. Self-discipline may be understood as a significant component of a sense of ownership and responsibility for one’s behavior” (Brooks and Goldstein, 2001, p. 231).

Being an effective disciplinarian requires empathy, effective communication skills, and the ability to modify negative scripts in youth and ourselves. Discipline should teach children to reflect on their actions and foresee the likely consequences of their behavior.

Strength-based discipline practices

Skill 1: Catching kids doing stuff right or almost right
One of the best forms of discipline is catching kids doing stuff right. This type of interaction is positive and people tend to do more of the stuff for which they have received acknowledgement. I suggest that we pay a lot of attention to kids when they act in ways that align with our values. We point out the positive because it is the right thing to do and because it builds trust. For example, when a staff in a residential treatment program thanked a student for helping clean up after dinner, she responded with a big a smile, “You’re welcome.”

One of my colleagues shared how important it is to notice the “mice steps” kids take in the right direction and the importance of acknowledging the progress. She says, “Praise approximate behavior.” The point is progress — doing something better — should constantly be noticed, acknowledged, and praised. Blanchard, Lacinak, Tompkins and Ballard (2002) describe what they call the “WHALE DONE” response using the following steps:

  1.  Praise people immediately.

  2. Be specific about what they did right or almost right.

  3.  Share your positive feelings about what they did.

  4.  Encourage them to keep up the good work.

A foster care mother shared this example of the “WHALE DONE” response: “Trevor, I was glad when I found your room all cleaned up. I thought I was going to have to ask you to do it or would have to do it myself. I was really relieved. Instead, I could relax and do other things. That really means a lot to me. Thank you for taking responsibility for your living area. How did you do it?”

The following is an example from an interaction with my daughter as I was driving her to her favorite activity. I said, “I enjoy the talks we have when I drive you to rock climbing. It’s fun to hear about the things you are interested in, and I have discovered we have several things in common. Thanks. I hope we can continue with this.” She responded with a big smile, “Now, don’t get too many ideas!” Be aware that the “WHALE DONE” approach only works when you mean what you say.

Skill 2: Redirecting energy
What should we do when kids do something wrong? A usual response is to tell kids we don’t like their behavior and don’t want them to do it again. I think many of us are very good at catching young people doing things wrong. However, it often comes back to haunt us, because the more we pay attention to a behavior, the more often it tends to be repeated. If we do not want poor behavior, we should not pay a lot of attention to it — instead we should try to redirect the person’s energy to something we know he does well. You can redirect a youth to the original task and give her another chance to succeed or give her another task you know she masters. For example, if a kid does not do a good job of washing her clothes, you may ask her to vacuum instead.

A counselor in a residential program noticed that a youth’s laundry had turned grayish-blue and proceeded to say “I really made a mistake when I asked you to wash your clothes since I had not taught you how. I am sorry. If you would vacuum instead, I’ll take care of the clothes. And when we have time, I’ll show you how to wash clothes. Thank you.”

Blanchard, et al., (2002) outlined these steps for the redirecting response:

  1.  Describe the error or problems as soon as possible, clarifying without blaming.

  2.  Show its negative impact.

  3.  If appropriate, take the blame for not making the task clear.

  4.  Go over the task in detail and make sure it is clearly understood.

  5.  Express your continuing trust and confidence in the person. (p. 34)

Skill 3: Making things right
Restorative justice is a response to crime that focuses on restoring the losses suffered by victims, holding offenders accountable for the harm they have caused, and building peace within communities. The restorative justice approach is guided by these questions: Who has been harmed? What are the losses?

When behavior occurs that is a violation of laws or agency values or that is socially and personally detrimental, staff responses should include an opportunity for the resident to repair or “make right” the harm done. The approach builds community by providing a constructive framework to guide our responses to crime, conflict, offensive behavior, violations, and injustices. It can be used by families, schools, workplaces, churches, and criminal justice systems because it values all people by striving to repair damages, (re)establish dignity and (re)integrate all who were harmed and alienated.

Skill 4: Reminding ourselves of how good a kid is
There are times where we run out of creative ideas and are ready to give up on kids. In these situations, I recommend a practice that was used in African villages when a family or the community was about to give up on a child. The elders would get together to talk because they felt they had forgotten how good the child in question really was. The elders, when they remembered all the good sides of the child, found new energy to help them reconnect with the child, and gave new suggestions for how they could help the child reconnect with the village. After the discussion, the child would meet with the elders, who would tell the child all the good things they saw in him or her. They also would share how they would support the child in reconnecting with the community. The practice described was an oral tradition, a “word was a word!” Today at times, it may be helpful to put the discussion in writing. Regardless of how it is presented, it is important that the responsibilities of all involved are listed and that there is agreement about how you measure the outcome.

While many are looking for universal answers to discipline, I have suggested that systems-centered discipline programs are ineffective with kids on the edge. In order to be effective, discipline must be based on universal human values of respect and caring to develop self-discipline and self-respect in children.


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This feature: Laursen, E.K. (2003). Principle-centered discipline. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 12, 2. pp. 78-82.