Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline

Children’s misbehavior can be frustrating and disturbing to adults, but we also can see it as an opportunity to teach, a chance to model self-discipline and character. Emotional development, like other learning, takes time and learning opportunities. And children, being the excellent imitators they are, will follow our example – for better or worse.

If we yell at children, they will yell; if we hit them, they will hit. Or they will become the perpetual victims of others’ aggression. We get better results when we discipline calmly and teach our children to express their feelings in acceptable ways. When teachers share, children share; when parents are courteous, children are more cooperative.

Here are a few things we do in the classroom; they also work for parents.

  • Be clear and consistent. Set and discuss rules and consequences. Rules should be clear, simple, and few. Some adults have only one basic rule: You may not hurt yourself, others, or things. For example, to stop a child from hitting another child, kneel and calmly state, “You may not hit Ben. People are not for hitting.” Then add, “I know you are angry. Can you tell me why?…OK, how can you let Ben know that you are want to use the blue crayon?”
  • Offer choices. “Do you want to brush after we read a story?” “Would you like milk or juice with your snack?”
  • Ignore certain behavior, like cursing of stomping, if it is not harmful. A child will quickly learn that he will gain nothing by acting up. On the other hand, he will learn that good behavior gets results and a favorable reaction from grown-ups.

No matter what we adults do, there are times when children lose control. Aggressive acts may call for removing the child from the action in a brief time-out. However, a time-out period may backfire if used in the spirit of punishment (“Go to your room right now!”). The point is to give the child a few minutes to cool down. Those minutes come in handy, too, for helping a frustrated parent or teacher cool down – and think of what to do next!

Family Friendly Communication for Early Childhood Programs
National Education for the Education of Young Children
Deborah Diffily and Kathy Morrison, editors; 1996; pg 93