Sunday, February 8, 2009

Undiscplined Discipline

My discipline is running wild.

It all started with some copy I've been working on. Some of you may know that I'm starting a nursery school in my home this autumn. And if you haven't heard this from me, well, it's because I've been incredibly busy because I'm starting a nursery school in my home.

Nursery school in autumn doesn't sound like it should be a lot of work right now in February, months before. But believe me, there's plenty to do. Like prepare the all-important brouchure. Must have the brouchures done by the end of March. Parents want information, and I want to give it to them.

I know what we'll be doing relative to seasonal activities, the materials available for different aspects of play, and how our days will look. I can write all these nuts and bolts things down so easily, but when it comes to discipline...well, here I falter.

It's a struggle to write down one uniform method of 'how I discipline', mainly because children are each their own unique person and this "one size fits all" sort of discipline that many books and magazines tout just doesn't work for me. And it very certainly doesn't work for a lot of kids I've cared for.

I do understand what's attractive about it. Teachers of large classes don't have the resources to figure out what exactly works for each individual child, and they must have some order, and must explain that structure to the students. Each year, as I started new classes with new teachers, they always explained their way of letting you know how deep the doo-doo you were getting into was piling up. Most of them did the standard "I'll write your name on the blackboard" as a warning. Then a checkmark, which equalled 15 minutes detention. Two checks was 30 minutes detention. Three was a visit to the Principal's office.

It was interesting to watch how my fellow students reacted to this. I, myself, only ever had my name on the blackboard once, in seventh grade reading class when I told off a bully and got busted for talking out of turn. It was absolutely humiliating and I was so embarrassed and angry I wanted to cry. Then there were the other kids who just seemed to feed off the teacher. "That's two checks by your name, young man!" to which Young Man would reply "Well, I'll save you the trouble. I'm going to the Principals office anyway" or something not quite as eloquent, usually involving hand gestures and the slamming of the classroom door.

Kids aren't always served by the Standardized Discipline. I've noticed this in the past with Time Out. Some little children became angry and fought sitting on the chair. Usually they were angry because they were angry to begin with. They'd had another child take something away from them or they felt provoked in some way and struggled with their emotions and self-regulation, lashing out. In retrospect, helping the child make amends for the situation and then leading them on to a different activity would have been better. Other children were utterly destroyed by a time out. Their sense of shame went into overdrive and they were unable to shake it off for a considerable time. Time Out was also a demonstration of "this is what happens to you", because there was very little privacy, and children were quick to associate kids who sat in time out as "bad".

What an incredibly harsh label for a child to wear.

I don't care much for time out at this point. At the most, when I have a child who is uncooperative and needs some time to cool off, I provide a place for them to do just that. They can look at a book or pound playdough or do something else to move through that emotion. I like to help children work out their conflict and make amends, or to channel their strong emotions into something physical, like pounding playdough. Or when they aren't being very nice, to let them act out their feelings with dolls or puppets. Some kids respond very quickly to redirection, others need to have very clear limits given and a specific task to perform to help them along.

All this said, I can't say I have one clear discipline method for every kid. These little ones, older toddlers and young preschoolers, are so misunderstood most of the time. They are clumsy with their emotions and how they respond to them. They need opportunities to fix their mistakes and they need someone to have confidence that they can, indeed, figure out how to do the right thing. Some would say I'm a softie. I don't think so. I have clear limits for all the children, my own son included. Disrespectful and hurtful actions are not allowed, and when they do happen, we must stop and fix them. Children learn more about how to be with each other when they are taught how to mend their relationships face to face, not sitting on a chair until teacher says they can get up.

So maybe this is my discipline policy: love and respect in action. Not while the child watches from afar. We learn best when we participate in our learning, and when a child makes amends and then can move on, something inside them is given room to grow and heal. These experiences foster self-discipline and self-regulation and are hopefully what children will come away with at the end of the next school year. At least, the beginning of it. These are skills we all spend a lifetime learning, and the context of when we need them become more complex as we age. Look at Bernard Madoff.

Well, bad example. I'm sure he's in for a really big Time Out.

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