A Strategy for Constructive Discipline
How can parents take advantage of the natural developmental influences on children’s behavior to construct an effective approach to discipline?
The answer involves a strategy for discipline with two equally important components, both direct reflections of the power of positive reinforcement.
Eliminate the Advantages of Inappropriate Behavior
The first component of our strategy requires eliminating the advantages to children of their inappropriate behavior, withholding attention, a sense of control, and all other benefits when children behave inappropriately.
The concept to keep clear in your mind and to come back to any time you are in doubt is this:
To the extent possible, ignore behaviors you consider inappropriate.
If you read that statement with apprehension or disbelief, you are not alone. Often parents’ instincts tell them that if they dare to follow this guide, their children will go wild. The reassuring thing is that those instincts are almost certainly correct; if parents only do this part, it will likely make things worse, even much worse, at least for a time.
An educational specialist was asked to observe in class a boy whose behavior distressed his teacher and his parents. He was described as a class clown, constantly doing cute things that in the classroom caused problems, including eliciting giggles from the other children. Between the referral and the consultant’s arrival, the teacher had decided that the child was responding to attention from his classmates, and she decided to deal with that fact directly.
When the consultant arrived, she observed a surprising scene. The teacher was in front of the class with all of her pupils paying close attention to her, except for the little clown who was out of control, running around the room, crawling under desks, and making weird sounds. The distraught teacher admitted giving serious consideration to burning whatever book had suggested this approach.
Despite her dismay at the result, the teacher likely was right in thinking that the child misbehaved for attention from his classmates. Unfortunately, her solution of simply removing the attention the child so enjoyed failed to address the need for attention that drove the child’s behavior in the first place. If the child had been behaving in such fashion because of a desperate thirst, surely the teacher would not have withheld water while expecting a reduction in struggles to get the water. Similarly, withholding attention from the class clown served directly to increase his need. In response, the child did what we should expect in order to meet those needs: he intensified the behavior that had met his needs previously, namely his clowning.
In theory, what the teacher attempted was a possible solution to the problem.
It is well known from research that if reinforcement of a behavior is discontinued, then eventually the behavior can be expected to “extinguish,” that is, to no longer occur. However, in a classroom full of active children, it would be impossible to assure that the child never was reinforced again. Even occasional attention, such as one child giggling, would be enough to keep the behavior going. As a result, attempting to extinguish the behavior would just frustrate the teacher and would impose a heavy burden on classmates expected to ignore the clown. Further, this approach would be very hard on the boy himself. He would have to live through a long, unsuccessful struggle to meet his need for attention and to feel important to others, all the while feeling bad about his misbehavior.
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Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore
And that’s what parents were created for.
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Fortunately it is not necessary to put any of the players through such a difficult sequence. What is needed, instead, is to understand that while the teacher’s approach had merit, it failed to provide the child with a workable alternative way to meet his needs. That is, she did not provide the child a way to gain attention without clowning around during class.