As a martial arts instructor, I often receive praise on the way I work with kids.  “I don’t know how you do it…”, “you have so much patience!” and so on.  The truth is, I’m not an extraordinarily patient person.  To the contrary, as someone who strives to be a ‘high achiever’, patience is a virtue that does not come naturally to me.  However, experience has taught me that if I employ a basic system of structure and discipline with my younger students, that takes most of the stress away from maintaining order when a child is having a difficult day.  Here are a few of the key principles to keep in mind, that can be employed by parents, babysitters… anyone who deals with children on a regular basis.

If you are mad it’s already to late.  This is by far the most common mistake adults make when disciplining children in my experience.  They wait until they are angry at the child’s behavior and use anger and consequences as a last resort to try and curb the problematic behavior.  This is extremely counterproductive for the child, and often ineffective for the adult as well.

Kids are constantly looking to adults for validation, encouragement, and direction.  Even when you think they don’t care, their perception of how you feel about them matters a lot.  When an adult gets angry at a child, the child feels that they have let the adult down.  They aren’t able to tell the difference between your anger at a specific behavior, and your anger at them as a person.  A child will always take your anger personally- they don’t have the cognitive skills to interpret it any other way until well into adolescence.

When a child thinks that you don’t like them, the motivation to correct behavior is gone because there is no end game that that point.  “Well they don’t like me anyway, and they are making me feel bad, so I’ll just continue to do whatever it is I wanted to do in the first place…”  And don’t think that you can explain to the child that’s not the case, because remember they can’t wrap their still-developing brains around the abstract concept of being mad at a thing vs a person (especially when the person is them).  And to be honest, anger is most often a personal emotion for adults.  Yes, you likely are angry at the child because the behavior is frustrating and you don’t know what to do about it, so the problem must be the child, right?  So how do we avoid getting angry and still correct the behavior?

Have a discipline plan and stick to it.  Structure, structure, structure!  The best thing you can do to solve any problem is to have a plan so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.  The same applies for discipline.  It allows you to correct behaviors earlier, before you get frustrated, and takes away most of the stress from disciplining.

Using the same plan every time also gives the child a pattern of consequences to follow.  If you are consistent, they will quickly internalize the process and know when they are due for consequences.  At that point you aren’t even the bad guy any more- it’s not you (the adult), giving out consequences.  It’s just “the rules”,which are very impersonal, vs. ‘angry adult’ which is VERY personal.  A discipline plan also provides structure, which kids thrive on- repetition of process is unbelievably comforting to children, which means they are less likely to shut down or melt down when you follow the same discipline process every time.

So quick recap: angry adult = adult doesn’t like me = sad child = continued behavior   vs.  adult shares the rules = adult is trying to help = the adult still likes me = I have a reason to modify my behavior.   Below is the discipline plan that I use in my classes.  The kids know the process because it’s consistent for all of them, and they know exactly what is going to happen as a result of behaviors as soon as I tell them.

  • 1st occurrence- Verbal warning about the specific behavior (i.e. pushing another child)
  • 2nd occurrence- Verbal warning about the same specific behavior, and telling them that they will have to sit out for XX minutes the next time.
  • 3rd occurrence- Verbal warning and they sit out for the XX minutes promised.  Note: Don’t make the time out super long, otherwise they will get board and begin causing problems again.  Make is long enough to feel like a consequence but short enough that they don’t feel discouraged.  You want them to get another chance to correct their behavior- practice makes perfect!
  • Quick Talk.  At the end of XX minutes, ask them why they had to set out and ask them if they can correct the behavior. (don’t say “why did I sit you out- it’s perceived as anger by the kids).  For example:  “Why did you have to sit out?”  “I wasn’t keeping my hands to myself”  “Ok, are you ready to come back and play and keep your hands to yourself?”  “Yes.” “Ok, great thank you!” and give them a high five.  Positive reinforcement for efforts to correct behaviors!
  • Continued occurrences- repeat the previous three steps, but the time they sit out is longer.  If warranted, the child may even need to sit out for the rest of the class/activity.  It rarely gets to that point, because remember kids want you to like them and be happy with them.  They want to do what you ask… unless you’ve already shut them down by being angry from the get go.

This covers 90%-95% of the discipline issues that generally will come up with children.  More severe or dangerous behaviors of course should be handled on a case-by-case basis, but for the vast majority of behaviors that you need to address ‘on the fly’, this process works wonderfully.

Meet the child where they are. Realistic expectations.  This is the tough one that may require some homework to get right…  Kids most definitely are not tiny adults, in any possible way, shape or form.  If you don’t know what to expect from little humans based on where they are developmentally, then you are in for a long, exhausting, and disappointing road through childhood- for both of you.  You simply cannot apply adult expectations to non-adults, you must know what kids can and cannot do at various ages and these things are not intuitively obvious.

To start out, here are a few general principles to keep in mind:

  • Every child will have a bad day- Their bad day isn’t necessarily your fault as the adult, and it’s not necessarily their fault as the child either.  Getting mad won’t change it.  Don’t take it personally.  Remember how the child feels discouraged when they think you don’t like them any more?  That goes both ways, so be aware of that and don’t let the bad days discourage you.
  • Children don’t get sarcasm– it’s actually a very abstract concept that doesn’t fully develop until late adolescence or young adulthood.  Kids are extremely literal, so the nuance of sarcasm is lost on them and they just end up confused and struggling to process your mixed messages.  If you want to make a point, spell it out completely and literally.
  • The goal is not perfect behavior.  What a child is capable of on any given day will vary.  The trick is to get as much out of the child as they are capable of that day.  Some days, being a perfect angel is within reach.  On other days, if they don’t injure anyone else or burn the house down, that’s a win! Good coaches/teachers/parents don’t have perfect kids, they just make the most of what the child brings to them on that day.

To better determine what is appropriate for a child at a given age, you may have to do some research.  When my kids were young I found the Touchpoints books (Brazelton and Sparrow) to be helpful.  For teenagers, The Teenage Brain (Jensen) is a pretty good read.  I’m sure there are tons of others, just do some looking around for something that will help you get some context of where ‘the bar’ should be for a particular age range.

As someone who deals with lots of kids on a regular basis, I found this approach to be a game-changer.  The level of stress caused by working with so many kids was reduced exponentially, the response of the kids to discipline increased tremendously, and everyone ended up having a better time of it across the board.

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