An alternative to punishment for misbehavior

boy closeup-conscience_ Serge Bertasius Photography_freedigitalphotosThe Situation

Five-year-old Thomas sat in his chair at morning meeting. During the “Days of the Week” song, Thomas rocked in his chair to the music. He knew it was against the rules because it wasn’t safe; chairs tip over easily. But when no one seemed to notice or comment on it, he did it again. Still, nobody paid attention.

When morning meeting ended, the children were free to choose an activity. Thomas chose puzzles, his favorite. But when he couldn’t get the pieces to go in correctly, he picked up a piece and threw it across the room.

His teacher was surprised. “What’s wrong, Thomas? You seem angry. You usually love puzzles,” she said.

“You’re mad at me,” Thomas said.

“I’m not mad at you,” his teacher said. “But I don’t understand why you just threw that piece of the puzzle. Could you be mad at yourself? Or maybe trying to get me to be mad at you?”

Thomas face turned red, but it took a few more moments of conversation before Thomas finally admitted, “I rocked in my chair at morning meeting,” he said, “and no one saw me do it.”

“That must have given you a bit of a bad feeling inside,” his teacher said. “I’m glad you told me about it, and if I had seen it, I would have asked you to stop. But that was a small mistake. And Thomas, you know that you don’t have to wait for me or someone else to see when you’re doing something you shouldn’t. You can stop yourself.”

“I’m not sure I can stop myself,” said Thomas.

“It takes practice,” the teacher said. “And I can help. Everyone in our class is working on helping to understand how their inside helper works.”

The Lesson

Instead of scolding Thomas for throwing a puzzle piece, the teacher understood that his behavior was out of the ordinary and must mean something. She also knew that children in the 4½ to 5 ½ age-range are just learning about their conscience – the part of the personality that helps children learn to do the right thing. In fact, she had been using the term “inside helper” when talking about it with the children.

She spoke kindly as she attempted to understand the meaning of Thomas’ behavior. This allowed Thomas to learn something important without the shame of being disciplined. It also allowed the teacher to be trusted as someone who could help Thomas – rather than simply being the grownup who doles out punishments.

Learning Points

  • Children’s behavior has meaning; try to determine the meaning of a particular behavior.
  • Rather than shaming and punishing for misbehavior, guide children as a trusted advisor. Over time, this helps them learn to put their angry feelings into words – effectively giving them the chance to choose desirable behaviors rather than acting out every emotion.
  • Help children to understand that what they notice about themselves is important; they don’t have to wait for a teacher or parent to notice.
  • Help children to listen to their own inside helper. And generalize the importance of listening to one’s inside helper or conscience to all children in the classroom.
  • Help children practice this important skill.

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/freedigitalphotos.net

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    About Devra Adelstein, LISW-S

    Devra Adelstein LISW-S is a clinical social worker and child psychoanalyst who serves on the faculty of the Hanna Perkins Center and the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center. She consults with schools on issues of child and adolescent development, and maintains a private practice in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, working with children, adolescents, adults and families. She is a graduate of the New Directions Writing Program.