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“I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.”
– Fred Rogers
Now Is the Right Time!
Children ages 5-10 are working on understanding rules and applying them in various situations. They are seeking independence and will naturally test limits and break rules. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in the ways you provide guidance and discipline. Guidance and discipline for skill building can help your child actively develop self-awareness — “the ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.”1 Self-awareness is a fundamental ingredient of self-management — “the ability to manage thoughts, feelings and actions, control impulses, persist toward goals, and manage stress.”1 These skills grow your child’s sense of responsibility all the while improving your relationship.
Some parents and those in a parenting role feel that if they do not impose punishments, their child will not understand that their behavior is inappropriate. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt impacts their relationship with you while also failing to teach them the appropriate behavior. Your child is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely and feel unsafe.
Children ages 5-10 are exercising and developing self-control, a fundamental ingredient of self-discipline. And, they are working to empathize with others — to view thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective. Empathy is also an essential ingredient of self-discipline. Children need to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This is developed over time and requires a lot of practice
Research confirms that when young children learn to manage their feelings, they are better able to manage their behavior, problem solve, and focus their attention.2 This directly impacts their school success and ability to follow rules. Children need the guidance and support of caring adults to learn these skills.
Guidance and discipline for skill building is challenging for many parents.3 Approaching guidance and discipline for skill building as teachable moments that grow your child’s skills can be transformational in your understanding of discipline and can enrich your relationship with your child. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
Why Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building?
When your five-year-old is melting down in frustration and envy over their sister’s new set of toys or your ten-year-old is refusing to go to bed, these situations are opportunities to provide guidance and discipline for skill building.
Today, in the short term, guidance and discipline for skill building can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child regain calm and focus;
- a greater understanding in you of the connection between your child’s feelings and their behaviors;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your intense feelings; and
- a growing understanding of rules and expectations.
Tomorrow, in the long term, guidance and discipline for skill building helps your child
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you guide and discipline to build skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
“Too many children who have problems with behavior also have problems with accurately labeling their feelings.” – Maurice Elias
A child’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.2,4 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your child does with their feelings may be appropriate or inappropriate.
You can help your child start understanding their feelings by asking open-ended questions. In gaining input:
- You can transform an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment by uncovering your child’s feelings.
- You can better understand why your child is behaving in a certain way.
- You can begin to teach your child how to understand their own feelings, which will help them manage their own behaviors.
- You can grow their self-control, social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Before you can get input from your child to understand (and help them understand) what they are feeling, you both need to be calm. Your child will not learn from the situation if you or they are upset.
- Ask yourself if your child is hungry or tired. You could offer a snack or offer to have your child take some time to rest.
- Check on how you are feeling. If you are angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, take a “parenting time out” and take several deep breaths (it really does help) or sit quietly for a few minutes.
- If basic needs like hunger or tiredness are not issues for your child, then take additional steps to help them calm down. This might involve offering a hug or helping them take deep breaths.
Children ages 5-10 are still learning to understand their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your child are calm, reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my child have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red. So, when you said unkind things to your sister, were you feeling frustrated?”
- “I saw your friend leave you at the playground to go play with someone else. I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “Your sister cried when you said those unkind words to her. How might she be feeling?”
- “When your friend didn’t get to take their turn, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings. It helps to use a paraphrasing technique to ensure you are fully understanding what your child is communicating.
- Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first, but this step is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously teaching children how to listen for comprehension. It might go something like this:
- Child: “When my brother stepped on my foot, I got so mad that I hit him.”
- Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, I hear that when your brother stepped on your foot, you responded by hitting him and breaking a house rule.”
- If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. Parent reflecting feeling: “I hear you were mad. Were your feelings hurt too when he stepped on you?”
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help the child uncover feelings.
Write your hopes down together. Then write your rules on a separate sheet. Keep them simple and brief, 3-5 short statements only.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of guidance and discipline for skill building is to grow new skills and behaviors to replace inappropriate ones. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your child behaves inappropriately is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they do a certain behavior?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my child to respond when they feel angry?”
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for your child.
- Five-year-olds are working on understanding rules and routines. Consistency helps them feel a sense of stability.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules. They thrive on encouragement. They can become critical of others and need experience with kindness and inclusion.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure and may struggle with changes to the schedule. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults.
- Eight-year-olds are more resilient when they make mistakes. The approval of their peers and teachers is very important.
- Nine-year-olds can become easily frustrated. They need directions that contain one instruction. They may worry about peer approval and their own appearance and interests.
- Ten-year-olds are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness. They tend to be able to work through conflicts with friends more rapidly.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.5 This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to immediately address the underlying feelings with a simple “No” or other short answer. For example:
- When a child is angry, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t be mad,” shift to “I see you are angry; let’s try taking deep breaths.”
- When a child is frustrated, instead of saying, “Here, let me do it,” shift to “This can be hard. Do you want some help?”
- Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child acts inappropriately, ask yourself what positive behavior you need to teach and practice that can replace the inappropriate behavior.
- At a calm time, ask “What helps you feel better when you’re sad, mad, or hurt?” Share ideas like taking deep breaths, getting a drink of water, taking a walk, or asking for a hug.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. It’s easy to get into a habit of pointing out what children are not doing right. When children are behaving inappropriately to get attention, they have not yet learned how to get attention in positive ways. Consider how your child can seek your attention in acceptable ways. Then, actively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your child to say a polite “Excuse me” when they need you and you’re engaged in a conversation? If so, practice as a family. Do a dry run so that all are comfortable and then reinforce that positive behavior to create more of the same.
- Create a calm down space. During playtime or time without pressure, design a “safe base” or place where your child decides they would like to go when they are upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair or the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help them calm down. The only way this space serves as a tool for parents to promote their child’s self-management skills is if they allow a child to self-select the calm down space. You can and should practice using it and gently remind them of it when they are upset. “Would your calm down space help you feel better?” you might ask. But, if that space is ever used as a punishment or a directive – “Go to your calm down space!” – the control lies in the parents and no longer in the child, and the opportunity for skill building is lost.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Children ages 5-10 are still learning about feelings. Notice and name feelings when a family member is showing an expression to offer plenty of practice. Ask, don’t tell. “Dad, you look sad. Is that right?” Being able to identify feelings is the first step in successfully managing emotions.
- Model assertive communication through “I-messages.” Here’s an example: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s another example: “I feel sad when you say hurtful things to your brother. It hurts his feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively.
- Begin to teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching children about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Harm could be physical, like breaking something, or emotional, like hurting someone’s feelings. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. Everyone has moments when they hurt another. But, it’s that next step that matters in repairing the relationship.
- End the day with love. When children behave inappropriately during the day, they often end the day feeling bad about themselves. Children tie your love to their behavior. If you act proud of them, they feel loved. If you are disappointed or mad at them, they feel unloved. Be sure that you spend one-on-one time with your child if they have had rough patches that day. This teaches them that they are loved no matter what choices they make. It encourages them to practice new ways of behaving.
Create a nonverbal signal you each can use to gain each other’s attention. Often, a parent is on the phone, across the store, or heavily embroiled in a conversation. One example of a nonverbal signal is to hold up your high five showing you need five more minutes and then you’ll respond. Practice using it and then be sure to follow up with your child after five minutes so that they discover success with the signal.
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
Create a ritual of sharing words of love and care at bedtime. Consider that ending the day reflecting on how much you appreciate one another could just be the best way to send your child off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary for children to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child manage their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even ones you don’t like. When your child is upset, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better? Would your calm down space help you feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing better behavior.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you can ask for attention.” This practice will prepare your child to use it when they require your attention and they are tempted to misbehave to get their need met.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Offering them a choice, even if small – “Do you want to do your homework sitting at the kitchen counter or at the dining room table?” – can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you used our ‘wait five minutes’ hand signal. It worked! That’s excellent!”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!6
- Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And, in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Ocean Breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And, as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. You might ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?” You should answer the questions as well. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. Do you remember what you can do to assert your feelings?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustration, and anger.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Children need to hear that you believe in their ability to learn anything with time and hard work.
- Foster friendships. Close friends can be an invaluable source of empathy and support for your child.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after an inappropriate behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process and avoiding harm.
- First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior.
- Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2.
- Third, apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Learning new behaviors to replace inappropriate behaviors takes time. Children ages 5-10 will likely not do it right the first time (or even the second or third!). That’s OK. What’s important is that you approach guidance and discipline for skill building by understanding feelings, teaching new behaviors, and practicing all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You asked for help before getting frustrated — love seeing that!” or “You picked up your game when it was time — I appreciate that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying “If you don’t argue with your sister, you’ll get extra game time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were helpful in the store today. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.