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Discipline for Skill Building

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Your child will naturally test limits and break rules. This is a normal part of their development and is 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.

It is important for every child to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This is developed over time and requires a lot of practice. In fact, as a child grows, their brain is reorganizing from their childhood magical thinking processes to a more rational and logical thinking process. Their higher order thinking skills are not fully formed until the early to mid-twenties. Your support and guidance matter greatly as your child develops these critical life skills.

This document on how your guidance and discipline practices can build skills in your child is divided into three parts. First, guidance and discipline for skill building is defined. Next, why paying attention to guidance and discipline for skill building is essential is explored. And finally, examples of ways to support guidance and discipline for skill building are provided.

Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building Defined as Teachable Moments

While there are many different approaches you can take to disciplining your child, seeking to guide and discipline your child in a way that allows for teachable moments supports your child’s development. Disciplining in this way builds your child’s social and emotional skills through your interaction during or after an inappropriate behavior. This is an approach in which you, as the parent or one in a parenting role, draw clear boundaries and teach your child how to be successful staying within those boundaries. You realize that you are serving as a model of behavior. When upset, you take the time to calm down before responding. You recognize that your child may have an unmet need and seek to understand what big feelings might be influencing your child’s behavior. You allow for logical consequences to take place without imposing or inventing new consequences that may not naturally occur. You reflect with your child on the outcome of choices and help your child repair harm when they have caused physical or emotional harm. In essence, through guiding and disciplining your child in a way that allows for teachable moments, you are proactively teaching your child what to do instead of reactively telling them what not to do. This helps your child distinguish what’s right and wrong, grow responsibility, and learn vital social and emotional skills.

Guidance and discipline for skill building is appropriate for children ages two and older. Infants are constantly learning about the world around them. When an infant grabs your hair or drops something from their high chair, they are doing what is developmentally appropriate by observing and exploring their world. They are not acting out. You can shift their attention to something else while recognizing your primary role is to help them feel safe and secure while encouraging their sense of discovery. Infants learn about who they are and how they relate to others through sensitive, caring interactions with you. These interactions impact their ability to listen, to communicate effectively, to learn about and manage their feelings, and to trust in you as a caregiver.

Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building is Different Than Punishment

Guidance and discipline for skill building is challenging for many parents.2 Some parents and those in a parenting role feel that if they do not impose punishments, their child will not understand that their behavior was inappropriate. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt causes a child to have a fight, flight, or freeze reaction and not to be able to focus on whatever you are trying to teach them. Your child is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely, feel unsafe, and lose trust in you.

Approaching guidance and discipline for skill building as teachable moments to grow your child’s skills can be transformational in your understanding of discipline and can enrich your relationship with your child. Without learning new guidance and discipline skills, particularly during the toughest moments of parenting, parents and those in a parenting role are likely to resort to what they learned from their own upbringing and reinforce actions that may not align with the family’s deepest values. Learning and practicing new strategies based on solid research can help you feel competent and confident that you are responding to parenting challenges in ways that promote your child’s development and align with your parenting values.

Each time a child chooses an unsafe or inappropriate behavior is an opportunity to teach a vital life skill and cultivate a sense of responsibility.

Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building is Essential

Children’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.3,4 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your child does with the feeling may be appropriate or inappropriate. Research confirms that when children and teens learn to manage their emotions, they strengthen their executive functions.4 They are better able to use self-control, problem solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success and ability to follow the rules. Schools that focus on cultivating social and emotional skills in the curriculum, skills like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making, also show significant reductions in disciplinary issues. And, the same is true at home. Why? Children and teens are empowered when they have the skills to responsibly manage their lives, their emotions, and their relationships.

By supporting social and emotional skill development through your guidance and discipline practices, you can directly impact your child’s decision making and improve outcomes in a number of ways. Social and emotional skill development results in a better work ethic, better family relationships, better job performance, and improved health across the lifespan.

Ways to Support Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building

Guidance and discipline for skill building means helping your child understand their feelings and grow new skills and behaviors to replace unsafe or inappropriate ones. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there are many ways that you can support your child’s social and emotional skill development through guidance and discipline for skill building. Four strategies include: Identifying Unmet Needs and Your Child’s Feelings, Modeling the Skills, Focusing on Decision Making, and Intentionally Practicing.

Identifying Unmet Needs and Your Child’s Feelings

To transform an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment, it’s critical to identify if your child has an unmet need and what big feelings might be influencing your child’s behavior. Are they hungry or tired? Do they need someone to listen or give them attention? Do they need some alone time or help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do? If you can uncover why a child is choosing a behavior, then you can respond in ways that prevent it and promote more positive behaviors.

Remember, you want to look past the behavior to uncover the feelings that may be influencing the behavior. 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.

There are no “bad” feelings. Every feeling a child has is a vital message quickly interpreting what’s happening around them. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, the challenge is to avoid interpreting the behavior before trying to understand what is motivating the behavior. The feelings behind the behavior may be from an unmet need.

For example, your child might be talking at you incessantly while you are talking to someone else. This action may be a way to get your attention. Your child may be feeling lonely or frustrated. Every child seeks their parent’s attention and requires it for their very survival. Children need to learn how to ask for attention appropriately and may not yet have learned how to get your attention in positive ways. This is normal, and your response will be key in helping define boundaries and practice positive skills. Consider how your child can seek your attention in acceptable ways. Then, actively teach and have your child practice these kinds of attention-getting behaviors.


For parents with infants, remember, infants don’t cry to upset you. Crying is their primary form of communicating with you to get their needs met. Being responsive to their cries will help them calm down when upset, feel a greater sense of self-control, and focus their attention.

Modeling the Skills

Skills are developed by watching others and learning from their behavior. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you are constantly modeling for those around you, whether they are your children, coworkers, or family members. Share examples of when you demonstrate self-control and self-discipline. This does not mean that you have to be perfect. What it does mean is that when you make mistakes, you talk about them.

Having a growth mindset is important when supporting your child’s social and emotional development. Having a growth mindset means believing that skills and abilities can be learned, and that information and feedback are pathways to learning and not a reflection of a person’s value or worth. Actions then become experiments, and mistakes can be seen as a pathway to learning. This means that as a parent or one in a parenting role, you don’t always have to do things right. But, it does mean admitting mistakes and being willing to recognize and apologize for the impact your actions have on others.

Focusing on Decision Making

Although improved social and emotional skills develop healthier decision making, it is helpful for you to explicitly focus on how your child makes decisions. Get curious about the thinking process involved in your child’s decision making. Ask your child what their thought process was and whether the outcome was positive or negative. For young children, it can be as simple as asking, “What happened?” For older children, you could ask, “What were the considerations you took into account when you made that decision?” or “What were some of the consequences you thought about when you made that decision?” This will help highlight any gaps in their decision making. More importantly, if you do this on a regular basis, it will increase the likelihood that your child will slow down and pay more attention to their decision making.

Intentionally Practicing

Guidance and discipline for skill building does not always come easily. In high stress situations, it is tough to maintain self-awareness and express empathy. When in a high-drama conversation with your child, it can be tough for you both to engage in constructive conversations that support the relationship. Therefore, it is imperative that social and emotional skills are practiced with intention on an ongoing basis. The more these skills are practiced, the more natural they feel and the greater likelihood that they will be accessible when needed, especially in high-stress situations. Intentional practice means being deliberate about trying a particular social and emotional skill you want to develop. Once you get better at a skill, try adding the next skill.


Guidance and discipline for skill building is the process through which you can assist your child in acquiring essential life skills when they engage in unsafe or inappropriate behaviors. These skills include knowing oneself, being aware of others, and achieving goals. They are developed over the lifespan from birth throughout adulthood. They are learned through identifying unmet needs, modeling, attending to decision making, and intentionally practicing. The skills built through guidance and discipline for skill building are critical to success in life and are associated with outcomes such as academic success, emotional wellbeing, and improved work performance.


[1]Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2018). What is SEL? Retrieved from http://www.casel.org/what-is-sel/
[2]Zero to Three. (2016). Tuning in: Parents of young children speak up about what they think, know and need. Author: Zero to Three.
[3]Johnston-Jones, J. (2015). Why Children Misbehave. Retrieved from https://www.drjenniferjones.com/why-children-misbehave.html
[4]National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2. http://www.developingchild.net
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building. Retrieved from https://parentingmontana.org.


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