Five Steps to Effective Discipline

Have you struggled with knowing how to discipline your child? Perhaps you’ve tried several methods that have had little results, or perhaps they worked for a while and then the behaviour returned. Perhaps you have found yourself confused about the best approach to discipline, or exactly when and why you should do something? The following five steps can help to achieve discipline that is not only gentle (yes – discipline can be gentle!), but effective.

  1. Be Mindful of Why You Feel the Need to Discipline

The next time your child behaves in a certain way and you find yourself wanting to discipline – pause. Ask  yourself why you feel the need to discipline. Has your child done something that you find unacceptable? Have they broken one of your boundaries? Do you want to use the moment to teach them how to behave in a more appropriate way next time? Or have you just been triggered by your past experiences? Far too many parents discipline their children because of conditioned responses from their own upbringing. Just because your parents disciplined you for something, it doesn’t mean you have to discipline your child for the same thing. Or perhaps you feel the need to discipline because others are watching you and waiting to see your response. Again, remember that the only right time to discipline your child is when you believe that they need it, whatever anybody else thinks. Mindful discipline ensures that your child is clear in your expectations of them.

2. Ask Yourself Why, How, What

The best discipline happens when you work with, not against, your child. In almost every case, ‘unacceptable behaviour’ happens when the child is feeling some sort of emotional unease, or when adults simply expect too much of them. Understanding the reasons behind the behaviour is perhaps the most important task for parents. Before your respond, take a minute to ask yourself ‘Why, How, What’.

Why did my child do that? What triggered the behaviour?

How is my child feeling? What emotions could have caused the behaviour?

What do I hope to teach my child with my discipline?

There is no point jumping straight into the discipline unless you are clear on why your child is behaving in the way they are – and what you hope to achieve by disciplining them.

3. Understand the True Capabilities of Your Child

Far too many children are punished for being children. Punished for not having the impulse control and emotional regulation abilities of adults and punished for adults having expectations of them that are far too high. Punishing a child for an emotional meltdown, because they have immature regulation skills won’t help them to learn to regulate any quicker, but it may impede it. The next time your child behaves in a way that is undesirable, ask yourself “could they have handled this any better, with their level of brain development?”.

Being mindful of neurological development is critical when you discipline. Most mainstream discipline methods – time out, naughty steps, exclusion, shaming and loss of privileges – expect cognitive abilities from children that they just don’t have. Toddlers won’t sit on a naughty step, contemplate their actions and vow to do better next time, simply because they can’t. Preschoolers won’t hypothesise about future actions when they have been sent to their room, because they can’t. Effective discipline always starts from a position of understanding the neurological development of children and what they are capable of at any given age

4. Teach Through Modelling

The old Victorian adage of “do as I say, not as I do” couldn’t be more wrong. Children learn how to behave by watching their parents. The most influential discipline method of all is how you, yourself, behave. If you shout, or hit, in the name of discipline you teach your child that problems should be resolved with verbal or physical violence. If you rely on exclusion as a means of discipline you give your child a clear message that you are unwilling to be with them when they’re not feeling good. Every minute of every day, how you behave influences your children. If your child is constantly behaving in a way that you dislike, look to yourself for that same behaviour – they learned it somewhere.

For the best discipline, try to epitomise the greatest teacher you ever met, as much as possible. What was it about this teacher you admired so much? What qualities can you mimic? You simply have to be the behaviour you want to see from your child. A tall order indeed. Does this mean you have to be perfect all of the time? Far from it, the times when you make mistakes are perhaps the most valuable of all, because your child is watching to see how you handle them. Learn to be humble, admit wrongdoings, apologise for them and make them right. Especially when the wrongdoing is towards your child.

5. Reflect and Learn from the Experience

Have you ever noticed how many parents say “I’ve told him a million times and he just doesn’t listen”? Those same parents use the naughty step, or time out, several times each day, they fill up countless reward charts and yet the behaviour continues. Surely this should indicate that their current discipline methods aren’t working?  Walter Barbe once said “If you’ve told a child a thousand times and he still doesn’t understand, then it is not the child who is a slow learner“, we would all do well to heed this advice.

Reflection, reflection and more reflection is key for effective discipline. What worked well last time and why? What didn’t work so well – why was that? Having a flexible approach to discipline, one that mimics a ‘growth mindset‘, is the only way. The best teachers are always analysing their teaching methods and results. Reflecting and learning from past experiences of discipline is key. Each day teaches us, as parents, something new and often it is our children that teach us. The day we think we know it all as parents is the day our discipline becomes ineffective.

If this article has piqued your interest in gentle discipline, check out my new discipline book.  It is released under the title ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ in the UK and under the title ‘Gentle Discipline‘ in the USA and Canada. The book covers common tricky behaviours from babyhood right the way through to the teen years and how to cope with them in a gentle and effective way


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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