People always say, “Children don’t come with handbooks.” That’s certainly true, leading many of us to turn to the model of our own upbringing to inform our parenting style, or the advice of our friends or the parenting section of the local bookstore. However, I recently learned about one parenting handbook, called Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson, who, together with Lynn Lott and others, has written many books about this approach to parenting. There are even Certified Positive Discipline facilitators who lead experiential classes to help parents and teachers put this technique into practice. One such instructor is Mary Lynn Fiske. I first met Mary Lynn when I took her Bradley Method Childbirth class during my first pregnancy. In addition to birthing classes, she now offers Positive Discipline (PD) instruction. In Part-One of this series, we learned how Positive Discipline differs from other parenting techniques. Now, Mary Lynn will guide us through the true core of Positive Discipline, the experiential activity.
What are experiential activities?
This is totally the heart of the Positive Discipline approach. As PD facilitators, we don’t give lectures. You hear a lecture, you’re unlikely to retain it. There are so many great books out there that tell you how to be a great parent, how to lose weight, how to manage your money, but you actually have to do it, to practice it! The experiential activities we do in class allow you to get into it, to experience the feelings, to get into the child’s world and to practice doing and saying what you will do and say once you get home. In PD, this is when we say, “Let’s stand this up!” and experience, directly, what the child feels and what you feel, in the given situation; so that you can understand what is causing the misbehavior.
I have read that Positive Discipline is very effective. In a 1979 study, it was shown to reduce suspensions over a 4-year period at a low-income elementary school in Sacramento from 61 suspensions to just 4 annually. Why do you think Positive Discipline is so effective?
I also trained to teach Positive Discipline in the classroom and I think it works so well because you treat students with kindness and respect. You establishes routines. You teach them how to deal with their feelings. Here’s a classroom example. Teachers often list the rules on a poster board before the kids come to school in September. Then they are baffled when the children don’t follow them. I’ve seen this and thought, ah, here’s where Positive Discipline is different! With PD, teachers brainstorm those rules with the children when they come to school. They ask: “What guidelines should we have in place in order for all of us to feel safe? What do we need to agree on as far as classroom behavior, for us to get our work done? What agreements should we have in order for us all to have fun?” You get their buy-in. We find that when the students help to create guidelines, they are much more inclined to follow them, even though they may be much the same as the ones the teacher came up with alone. They want to be part of the decision-making! The kids write it out and post that list on the wall so you can refer to it when necessary. Then, if one or some of the kids are not following the agreements, the teacher can ask the children: “Which of our guidelines are we not following right now?” And they remember. That’s usually enough to get kids back on track, because kids are young; they’re forming. All these things, daily class meetings, brainstorming, focusing on solutions, getting agreements are ways of teaching kids to behave appropriately when they’re in a group.
There are schools that have Zero Tolerance policies. Well, with PD, we say: “Let’s problem solve around this.” Say there’s name calling going on; it’s a common problem. During the meeting we go around the circle and hear each child’s feeling about the issue. One child says, “I like to call names.” Another child says, “When I’m called names, it make me feel bad about myself.” Another might say: “When I’m called names, I want to do it right back.” The kids have the opportunity to hear from each member of the group, to hear the different perspectives. Often this alone is enough to change the behavior. Gradually you develop a culture of listening to one another, of taking the other into consideration. And when kids forget, we kindly and firmly remind them. Instead of saying, “Zero Tolerance, Suspension!” we remind them of the agreements we made together. We understand conflict is a part of life. These are problems of the world. Conflict is not going anywhere, but here are some ways to deal with it.
The other thing that is really cool about PD is it reflects some of the brain science that is out there. Things like mirror neurons. We do what we see done. When we do an action, neurons fire and when we see that same action being done, the same neurons fire. So the science contradicts: “Do as I say, but not as I do”. That saying acknowledges profoundly that we are often poor models for how we want our kids to behave. However, people actually do what they observe others doing. So it’s important to actually model what we want the kids to learn. If I smack you and tell you: “ Don’t hit your brother!” you ARE going to hit your brother because I just demonstrated it!
This is such important training. Are teachers commonly instructed in this?
Not much. The teachers I’ve met, who teach the Positive Discipline Way, stumbled upon PD on their own. Another reason I got so interested in PD was because of what I noticed when I volunteered at the school one of my kids attended. I was so impressed with the teachers, who knew their subjects so well, yet knew little about classroom management: how to keep order, how to deal with the social and emotional difficulties that inevitably arose. I saw so much reprimanding, blaming , shaming, humiliating, which of course is what people do when they don’t know what to do; when they have no tools, no resources. They were constantly struggling to put out small fires. PD helps teachers acquire the skills to manage their classrooms better, so that they have more fun and enjoy their job more. There is another really good organization called Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. They work in schools and have done research on the subject. They have demonstrated that this approach creates an environment that calms everyone down, allows for better learning, and makes students into more compassionate people.
So basically, by listening to children and allowing them to participate in creating guidelines, you create a sense of belonging and community that encourages cooperation. You and the children build the classroom culture together. In a sense, Positive Discipline, models democracy. I have to say I did try PD recently, based on what I learned through an experiential activity we did together. You stood on a chair and yelled at me in the manner that I often yell at my own children. This really did put me in the mind of my children. I can see now how confusing my yelling must be from a child’s perspective. Not that I’m totally cured of yelling, but this time, when I came into a living room full of food wrappers, crumbs, and toys, I took the PD approach to our problem. Instead of yelling at the kids to clean it up, I ASKED them what was wrong with the room. They actually did identify the issue and cleaned it up. Shocking! But I’m still curious that there is no punishment with this technique.
That’s right, there is no punishment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. There are different types of consequences, natural and logical. Logical consequences should be: related, respectful, reasonable and helpful. In effect, we are looking for solutions rather than trying to impose punishment. We always encourage a child to make amends. In PD we say, “Children do better when they feel better.” Also, you know from being a kid yourself that when you are punished you will react by resisting, by getting revenge, or by feeling helpless and defeated. So though PD is gradual, it is effective long-term to create good citizens who are capable and direct their own positive behavior.
Mary Lynn Fiske is a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator and Certified Positive Discipline Classroom Educator. She facilitates Positive Discipline classes for parents and for teachers. She also has over twenty years experience as a childbirth educator and doula. Mary Lynn has two children, ages 22 and 15.