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Behavior and discipline: no matter what kind of parent you are, they’re two topics you think about often. And chances are, you’re often wondering, “Am I doing this right?” In this episode of The PrinciPALS Podcast, Emma, Brittney, and Conor focus on methods for recognizing children’s behavior patterns, as well as share tips for how parents can best guide those behaviors in positive directions.
- The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
- The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene
- Raising Kids by Sheri Glucoft Wong and Olaf Jorgenson
- Good Inside by Becky Kennedy
The transcript of this episode appears below.
Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...
Emma Wellman (00:04):
I'm Emma Wellman.
Brittney Hansen (00:06):
And I'm Brittney Hansen.
And they're the princiPALS.
I'm Conor Bentley. And on today's episode of princiPALS, we'll be talking about the often complex topics of behavior and discipline.
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.
Emma and Brittney, it's so nice to be back with you in the princiPALS' office today. The topic of behavior and discipline is actually a pretty complex one, but that's why we're in the princiPALS' office, right? Because, I guess, that's typically where you go...
When stuff happens.
Well, and also behavior and discipline, right?
Yeah. But it's a complex topic, and this is something that I'm sure you two deal with a lot in your roles. And, also, teachers deal with this, parents deal with this, other adult caregivers deal with this, so there's probably a lot of different philosophies and frameworks that are around discipline and behavior and things like this. So where do we start with this kind of very large topic?
Yeah, I appreciate that recognition that it is complicated and there's lots of ways to come at it. And actually before we talk about discipline, I think it's important that we spend a little bit of time talking about behavior. And so as educators, we often have a couple turns of phrase, and fans of the podcast may recognize some of these because they probably popped up in previous episodes. But one thing we often say is that children are not their behaviors, which is to say kids can have bad behaviors, but children are not bad themselves. So kids can have all kinds of behaviors that are unhelpful, unsafe, unkind, and that doesn't mean that that child is unsafe, unkind, as a person.
The other thing we think a lot about in education is the fact that behavior has meaning. And we spend a lot of time thinking about what meaning a particular behavior or a set of behaviors have, and we'll talk a lot more about this later in the episode.
The last idea that I want to share kind of right off the top that we talk about a lot is the notion that kids do well when they can. And this is really about the idea that when children—especially younger children, but I think this applies, to some extent, to all humans—are going through a hard time, they're not going to be as successful behaving in the ways that it's possible for them to do. They can't kind of perform at their capacity unless their needs are met. And so we remind ourselves often that kids will do well when they can, which sort of means if a child's not doing well, it's probably because they can't.
So assume good intentions, right?
Yeah. It's very similar to that. Exactly.
That's right, Conor. And one great resource that I'd love to share while we're talking about understanding kids' behaviors is the book The Whole-Brain Child, and it's written by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. One of the key points in the book is the idea that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning—so that's things like planning, decision-making, self-regulation—is still developing in young children, and all the way through adolescence. The authors explain that when children experience stress or strong emotions, the prefrontal cortex can become overloaded and actually shut down, which makes it really hard for them to think clearly and make good decisions. This obviously impacts behavior, but it also makes a big difference in a child's ability to reason clearly with others in a difficult moment. This can be super frustrating for the grown-ups around them, whose instinct tells them to try to manage tricky behaviors by talking around them or talking through them, but a lot of times children just aren't available for it.
Yeah, that's really true. Grown-ups often want to explain exactly what was wrong with a thing that just happened before kids are ready. And so another really helpful thing about that book, The Whole-Brain Child, is that it includes some specific tips and tricks to manage challenging behaviors. We're going to just talk about a few, but there are many more in the book, and so I encourage folks who get interested to check it out later. And these are all things to try rather than sort of lecturing or talking at or reasoning.
So the first one is: name it to tame it. And this is really the idea that if you can name the feeling, then the feeling starts to feel more manageable automatically. And for younger kids, for littler kids who are still developing their kind of emotional vocabulary, they may need you to name their feeling and then check for accuracy: "Are you feeling angry right now? Are you feeling sad?" you might say. For bigger kids, they might be able to identify their own feeling, depending on sort of their level of upsettedness. And using a visual reference sometimes for identifying feelings can be a helpful bridge between those two developmental moments as kids are starting to learn to identify and name their own feelings. Because finding words, like, for almost all humans is hard when you're really upset.
The next idea is: connect and redirect. And so this is really about what to do in the moment of a child having a very big feeling: crying, screaming, yelling, kicking, hitting, scratching, the gamut. It seems like maybe what you should do is say, like, "Stop that, and here's why you should stop it"—it's not safe and all that stuff. But in fact, the most effective strategy according to Siegel and Bryson is to connect with the child. And so that means, you know, giving them hugs, if that's something that's soothing for them, reminding them that you care about them and that you love them. It's just helping them get grounded in relationship with a safe person. That is the most important first step, which can be hard because you want to address the behavior that has not been acceptable. But they are not, as Brittney said, ready to do that yet. So first you connect. And then, this is really true for younger ones, often the right thing to do is just redirect them. Get them connected with something that they enjoy, that is appropriate or safe or kind in that moment, something that they can do. And it might be that later you can circle back to talk about it, but first they've got to kind of cool off and get through that tumult.
The next idea from the authors is: move it to lose it. And so this is really the idea that sometimes for children, working through an emotion means moving their bodies. They need to process that feeling physically. This is true for grown-ups too. Like, all the people who get up at 5 am to run, or you've had a really hard day of work and then you go to a kickboxing class, like this is you moving your body to help you process feelings rather than verbally processing them, for example. It can be really highly effective for kids. So those are just a few strategies of things you might try.
Sometimes you gotta just dance it out, right?
Well, this all seems very helpful for difficult moments with kids, but if we can't reason with them, then how can we teach them and work with them to do better next time? Because obviously, you know, if they're not ready in that moment, then when is the moment to talk about it?
Well, the short answer, Conor, is after they're calm, you're calm, and you've shared a moment of connection and reconnection. Sometimes that could happen, you know, within five, ten minutes, but sometimes, especially when you're dealing with older children, it can take longer. It might even be the next day, and that's okay. You can just let your child know, "We're going to take a break from this and we'll follow up later." It's really important to note, though, that this is oftentimes a philosophy and an approach that's easier said than done. And I want to be clear: we're talking a lot about discipline and redirection and behaviors, and these things are really hard, especially as parents. When you care so deeply about your children and you see them in a difficult moment, your instinct often is to problem-solve right in that moment. And so, no matter how much we intellectualize these best practices, it's really tricky to do.
I have a story I'd love to share from just a few days ago in my own family. I have three kids, and we were getting ready for school in the morning and it was not our finest moment as a family. There was a lot of behavior that was less than perfect—probably from all of us involved, right? The children and probably me too. There were shoes that were missing and people that were being unkind around finding the shoes. Folks weren't particularly pleased with their breakfast that was put in front of them, and there might have been some shouting about it. No one was feeling good about the way the morning was going. Eventually we got ourselves into the car, reluctantly—three kids, one adult human in a car, everybody feeling pretty frustrated. And, you know, I think about these things regularly and I know that that is not the moment to problem-solve, but I was feeling elevated in the moment, and I immediately, as we were pulling out of the driveway, started to launch into, with the kids, all of the things that went wrong and the ways that I hoped they would go better the next time. And without missing a beat, my nine-year-old, who is awfully wise and polite for his age, jumped in and said, "Excuse me, mom, do you think we could just be quiet on the way to school and we can talk about this another time?" And it really sort of stopped me right there and was a great reminder. He was exactly right. That was not the time to solve the problem or to do learning around those behaviors. It was a time for us all to calm down, to re-center, to re-regulate, and we could handle it another time.
There's another important note here, which is that behaviors are often predictable and they follow patterns. And if we are paying attention as parents and caregivers and educators, we might be able to spot those patterns. A lot of the work around helping kids manage difficult behaviors can happen preemptively, but it only works if we've spotted the pattern so we can see that it's about to come. Working over and over again to make nonjudgmental meaning of kids' behaviors is one of the most important and most effective responsibilities of adults, in my view. Observing kids' behavior and understanding that it has meaning—and that the meaning is that the child has a need that's not being met in quite the way that's working for the child, or that they have a confusion—and understanding what's under that and observing carefully is really very important. And it means you've got to be a keen observer, obviously, but also you have to have a strong relationship with that child or with those children, because you've got to know them well enough to have those insights and, also, you have to watch them frequently enough to see the patterns. It also helps, of course, to have some amount of developmental understanding, but my experience is: talking with any people who spend enough time with little kids, you just get it as you go, and if you watch carefully, then it'll come to you.
That's right. And this idea of meaning-making and really watching and trying to understand children deeply is one of the key tenets in Ross Greene's book, which is titled The Explosive Child. And this book pretty clearly outlines three distinct strategies that parents and caregivers often use to address challenging behaviors, some of which are more effective than others. Just to put it in sum, the first plan, which he calls Plan A, involves setting firm limits and clear consequences or punishments for less desirable behaviors. In many ways, this is the most traditional approach to discipline. It's what people think of when they think of traditional discipline or disciplinary action. And it can be effective for some children in some situations, but for many children, the approach actually can make behaviors worse because of the power struggle that ensues with an adult repeatedly setting a limit and a child repeatedly crossing that, which oftentimes results in defiance, shame, and other negative feelings that harm the relationship and make actual improvement of behaviors really challenging.
The second plan, which he calls Plan B, centers around collaborating with children to find solutions to challenging behaviors together, working as a team. The approach is based on the idea that challenging behaviors are often a result of a skill gap from the kid, rather than a will gap, and that children are more likely to change their behavior when they feel heard and they feel deeply understood by their grown-ups. Plan B takes a lot of work, and it requires that the adult in the equation is thoughtful about equalizing the power dynamic between the child and the grown-up. And the parent or the educator is acting less as a disciplinarian in this approach and more like a supportive collaborator with the child. As you might have surmised, this is the plan that Greene argues is the most effective in shifting behaviors long term in a more meaningful way.
The book also provides a third plan, it's called Plan C, which basically involves dropping or letting go of an expectation that is just too far out of reach at the time. This is their way of naming those moments when we say, "I'm not going to pick that battle right now." And parents might choose Plan C because they themselves are not in the right mindset to confront a behavior appropriately, or they might choose it because they've come to the conclusion that the expectation was just too far out of reach for the kid to manage at the moment.
And I want to underscore that Plan C is a perfectly reasonable strategy to deploy in lots of situations. We sometimes run the risk or we tell ourselves that it's the same as giving in or letting the child win, for example. But in reality, there are so many hiccups and missteps in the complex process of growing up, and some of them just aren't that big of a deal.
Right. It's not like you need to go into such depth all the time on every single bad thing that happens, right? Sometimes it's like, yep, that was too bad, and we move on and it doesn't need the in-depth, you know, analysis or, you know, going into a whole thing—kind of like Brittney's car story, right? Maybe that's, you know, we can just all accept we had a bad morning and we'll move on.
Yeah. And again, just circling back to this notion that it's really hard, you know. Like Brittney, I spend a lot of time thinking about this. It's connected to my work, it's something I'm really passionate about—and I get it wrong a pretty good percentage of the time in my own parenting. So we are currently managing lots of middle-of-the-night wake-ups for our three-year-old, who would really prefer to not be alone in his room and sometimes he expresses that he would prefer never to sleep. And he's in a big bed now, and so he's loose in the room, which means we have to be more concerned about safety, and sort of letting him work through his emotions by crying for a while is a less effective or it feels like a less safe strategy at the moment. So a few nights ago, I was going in for, I think, the fourth or fifth time. It was, I don't know, somewhere between 3:30 and 5 in the morning, when I myself would've much preferred to be sleeping. And I had just sort of run out of the amount of patience that I had in that time of night, and I said to him, "You just have to go to sleep right now or else I won't tuck you in tomorrow." And there are several things that are not great about that strategy, right? The first is: no person, upon being told to go to sleep right now, can do that. Like, that is just not how going to sleep works physiologically or psychologically, and it's especially untrue of a little three-year-old human. And the other thing was that the consequence that I was establishing, like I was setting the boundary, like it must be sleep right now or else, and the or else was something that was really far away and pretty unrelated to the boundary I was setting. And luckily I had enough wits about me so that, you know, he cried, he got very upset and I was like, "Oh, this is all wrong." And I gave him a hug and we just sat and snuggled for a little while and then, sure enough, he went to sleep. And I reminded myself the next morning that this will all shake out in the next couple of weeks, but it was not my finest moment.
So we've talked a lot about this kind of behavior at home, right? So this is all very helpful for dealing with this stuff at home, but how do we deal with it at school so you don't end up in the principals' office like I am right now?
Well, teachers are doing this work, too, making meaning of behaviors and working to collaborate with kids to find solutions. They're actually really good at this work because their sample size is significantly larger than any parent's, right? They've done this with lots and lots of kids, they've spotted the patterns and they know what they're doing. But they do it best of all when they're collaborating with families in support of kids. This is why partnerships between home and school are so, so vital to doing right by the kids. This is why you may hear early childhood or elementary school educators talking so much about problem solving. Grown-ups at school often frame conversations around challenging behaviors as being problems that need to be solved, and they involve the children who are having the problems in this solution-finding. This includes the child exhibiting the behavior as well as those who are impacted by it.
So this is a really thoughtful way to support kids, but kids are probably going to continue to make mistakes, right? We know that prefrontal cortex stuff and just being a kid and peer pressure and all these things that go into it. So what happens when behaviors are not just a mistake, but it's more they're unkind or unsafe and, you know, something more needs to be done.
Yeah, absolutely, Conor, sometimes kids' behaviors do cross a boundary, and as you said, the boundary can be about safety or about kindness, and it's important for grown-ups to be really, really clear with kids about where those boundaries are. The hope is that in any community the boundaries are constantly being referred to so that kids are absorbing them and experiencing them not just in moments of upset or, you know, high activation, but all the time. And in the event that a child understands a boundary, has had enough exposure to it and knows that it's there and still can't manage to behave within it, that usually suggests that the child needs to experience the result of that behavior. Sometimes we frame results as consequences, and this idea of it being a result rather than a consequence I'm stealing from Sheri Glucoft Wong; we will include her newish book in the show notes. But she's a child and family therapist, and she makes this distinction because the result is most obviously tied to the behavior that's happened, the boundary that's been transgressed. And we'll talk more about that in a minute. It is really important, I think, to mention that when we think about discipline, we're always using it as a tool for learning rather than for punishment. So the objective of really highlighting a boundary or making a result super clear to a kid via disciplinary response is to help the child develop new skills and strategies to meet their needs, you know, whatever that behavior's meaning, without transgressing that boundary. The hope is that they're going to internalize that boundary, build some new skills, so that they don't need to engage in those behaviors that are so unsafe and unkind.
I'm also thinking, just in my experience having been a teacher and a recess monitor myself, is that sometimes, too, the consequences come naturally from the other kids. So if someone is unkind, the consequence could be, hey, maybe the other kids don't want to play with you right now. And that's something that kid is going to have to internalize, where there's not even a punishment or anything to be meted out by an adult. It's more the kid having to sit with the fact that their friends might want to take a little break from them because of something they did or said.
Yeah, I frequently observe that happening when kids are playing sports at recess. And so, one I saw today, which I was really excited and proud of these kids about, was one child did something that the rest of the group decided was not very sportsmanlike. And so they said, "That's not very good sportsmanship." And that child heard that feedback and then they kept playing. But it was a nice moment where the kids were acknowledging and reiterating the boundary together.
Yeah. And every situation is obviously going to be different, and so we probably need to talk about how the consequences are related to the context in which the behavior happens.
Yeah, absolutely. We often talk at school about logical consequences and also apologies of action or service to the community. These are approaches which tend to ensure that a child is learning about the impact of their actions and is taking responsibility for making things better in their community. If, on the other hand, a consequence is punitive and not at all related to the challenging behavior, the research is really pretty clear that kids don't tend to make a connection. They, instead, learn to feel shame about their mistake and they lose trust in the grown-ups around them. They feel fear, they begin to try on behaviors that are sneaky or dishonest because of this fear, and this obviously has a significant negative impact on their school experience and, of course, on their learning.
So what you're saying is discipline should be about learning and not about punishment.
Right. Because in early childhood and elementary school, we are really working hard to avoid damaging relationship because we know that learning happens in the context of a relationship. And, of course, schools are responsible for educating children and ensuring that they are learning. And so we are really deeply invested in making sure that all of the kinds of learning that kids are experiencing at school, whether that's about reading, writing, and arithmetic, or it's about working through challenging behaviors that they are experiencing from other kids or that they are exhibiting themselves, we really want to make sure that all of that ends up with kids having positive self-concept because, again, this is one of the most powerful predictors of a successful learning experience.
Well, that is great, and we've obviously given people a lot to think about, but we want to give them just a little bit more because it's not a princiPALS podcast if we don't give a little homework. So with that in mind, we have some homework for our listeners, and there'll also be information and show notes that will mention some of the resources that Brittney and Emma have talked about. But what is the homework for people?
Well, our first piece of homework is for folks to look for patterns to understand what behaviors in children mean. So if you've got a child in your life that's exhibiting some behaviors that are less than desirable, take a moment to try to understand what's behind them before you try to build a solution or try to adjust behaviors or help a child through them. Remember that behaviors have meaning, and look for those patterns in your everyday life with the kids around you.
The second piece of homework is to remind yourself that they are all children, all the children in your life, whether they're your own child or kids that you hear about at school or in other contexts, they're all children who are doing well when they can. This is to say there may be plenty of bad behaviors on some days, but there aren't any bad kids. Kids are really doing their level best.
And our last bit of homework is to give yourself grace. It is really easy to talk about these things, and we're going to provide a lot of resources. It's easy to read about them and learn about them and gather a bunch of knowledge around them, but when push comes to shove and you're in the middle of a difficult situation with a child around you, it can be hard to enact the right plan or strategy in the moment. So it's important to give yourself grace. And if you don't do it perfectly this time around, remember that there'll be another moment to try, and you can try a different strategy the next time.
Well, that's great. I think we've given people a lot to think about and a lot to apply to their interactions with kids. For other episodes of The PrinciPALS Podcast, you can find them at rowlandhall.org/podcast and we encourage you to check those out. So until next time...
I'm Emma Wellman.
And I'm Brittney Hansen.
And they're the princiPALS.
About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School and Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 and spent three years as the Beginning School (preschool) principal before also joining the Lower School (elementary) team. Prior to Rowland Hall, Emma was a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago, and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. Emma holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.
About Brittney Hansen ’02
Brittney Hansen is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2002. She has been a Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal at Rowland Hall since 2022, and was a member of the Beginning School faculty from 2019 to 2022. Prior to Rowland Hall, Brittney interned briefly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and subsequently worked for six years at Washington University in various roles, including assistant director of residential life. Brittney holds a bachelor’s in social thought and analysis from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in education from Harvard University.
About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody Consider Our Knowledge.