By Jennifer Ratas, Ph.D.

Children need discipline……….it helps them to learn that all behaviors have consequences, both positive and negative, and that control over themselves is always a choice.  Choosing a discipline technique can feel confusing and overwhelming.  However, discipline does not have to be, and most often should not be, something born out of anger and frustration.  There are positive ways to discipline, and structure, your children……..ways that you can feel good about as a parent and incorporate into the culture of your family.

Setting limits, letting your children know what is acceptable and unacceptable, and developing structure and routines can all be part of discipline.  Good discipline is based on behavioral principles, the ways in which behavior can be influenced to change1.  There are three main ways we change behavior:  Positive reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.  Positive reinforcement means that we add something (i.e. praise, incentives) so that a desired behavior continues, or increases.  Positive punishment means that we add something (i.e. time out) so that an undesired behavior decreases, or stops and negative punishment means that we take something away (i.e. loss of privileges) to decrease or stop a behavior.

Positive reinforcement is very often the best place to start, and all structure and limit setting should have elements of positive reinforcement as part of a discipline plan.  Because children are increasing a desired behavior, they are learning and practicing the prosocial responses, the appropriate ways of behaving.  Different suggestions for techniques are presented below.  The list is certainly not exhaustive and all suggestions have many possibilities for modification to meet developmental and family needs.

Praise

We can never underestimate the benefits of praise.  Simply telling your child, or adolescent, when they have done something right, have been kind, or have tried their best, can be the most beneficial way to encourage behavior.  You can’t have too much praise, as long as it is warranted and meaningful.  Praise is an example of positive reinforcement, that is, you are adding verbal rewards to increase positive behavior.  Letting your child know what was positive about their behavior is integral to their learning what to do next time.  Praise also builds confidence and self-esteem.  Statements of praise can be things like:  “That was a great job finishing your homework”, “I liked the way you asked for help”, “Great sharing on your playdate”, or “Thanks for helping Amanda, you are such a terrific big sister”.  Praise should never have a caveat i.e. “that was so much better than what you did yesterday”, which can nullify the positive aspects of the praise.  When possible, praise is best given at the time of the behavior.  However, bedtime can be a great time for giving praise and provides an opportunity  to catch anything you may have missed during the day.

Active Ignoring

This is a fancy name for a simple, but difficult to do, parenting technique.  Active ignoring refers to the strategy of ignoring, not paying attention to, a behavior that you want to decrease or to stop.  It is based on the behavioral principle of extinction, which says that a behavior will decrease if not reinforced; ignoring assumes that children continue unwanted behaviors to get the attention of grownups.  These are behaviors such as crying, whining, interrupting, persistent asking of the same questions, and even tantrums in younger children.  Ignoring should be used for simple and benign behaviors, not for behaviors that are potentially dangerous.  You must choose a behavior that you can ignore completely, meaning making no comments about the behavior when it is happening.  This can be very effective in changing behavior, but is often hard for parents to do.  It help for you to have something to do while ignoring:  read a long awaited magazine, go in your room, etc.  Don’t be afraid to go to a quiet place when ignoring.  This strategy is deceptively simple, although effective.  Anyone who has spent five minutes with a screaming youngster can tell you!

Setting Clear Rules and Expectations

This sets the groundwork for upcoming parenting strategies and can be used at all age levels.  Sometimes it is effective enough to make sure that children and adolescents know, clearly, what the rules and expectations of their environment are, to change behavior.  Establishing fair and consistent limits around behavior can provide the structure that children and adolescents need to make choices and gain control over their behavior.  Confusion often leads to misbehavior, as does different standards among caregivers.  Presenting the rules and expectations openly with your children, preemptively and as behaviors arise, encouraging an understanding of why the limits are in place, and providing praise for following them, build an environment of support and encourages responsibility.  Rules should never be a secret, and it should not be assumed that all children can “figure them out”, if not told explicitly.   What the rule is, why it was chosen, how to meet the expectation, and what will happen if, or if not, the rule is followed, should be explained.  Having your child repeat back what they have been told can let you know whether they have understood.

Positive Practice

Positive practice is a strict behavioral technique that can easily be adapted with positive results.  It can simply be looked at as a mechanism for teaching prosocial responses, the things we want our children to do.  For example, when your child does something socially inappropriate, instead of reprimanding or consequating the behavior, they can be made to practice several times the appropriate behavior.  For example, if your child grabs a toy, have them give it back and then coach them to ask for it appropriately.  Having them do this a few times in the moment, or through the course of the play time will reinforce the positive behavior.  This is a strategy that is more effective through the early elementary years and best used for more socially based behaviors.

Setting Rewards and Consequences for Single Behaviors

Once clear rules and expectations have been set, more specific goals, or behaviors to target, can be set.  When choosing a single behavior to change, make sure that the desired behavior is one that your child can do and is easily identified.   Goals should be specific, i.e. keeps hands to self, completes homework before dinner, makes bed before leaving for school, is home by 11:30.  It is almost always preferable to begin with rewards, as positive reinforcement is very effective and this helps to keep things framed in the positive direction.  For example, your child never wants to start his homework on time.  One option is to establish a contingency, the relationship between the behavior and the end result, that says you can earn an hour of free time if your homework is started by 3:30.  Here the child knows what the prosocial response is, and earns a reward for successful completion of the behavior.  Consequences refer to what we think of as the punishment techniques.  For example, if your homework is not started by 3:30, you may not go outside to play; this is a negative punishment strategy.  If you look carefully, the two strategies are very similar, and either, in many circumstances, would be valid.  However, positive reinforcement, rewards, teaches the appropriate response and feels better, for you and your child.  Not all behavior can be addressed in the positive direction.  Some behaviors, such as aggressive behaviors, should have clear consequences associated with them.  For example, if you hit your brother, you will not be able to watch t.v. tonight.  Remember, it is the consistent pairing of the behavior and outcome that produces change.  Very rarely is any single reward or consequence powerful enough to permanently change behavior.  It takes time, and consistency is the key.

Behavior Charts, Sticker Plans and Token Economies

Sometimes behaviors are more complex and need to be broken down into behavior plans.  Behavior charts, sticker plans, and token economies are different ways to do this.  These refer to strategies that involve identifying more than one behavior, or goal, to be addressed.  There are many ways to use these plans.  First, a small number of goals should be chosen, no more than five.  All behaviors must be doable by the child or adolescent.  The behaviors should be simple, clear and concrete.  They should be written in the positive direction.  For example, speaks respectfully, without cursing, obeys curfew, follows directions after two warnings or gets into bed by 9:00.  Each goal should have a reward associated with it.  Rewards can be stickers, points, activities, or choices.  In token plans and sticker charts, the points or stickers usually add up to rewards at the end of a time period.  Younger children benefit from more immediate rewards.  Older children and adolescents can delay their gratification, receiving rewards at the end of the week or working towards a longer term reward, things that are bigger in scale or cost more money.  Rewards should be reasonable and do not have to cost money.  They can be things already present in the home i.e. computer time, t.v. time, or video game playing.  For adolescents, allowance can be used as a reward as can more mature responsibilities, i.e. going out independently with friends, later curfew or driving privileges.  Behavior plans should be written out, posted someplace and frequently reviewed with your child.  It helps for them to be an active participant in the plan, teaching them that rules and expectations are clear, and behavior is within their control.  Older children and adolescents may want to sign behavior contracts, the part of the plan where they agree to abide by the goals.

These types of plans are also a matter of consistency.  The most frequent mistake is stopping them too soon, assuming that because behavior change has occurred, the plan is unsuccessful.  Plans need to be used for long periods of time, sometimes months before behavior changes. It is again, all about the consistency.

Response Cost Systems

These are plans that involve both earning points and also losing already earned points for misbehavior.  In most plans, once a point is earned, it cannot be taken away.  However, sometimes it is preferable to have a system based on both reinforcement and punishment, especially for older children and adolescents.  For example, if you are targeting fighting between siblings, points may be earned for using words or walking away from the situation, but lost if aggression occurs.

Chill Out

Chill outs are a different type of strategy.  Chill outs are designed to be used before you have to step in and provide the consequence.  They should be used with elementary age children and older, who demonstrate an ability to pull themselves back and can use coping strategies to calm down.  When a child begins to argue, or seems about to lose control of the situation, they are encouraged to stop, and take a chill out.  They should have a designated, quiet place that they can go to, until they feel calmer and are able to rejoin the activity.  If a chill out is taken successfully, further consequences would not be necessary.  This can be an excellent strategy because it places control in the hands of the child, teaches the importance of calming down, and minimizes the punishment aspect of the interaction.  Chill outs should be used early in a situation.  Once an aggressive, or other highly undesirable behavior occurs, a chill out would likely no longer be appropriate.

Time Out

Time out is a punishment technique and as such should be used carefully.  It can be effective for behaviors such as pushing on the playground, spitting, cursing or hitting.  Time out should be given in a quiet place, where your child can sit down in full view of the caregiver.  The length of time out corresponds to the child’s age, with the rule of thumb of one minute per year of age.  For example, a four year old would be given four minutes of time out.  Time out can be started as young as two years old, provided your child can understand what it means to remain seated, through the elementary school years.  When children are being very “oppositional”, that is when everything is a “battle”, time out may not be the best strategy to use.  Time out itself should not become a struggle.  Time out is most effective when used for a small number of concrete (simple) behaviors and can be used every time the behavior occurs.  This consistency is very important.

Any discipline that you use should be fair and consistent.  Fair essentially means that the magnitude of the reward or consequence matches the degree of the behavior.  Consistent means that that reward or consequence will be present every time the behavior occurs.  It is often said that without consistency, there is no learning.  Discipline is all about learning, and should provide another avenue for you to feel good about what you teach your children.  Like most aspects of parenting, don’t be afraid to make mistakes (everyone does) and talk about what has worked and what hasn’t.  Our children will be the better for it.

Here are some additional resources that parents have found helpful:

  • The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has an excellent website with a feature called “Facts for Families” that can be a useful resource for understanding childhood issues.
  • The American Psychological Association also has resources for parents.
  • The following books have detailed parenting techniques that are written and explained in ways that are useful and practical:
    • a.    SOS! Help for Parents by Lynn Clark (1985, Parents Press).
    • b.    The Good Kid Book (Sloane, 1979).
    • c.    How to Help Children with Common Problems (Schaefer & Millman, 1981).

Childswork Childsplay is a catalog that address relevant topics for children and adolescents through books and games, which parents can facilitate.  Catalogs or materials can be ordered through their website of the same name.