Conscious Discipline: A Constructive Approach to Behavior Modification for Children
“Discipline is not something you do to children; it is something you develop within them.” — Dr. Becky Bailey
As many parents would attest, few things about raising children are easy. On top of the substantial commitments of time and resources that children require, parents must also determine how best to guide their children as they learn, grow and develop as individuals. Providing discipline can be a significant part of this process, which leaves parents with the additional task of deciding how they ought to do it.
The old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” suggests that punishment (and in this case, corporal punishment) is a necessary component of discipline for children. However, modern psychologists have discovered that punishment is not as effective at changing behavior as once thought. For example, studies presented by the American Psychological Association have found that punishments like “time-outs” can be effective at reducing defiant and violent behavior, but reasoning with children is most effective for milder forms of misbehavior. In addition, reasoning proved more effective at reducing violent and defiant behavior in the long-term than punishment.
It’s with this knowledge that Dr. Becky Bailey, at the time a professor of early childhood education at the University of Central Florida, created “Conscious Discipline” in 1996. Conscious Discipline is a social-emotional learning program for parents, educators and mental health professionals that emphasizes behavior modeling and problem solving rather than punishment for misbehavior. According to a report by the The Harvard Graduate School of Education, Conscious Discipline has been shown to reduce aggression, hyperactivity and conduct problems among children.
Anna Harmless and Melissa Lawson, two school-based providers at our Putnam County office, have begun utilizing components of Conscious Discipline in their work with youth, parents and educators. In this blog post, they explain the basic science underlying Conscious Discipline and why it can be an effective, constructive alternative to punishment-based discipline.
Brain States and Behavior: The Science Behind Conscious Discipline
Anna Harmless, LCSW, Team Lead and school-based therapist (left) and Melissa Lawson, LSS, OBHP, school-based life skills specialist (right)
According to the Conscious Discipline model, anyone who wants to modify a child’s behavior must first understand a few things about the way the human brain functions.
The tenets of Conscious Discipline are based upon a simplified neuropsychological model of the brain. This model does not tell us everything about the way our brains work, but it can help us predict how a person will feel and behave in certain situations. “Dr. Becky Bailey did a lot of research on the human brain, and she found that we have three different ‘brain states,’ “ Melissa explains. These states are:
- The Survival State: This is the most basic or “primal” of our brain states, which is activated when we perceive a threat to our well-being. When our brain is in the Survival State, we look for ways to fight or flee from the perceived threat, and we are incapable of thinking clearly and rationally.
- The Emotional State: This state is typically triggered when something upsets us and causes us to feel anger, fear, sadness, or another negative emotion. In this state, we tend to revert to ingrained patterns of behavior and are not good at thinking critically or considering other people’s opinions.
- The Executive State: This state makes full use of our prefrontal cortex, allowing us to think through conflicts and find logical, constructive solutions. It is the optimal brain state for problem-solving and learning, but it is only accessible when we are in a state of emotional calm.
The main problem with “traditional” or punishment-based discipline is that it keeps children in the Emotional or Survival Brain States—neither of which are conducive to learning. “I’ve been doing therapy at Cummins for seven years now, and I have seen traditional discipline fail so many times,” Anna explains. “The child is already thinking, ‘I’m bad. I’m sad. I feel bad.’ So if we punish them by taking something away, that just reinforces the child’s inner voice. We want to help the child calm themselves and express themselves instead.”
Melissa adds, “Ideally, we want children to develop their executive functioning skills so they can problem-solve and learn to cope with their emotions in a healthy way.” Therefore, the primary goal of Conscious Discipline is to teach children how to work through problems using their Executive Brain State.
Behavior Modeling and Problem Solving: Conscious Discipline in Action
As we’ve said, Conscious Discipline teaches that children must be engaged in their Executive Brain State in order to truly learn from disciplinary action. This is all well and good if the child is calm and collected at the moment discipline is required—but what if they are misbehaving due to emotional turmoil? How can we help move the child out of the Emotional or Survival Brain States so they will be receptive to instruction?
This brings us to another important concept of Conscious Discipline: behavior modeling. Humans, and especially human children, intuitively imitate the behavior of other humans. It’s one of the primary ways we learn how to think, act and socialize with others. With this in mind, Conscious Discipline teaches that adults can help shift children into their Executive Brain State by modeling calm, thoughtful, non-aggressive responses to problems and conflicts. Melissa explains further,
“Dr. Bailey calls this ‘downloading your calm’ onto the child. If you’re approaching the child in a calm state, you can help them get to that calm state with you, whether it’s through affection or just recognizing how they’re feeling and reflecting it back to them. You can say, ‘You seem upset. Is this why? OK, we’re going to breathe, and I’m going to teach you how you can calm down and help yourself feel better.’ Once they’re calm, that’s when you can solve the problem together and teach them a skill they can use for the rest of their life.”
Of course, if the adult is upset by the child’s misbehavior, then it may be difficult for them to respond to it constructively. As a result, Conscious Discipline also requires adults to monitor their own brain states and regulate themselves appropriately. “There’s a lot of mindfulness work that the adult has to do,” Anna says. “Overall, it’s a self-regulation program to help adults first so the adults can help the children.”
For adults and children both, this means breaking free from any maladaptive disciplinary practices they may have learned in the past. “Family culture is huge in the way the world works and the way our children learn, but a lot of people don’t even think about the concept of family culture,” Anna continues. “We want people to understand how they learned what they learned about parenting and being a part of a family. We’ve been able to help some parents realize, ‘Wow, I didn’t like how it felt when I was punished as a kid. Maybe I don’t want to cause my own child to feel that same negativity.’ “
When exercised appropriately, Conscious Discipline inverts the focus of child discipline by teaching the child what to do instead of what not to do. According to Melissa, the most difficult part of the whole process is not getting carried away with our emotions: “The hardest part for kids and adults is noticing the reaction they’re having, calming down, and getting out of that Emotional or Survival State. then they’ll be able to process and work through the problem in their Executive State.”
If you’d like to learn more about Conscious Discipline, we encourage you to visit ConsciousDiscipline.com, where you can learn even more about how the program works and access free resources for working on discipline with children!
If you’d like to learn more about behavioral health challenges that children may face, we recommend watching our video on trauma and student mental health below, which we recorded last year with Cummins’ Michelle Freeman and Jessica Hynson!