One of the things we know about discipline is that it doesn't just deal with correcting difficult or unsavory behavior. Discipline is teaching children how to behave appropriately, which relies on an understanding of social norms and expectations. Kids need to know what is expected of them and the expectations need to be clearly stated and reinforced consistently, especially when things are going well. Many parents, out of frustration or lack of time, only focus on when the child makes a mistake, which turns powerful learning opportunities into punitive, shaming moments. The trick is to catch your child when s/he is doing good, and encourage that behavior. When he picks up his toys without reminders, encouraging him by saying, "Wow! You remembered to take care of your toys all by yourself!" is a great encouraging statement for a preschooler.
I once had a parent tell me that now that his child was three, it was time to start disciplining him, and did I have any suggestions. My thought--which of course I kept to myself--was, "Yeah, you should have started three years ago." Because discipline isn't just about logic and consequences. It's about relationships and trust. Discipline starts at birth and continues until the day we draw our last breath. When parents meet their child's needs in a timely manner, they are teaching trust and building a relationship, which leads the child to believe parents are trustworthy and can be depended on. This is handy later on when a parent needs to correct a child's behavior. The "I'm on your side" part of discipline--the rapport--has already been established.
I'm going to be spending this year working on a research project studying the power of relationships on children's behavior. What happens when teachers build positive rapport with children who struggle with behavior? Will that rapport assist the children in behaving better and achieving more in the classroom? It's an interesting question. Common sense leads my gut to say yes, it would. But there isn't any research that says yes, it does. So that's what we'll be working on this year--using specific strategies to help children build positive relationships with their teachers.
This type of study is beneficial for teachers as well. If you're a parent, you are probably very familiar with the fact that there are days every once in awhile that you wish you could get a break. Teachers feel the same way. And when a relationship get set up to be a struggle, it's very hard to redefine it without serious introspection on the teacher's part and intervention on the chid's part. Children need to be taught different ways to approach adults when their behavior puts people on edge. Teachers need to be able to recognize when they're going to "that place" inside that makes it difficult to see the positives in a child.
Several years ago, I had a child who was a daily struggle. He was unfocused and his trouble behaviors included everything as minor as running to as major as hitting or throwing materials. I found myself beginning to grow frustrated and dreading the days he would be in class. One day, as I found myself breaking up an argument for the umpteenth time, I looked at this three-year old and realized it was ME who was in a bad place with him. He hadn't changed, and I hadn't taught him any better. I needed to change my attitude to something more positive with him, and to find things to appreciate about him.
So here's what I found: he was absolutely beautiful. He was funny and genuine and had a total love of life. When the french say joie de vivre, they were speaking of him. He was also loving and he liked his peers. He just needed some help in the areas of impulsivity and self-control. So that's what we worked on, and I worked on focusing on the good things about this child, and I found my love for him quickly growing back, even more powerful than before. One day he was playing at the sand table and I walked by. He stopped and walked up to me. "Misell?" he said in his little voice, and I knew he was about to tell on himself. I knew he had done something he shouldn't have. He held his arms up to me and I picked him up. "Yes?" I responded hesitantly. He looked at my face, and put a hand on each cheek. "I wuv you...dat's all," he said, and in that moment, I remembered why I teach every child in my classroom. "I love you too," I told him, then put him down to play.
Discipline is a complex arena that encompasses so many different things. It's not something that any of us will do perfectly from day one. It's a complex dance, like teaching, that relies on the responses of human beings. And when you misstep, just like in dancing, you start over and try to do better the next time. But make no mistake--the first time you hold your baby, touch your baby, smile at your baby, that's rapport. And that, my friends, is the beginning elements of discipline.