Ask Amma

Discipline and Pre-School

In How on 30 March 2015 at 4:23 pm

My son, who is 3.5 years old, has in the last few weeks been having a lot of discipline related issues at preschool. He screams no for everything and yells back at the teachers and his friends and refuses to participate in any group activities. He chooses to cry rather than talk to show his frustrations.  What is making this worse, is that he doesn’t behave like this at home at all.  Dad and I keep getting calls from school about his “bad” behavior.  They want us to control his behavior as they are concerned that the other kids will pick this behavior from him.  I have tried talking to him, explaining to him, bribing him, pretending to be upset with him and nothing seems to work.  There have been no changes in our family or routine. 

– Mama of two in Austin

The frustration you describe reminds me of my own observations of life for a 3.5 year old, which I find to be a time that kids recognize that the world does not make sense and that some questions will not have satisfactory answers.  It is a painful recognition and while we cannot take away the pain, we can be patient listeners.  The intense physical, intellectual and emotional growth of toddlers and youth goes through various spurts.  We may not see any reasons for these changes in behavior but in fact their world is changing every day and they are scrambling to keep up.

Control is a top-down word.  There are already so many aspects of a child’s world that a parent controls, and for good reason – but this good reason is worth little if one exceeds one’s mission and overreaches into areas that the child should control.  Can we rather move away from the concept of control and embrace the concept of connection?  In other words, rather than seeing your responsibility to be to control his behavior, can you instead connect with the need he is trying to meet, and see it as your responsibility to help him meet that need?  Much of what is considered misbehavior is a reasonable reaction to unexplained constraints placed upon children.  As often as not their underlying need is for an explanation of their world – an honest explanation, not one that is made up for the purpose of keeping them in their place, as unfortunately so many are.  The process of explanation, with open discussion, when honestly carried out, will subject the rules and rhythms of one’s world to a kind of “survival of the fittest.”  Those rules lacking a convincing basis will fall away and those supported by the evidence will have earned their place.
Discipline “works” when it comes from within, not when it is imposed in a structure of punishment / reward in which the child is dependent upon the judgement of others.  Self-discipline develops through a variety of experiences and should neither be confused with mere internalization of the discipline that those in positions of authority would enforce nor should it be privileged over other important personal qualities such as curiosity, flexibility, compassion, and integrity.  See for example, Alfie Kohn, “Why self-discipline is overrated.”
It is natural for kids (and adults) to want to have a choice about participating in group activities.  At your son’s preschool what are his options when he does not want to do what the group is doing?  Does he have space to voice his wishes, and the opportunity to carry them out?  For example, whether it is about participating in the group activity, or going to the preschool, does he have a choice?  Since you say that his behavior is different at home, would it be worth considering an option where he could be at home?   I do not know if he has ever asked to stay home but how would you respond if he did?  You can just work through a thought experiment with the question:  is it necessary that he go to the preschool every day, or at all?  What are the reasons?  What are the alternative ways to meet these needs?
When someone cries rather than talks about what is bothering them, it may indicate that they lack confidence that others will hear or care about what they have to say.  To develop communication skills, especially in voicing feelings of conflict, they must believe that talking will do them some good, i.e. lead to a change in the circumstances that are bothering them.  Saying “no!” and asking “why?” are ways for children to question authority.  The authority is legitimate to the extent that the child can understand and trust it.  How do we earn this trust?  By being held accountable by our children and being open to change.  If children raise questions about rules and procedures that we have set out, we should listen fully, answer questions honestly and straightforwardly without inventing contrived explanations or worst-case scenarios, and show genuine readiness and willingness to see the situation from their perspective, to revise and compromise where we can and apologize when we cannot.  Often the sense of being heard will trump the particular issue that gave rise to the conflict, or give them the tools to resolve it on their own.
Among the policies that pre-school children are expected to follow are sharing and taking turns, that stem from a basic principle stating that you should treat others as you would like to be treated.  It is important for you as a parent to model this behavior in your own interactions with your children.   Would you like it if someone bribed you or pretended to be upset with you in order to get you to do something?  Or would you prefer to have an open discussion where each side could explain their needs and be heard with an open mind?
You might find this unusual as a recommendation for talking with children but among parents who practice this kind of communication, you will find that it builds trust and responsibility.   Nothing encourages effective talking like effective listening.

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