CYC-Online 69 OCTOBER 2004
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direct care workers

Discipline in action: some requirements and characteristics

Lorraine E. Fox

Discipline takes more time, and requires more work than punishment
Discipline requires that we do a lot of thinking before and during the intervention, and asks that we design, not merely administer, an intervention that will teach the young person something about the situation, or about him/herself, and that it will enable the individual to handle it better next time. We must consider who are behaving in the unacceptable way, what we know about their history and make-up that helps us understand why they are meeting their needs in an inappropriate way, and how we can provide an intervention and consequence which will facilitate effective learning. Discipline, as a practice concept, is often avoided in favour of more punitive interventions simply because of the demands on staff time and energy. It’s easier to have charts on the wall spelling out consequences for all manner of misbehaviour, to take things away, to send someone to his/her room to “think", than to take the time to evaluate each incident of unacceptable behaviour, to use our knowledge of the child and of individual and group dynamics to understand the reason for the behaviour and to devise a consequence geared for the needs of the individual youngster.

Discipline requires a focus on the individual
Similar behaviour does not spring, necessarily, from similar or predictable motivation. Each child must be considered in terms of his/her background, present coping skills, treatment needs, and abilities for learning. Six children may run away together, but each will run for his/her own, individual reasons. Punishment may, but discipline will not allow all six to be given the same consequence, because the necessary learning will be different for each. Who left because they have trouble controlling their impulses? Who left because they couldn’t say “no" to others in the group? Who left because in the past it has been safer to leave than to stay? Each has something to learn; each has a different capacity to learn; each deserves the respect to be seen and treated as a unique person with unique needs. Each deserves discipline.

Discipline cannot be forced
Punishment can be forced, but we cannot force anybody to learn. It thus becomes our task to provide the opportunity, to structure a learning situation, to give it our best shot. It becomes our task to give the learning the time.

Discipline enhances a child's self-image
Punishment damages a sense of self-worth. I don’t believe that it is true that children enjoy misbehaving and falling out of favour with the important adults in their lives. I believe, instead, that “acting up" is all that some children know. It feels comfortable, it makes them feel like themselves, it reinforces their negative self-images. I have never seen any evidence that it makes them feel good. Learning new ways to behave and handle emotions and difficult situations, learning more about themselves, learning that someone cares enough to struggle with them to help them change; this, I believe, feels good. Discipline allows the development of personal competence, and the sustaining of positive relationships with important adults, building a sense of worth and value. Isn’t this our commitment?

Discipline is hampered by previous life experiences
Kids who come into placement are, for the most part, undisciplined. They have been punished a lot; they have been ignored. Neither punishment nor uninvolvement teaches responsible behaviour. A lifetime of being ignored or punished does not make it easy to receive discipline. Children tempt us to do what would be easier for us anyway, to ignore them, or punish them. It is a challenge for us not to respond in the way they seem to be asking and which makes them feel comfortable. Abused kids elicit abuse; they act as if they would rather be made to suffer, to be called names, to be yelled at or hit. They would rather be sent to their rooms (ignored) than to be disciplined. Most don’t feel they are worth discipline! They don’t understand our willingness to invest the time and effort. This willingness and investment, I believe, is at the heart of treatment! This is hard to keep “up front" in our minds when they get up in our face and beg us to punish them; when they wreck our nights and ruin our days.

Discipline is hard just because we’re human
Sometimes we have bad days. Sometimes we envy them the treatment they are getting at our hands because we’d like to have some for ourselves. Sometimes we’re just plain tired and irritated. These times call on all of our reserves, and all of our personal and professional commitment. We are here to treat them better than they were treated before we met them; to treat them better than we were/are treated; and to treat them better than we’d sometimes like to treat them.

Discipline, like love, requires patience and kindness
Punishment can be swift and impulsive. Who hasn't, in a flash of anger and frustration, been tempted to take away someone’s bathroom privileges, to ground them for two years, to send them to their rooms until they “grow up"? The commitment to provide discipline in these moments is much like the commitment to love the unlovable. It takes patience to explain and relate a consequence, to be sure that the behaviour enables us to provide a clear explanation for intervention, and to construct a consequence that changes, rather than confirms, a negative view of the world.

Discipline can be proactive as well as reactive
In fact, it is possible on many occasions to recognise that corrective discipline is necessary because of a failure to provide preventive teaching interventions. Selfishly, it is far more useful, less exhausting, and more pleasant to spend time with youngsters preventing misbehaviour than anxiously awaiting its occurrence and having to react to it when everyone involved is in an emotional state that decreases the chances of effective teaching and learning taking place. Too often we seem to wait for something awful to happen and then spend countless hours in meetings, consultations and ruminations deciding what to do in response. The beauty of the discipline framework is that it reminds us that, unlike punishment, which is only reactive, discipline/teaching can be done at anytime. We can talk in advance about how to keep windows from being broken when Frank loses his temper; how we can handle feelings and challenges other than by running away, how to direct aggression into acceptable activities, etc. We can provide discipline in advance of disruptive behaviour. We can use that well-developed ability to pick up on the warning signs, the “vibes" which signal the potential for something getting out of hand. We can teach as prevention and save all of us the bad feeling which results from “acting out" behaviour. This focus on prevention may, in many cases, cause us to re-evaluate our reward systems for direct care staff. It is unfortunate that so many strokes are given to child care workers who are good at “handling" difficult situations. To reinforce a focus on discipline, we should commend the child care worker who provides such good discipline that there is very little to handle. We also need to reward creative and constructive consequences, even if they appear “soft" in a context where punishment seems called for. In considering the difficult task of maintaining discipline in classroom settings, Silberman (1970) reminds of the difficulty arising when teachers become obsessed with silence and lack of movement in environments where this becomes the chief means by which their competence is judged, since this atmosphere hampers real learning. He reminds us that a group cannot achieve enough maturity to keep itself under control if its members never have an opportunity to exercise control. Rewards need to be given to workers who do not “control" the group, but who struggle with the group and its members to learn self-control, with the understanding that while learning anything, the practice cannot be compared to the desired proficiency. Learning to type means a lot of misspelled words at first. And learning new behaviours requires tolerance for the approximations which will eventually lead to the desired performance.

Discipline is one of our primary tasks as caretakers of children. It is also one of our greatest challenges. It can be, when done as a way of life with those in our care, one of our greatest rewards. Discipline gives kids what they come to us to get; it is easier on us than any amount of punishing; it works and it feels terrific. Watching young people change their feelings about themselves “recognising their own value and worth “is a thrill that never leaves a worker who has toiled with and on behalf of this young one. Recognising that disciplinary interactions, teaching kids that they deserve our time, our thought, our planning, our creativity; teaching them that love and respect can be found in this world as evidenced by the love and respect we can share with them; teaching them that they can learn to meet their needs in a way that enhances their own feelings about themselves as well as the feelings toward them of others around them; sharing the joy and confidence that comes from learning “these rewards will energise us and give us the motivational push to keep on for another hour, another day, another year.

Direct care workers tow a difficult line, searching for a blend of structure and freedom which allows children and young people the right to learn from their own mistakes, but which still lends them the protection of our experience as a buffer against unnecessary disasters. There will be times when the consequences we mete out will seem unreasonable to the child. At times like this, we need to examine ourselves to make sure they are indeed reasonable, and necessary, even if not understood. Anyone who has witnessed a two-year-old running out into traffic, convinced that all cars will stop while s(he) retrieves her/his ball, has experienced a moment when preventive discipline was the order of the day, whether the process was able to be mutual or not. There are other dangerous situations which call upon our best skills in attempting to provide preventive discipline; most of us are not willing to allow teenagers to learn from the mistake of cutting their wrists, or taking a dangerous drug. It requires careful thought and lots of discussion between adults, to determine which situations we should step into and which we should allow to play out so that learning can occur from natural consequences. We need also to recognise that there are times when kids are not available for discipline: when they’re on drugs or alcohol; when they are blinded by rage; when they are out of touch with reality. Most often, these times will pass and the opportunity for discipline (as contrasted with control) will present itself and we will then buy up these moments after the storm, to try to teach another way of handling stress or peer pressure, remembering that the goal of discipline is self-control, self-discipline. It is when we see a child or teenager learn a better way to handle his/her feelings and impulses that we are paid for our work, not when we pick up our cheques.


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This feature: Extract from Lorraine Fox. Teachers or Taunters: The dilemma of true discipline for direct care workers with children. In Readings in Child and Youth Care for South African students. Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers. pp.48-52

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