Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Discipline and Mentoring, Part One: Discipline

Smiley is now old enough to enjoy being trained. I should write an essay that shares what I know about training and correcting young children.

This topic has no "correct" or "best" answers. Other parents will surely disagree with some of my philosophy. My main hope in sharing is to put forth a careful set of ideas and vocabulary. This blog is, after all, primarily to help me process my own thoughts.

What did I mean when I said that Smiley is "old enough to enjoy being trained"?

I managed to catch the key behavior on video this morning. During the first few moments of this video he reaches for my computer cord shakes his head. (I only caught two repetitions on video, but he had been doing this more times.)

I recently switched from keeping my computer and its cord (oh, the cord!) out of his reach to training him not to touch it. When he reaches out to it, I shake my head "no" as part of the training.

Now Smiley knows that he is not allowed to touch these. He enjoys knowing this rule. So he rides his scooter up to these forbidden objects, reaches partway out to the cord, and stops himself with his own head shake. When he tires of this game he moves on to something else, happy and conversational.

At ten months he probably does not want many rules. But now he is old enough to learn about the stove, the camera, and the indoor plants. Training is appropriate when stubbornness and danger (danger to Smiley or to something very breakable) might mix.

What is training?

Training is not correction. I'll discuss correction later.

Training begins by putting Smiley into a constructed situation. I set him by my keys. Previously they have always been out of reach. Smiley does not know he is not allowed to touch them. I expect he will reach out for them. This is an unfair test; I expect him to fail.

Training is arranged. The area is free of distractions. I wait until Smiley is at his best: not tired or fussy.

Training includes a gesture, a word or phrase, and small discomfort. When he reaches for the keys I shake my head "no", say "hold", and either block his hand or very lightly swat it. Smiley is stubborn and tries again. After all, perhaps the prohibition is only momentary?

Training starts calm. If I block his hand I do so with the minimal needed effort. If I swat his hand I do so with a very soft touch, less than a tap. Either is meaningful only in its significance, not in force; I initially move slowly, almost lazily. Neither reaction would be immediately effective.

Training remains serene. When Smiley reaches out a second time he is confused, and my reaction repeats as before. By the third time he realizes the keys are prohibited and has become stubborn. Now my reaction must match his mood. If he becomes frustrated I must not block his hand (which would keep his focus on his frustration rather than the rule) and switch to a swat. If he is not frustrated I block his hand since I don't like to swat him. My gesture and voice retain their initial calm, but if he moves more forcefully I do too; more significantly my reaction time quickens. After a few repeats I am reacting almost instantly and with force he notices. His stubbornness gives up. This is not a game, it is too uncomfortable.

Training is patient. He has learned the rule. But was reaching with his left hand. Perhaps he will be allowed to reach take the keys with his right hand instead? Or lean forward to lick them? With each new try we start over from the beginning. Eventually he runs out of alternatives and goes to do something fun.

Training is anti-social. Smiley and I were merely two roles in an artificial situation moving towards an inevitable destiny. The training techniques are the same methods I once used to use to train mice or horses; in some small way Smiley feels that I was not treating him as himself, not as a person. So after the training I give him lots of loving attention. He is not in need of comfort or soothing since none of his discomfort or frustration during training was at all lasting. But he needs me to be the daddy and him to be the baby, socially in those roles.

In training have not crushed his will. He makes every choice, even when to move along to some other activity. All he learns is a new rule, with a refresher that I am more patient and stubborn than he. He remembers the rule but the training experience is soon forgotten.

At an early age I trained Smiley to do two things. He stays on his back when on his pink towel on the bathroom counter. He stays on his back when on his changing table. (Well, only most of the time for the latter.)

That very early training was done for the sake of his safety. He did not notice my gesture. He barely noticed my phrase ("don't roll, stay on your back, please"). He only knew that when he tried to roll I would hold him in place by his hips a little bit longer than necessary to prevent the roll. That "little bit longer" was the emotional discomfort portion. He did not like it, and soon was trained.

Training is only appropriate with your own children. Currently laws prohibit adults from causing almost any kind of physical discomfort to someone else's child, no matter what agreement the adults believe they have made. Although it is possible to train using only emotional discomfort this is so much less efficient it can become cruel to the child.

Must training be limited to negative reinforcement? Hopefully it is limited in this way because the young child has no favorite thing withheld from his or her normal routines. If we were training an animal we would use as positive reinforcement some favorite food or treat. But, to me, it seems wrong to withhold from a child a favorite toy, food, or type of parental attention and reserve it for use as positive reinforcement during a training session. The necessary negative reinforcement is so minor and temporary that overall the child will have a more enjoyable day with otherwise unrestricted access to his or her favorite things.

For most children, only train one rule at a time. Until that rule has been well learned, for everything else continue keeping items out of reach and using redirection.

Training, as I have defined it, is completely different from teaching. It is in many ways the opposite. Here is an example to highlight the distinctions.

When I taught preschool on the first day the students were taught how to form a nice, straight line by the classroom door. This took a long time. Many of them had never before heard of the concept and had no idea what I was asking of them.

The other adult and I modeled standing still, facing the door, behind someone else, etc. Other students were gradually invited in to the model line. When we finally had all the students in a straight line I took a photograph.

Then, one by one, we invited each student to show one way to not be in a nice, straight line and hold that pose. Then I took another photograph.

Both photographs were quickly printed and passed around during circle time. We reviewed how to form a nice, straight line. All the students got to laugh at their antics in the second photograph. Both photographs were then taped to the inside door frame.

From then on, when it was time to line up, usually all I had to do was point at the second photograph. Most students would straighten up. Distracted neighbors would get reminded. Soon the line was nice and straight. Then I would point to the first photograph, smile, and either clap, do an ASL clap, or give a thumbs up.

Teaching is social. All involved maintain their personalities. It involves many words, not a single gesture and phrase. It uses positive reinforcement, not negative. The teacher answers the learner's questions or difficulties, not the learner's stubbornness and frustration. It often happens spontaneously with a "teachable moment", not in a previously arranged setting.

The end result of teaching should be a new skill and a happy memory, not a new rule and a forgotten experience.

Smiley is still too young for successful teaching. I try anyway because we both enjoy it.

This week he is starting to learn to use a spoon. For months he has had his own spoon to hold when we fed him. Now I often hold a bowl of food within his reach and guide his spoon-wielding hand to scoop some food. On rare occasions he will put the spoon in his mouth (upside down). Slightly more often he will grab the food off the spoon with his other hand. Usually he ignores the food on his spoon and wants to either scoop more or grab the bowl with his free hand.

It will probably be weeks before he can use a spoon by himself, and weeks after that before I do not need to hold the bowl. Meanwhile, the teaching is still fun even without success.

How about correction? This is also, in many ways, the opposite of training.

I use the word "correction" to refer to what happens between stopping misbehavior and redirecting the young child. Often nothing is in the between area, especially if the environment is well prepared.

(Imagine Smiley reaches for something at a store. I say, "Smiley, that's not for you, see those lights?" Imagine he stops reaching and focuses on something else--maybe even the lights I was pointing out. According to my vocabulary, that sentence was enough to both stop and redirect, so there was no need for correction.)

Correction usually happens when the child is tired or cranky or otherwise not at his or her best. Happy and rested young children are typically easy to stop and redirect.

Correction begins at an unprepared time and setting. If possible, quickly move the child to another quiet place. The change of location is itself a bit of a wake up call. Also, having the object or person previously focused on out of sight helps the child shift focus to you.

Correction usually begins with a question. This question prompts the child to focus on himself or herself, rather than the other person or object. "Why are you upset?" "Why do you want that?" "Did you know you are acting like a baby?"

Too often adults begin with a counterproductive question or statement. It wastes time to keep the child focused on the other person or object. ("Why did you hit her?" "It's not your turn to play with that.")

It is also counterproductive to give warnings. What adults call "warnings" children think of as "freebies". A few situations really can be resolved with a repeated request, as when a normally obedient child is momentarily distracted. But almost always it is better in the long run to do an unnecessary session of correction than to risk a child getting used to freebies.

One last benefit of having moved the child is that he or she is then more like to answer the question. The likelihood of sullen defiance is much lower in the hallway then at the scene of contention.

The child's answer to the initial question is usually irrelevant because children are not mature enough for sufficient self-reflection. The child claims to be upset because someone else was mean, but actually the child has been edgy and fragile all day because of lack of sleep or a pet's recent death. The child claims she wants a certain book because of the story, but what she really wants is to interrupt a friend to demonstrate a higher pecking order rank. And so on.

But whatever the answer, now the child is focusing on himself or herself, and ready to listen. Shift the focus to previously established standards. Walking feet indoors. Hands are for helping. Hitting means a time-out. Keep a dialogue going, focused on the child and the standards, until the child recognizes his or her wrongdoing.

Next, process the guilt. An apology is ideal. With children younger than second grade a vicarious apology also works. ("Are you ready to tell her you are sorry? No? Then I will. [Go back to the room.] Kandice, I'm sorry Steven hit you. I'm saying sorry for him. Now you two are friends again.") It's almost magic. Immediately the children switch from being too upset to talk to each other to playing happily.

If an apology is not appropriate something else should happen to process the guilt. "You used running feet indoors, so we need to leave this store for a while." It may be useful to ask the child what he or she thinks should be done to make things right.

Once the child has seen the guilt arrive and depart he or she is almost always ready for redirection. The correction session is complete. But it should be reviewed in a positive way at the end of the day. "Remember when you hit Kandice, and there was an apology, and you played happily after? That was well done. I'm glad you can be a friend after a problem."

Sometimes a correction session dead-ends. Most often this happens when a child is too weighted down by something to recognize or care about the guilt coming and going. The weight could be any hurt: a headache, a lost favorite toy, overhearing parents argue, a grandparent has died. Then the child needs one-on-one time with an adult. Postpone the correction session.

Smiley is clearly not yet verbal enough for correction as I have defined it. He just gets redirection. For example, he is allowed in the kitchen when on his scooter but not when crawling (when crawling he tries to play with our kitchen mats, which may be hiding a piece of dropped food that could be a choking hazard). When he does try to crawl into the kitchen he is told this "rule" as we pick him up and either move him to another room or put him on his scooter, but he does not understand, so we make no attempt to put anything between the stopping him and the redirecting him.

UPDATE: This post is now part one of a three-part series. Part two is here. Part three is here.


Danielle said...

Hi, Its Danielle!!
Well I read all of what you had to say about the training and the correction. In the training that I have had here at LCC the correction piece is shaky in my opinion due to my education.
You as the parent or teacher first have to realize who owns the problem when the child is "misbehaving". My education has taught me never ever say sorry for the child and never ever make the child say he is sorry because it is not ment. Address the feeling that the child is having. I messages work really well for this. "I see that you look frustrated. would you like to tell me about it?" Taking the child away from a group of children is only ok it the child is hurting others. When the child is away work with the child first to calm his body. "Lets take three deep breaths in an out." They allow the child to direct the conversation not you saying anything like," you know you were acting like a baby." the child is not acting like baby the child is feeling meaningful feelings and is reacting on them. Validating the child for the feeling is what to do. Its ok to feel this way but instead of hitting your friends lets think about other ways we could tell your friends that you want the story. Problem solve with the children and once they have come up with the solution. Go and carry it out. sometimes the child might need help saying the words to the other child but never speak for the child. That is not the childs words or feelings. I have so much more to say about this but I want to make sure you are not taking any of this to meanly. I am just going off what my experience has taught me with the education that I have gotten.

Danielle said...

I will be thinking about this more and be writing more. I really enjoy talking about this. its fun.

David V.S. said...

Hi, Danielle!

Thank you for taking the time and thought to reply so clearly.

My essay was vague (on purpose) and your reply is actually changing the topic -- an appropriate segue to proceed from what I've called "discipline" to the related topic of "mentoring".

My guess is that the LCC Preschool only admits students old and mature enough to need what I call "mentoring" instead of "discipline".

I already had an outline for parts 2 and 3 in mind, but only an outline. Your reply helped me phrase certain parts more carefully and understandably. Thank you again!

I am not quite sure what you mean by "sometimes the child might need help saying the words to the other child but never speak for the child." I think I know what you are trying to say but am not sure. If what I have now written in part 3 does not match, please let me know.