Before reading this blog post, I want you to do something really simple but highly important to truly understand in a practical way, what I am discussing ……take your watch off and leave it at home for the day!
Punishment, Consequences, Behaviour Management, Discipline – these are all phrases that are thrown in to conversation freely when talking about children and in particular, pupils in schools. But do we actually know what they mean, and more importantly the long-lasting effects they have on children. Lets have a look at the dictionary definitions of each.
Punishment; the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.
Consequences; a result or effect, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant
Behavior Management; is similar to behaviour modification. In behaviour modification the focus is on changing behaviour, while in behaviour management the focus is on maintaining order. Behaviour management include all the actions and conscious in actions to enhance the probability people, individually and in groups choose behavious which are personally fulfilling, productive and socially acceptable.
Discipline; the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.
I’m sorry, but even just reading through these makes my blood run cold – are the above actions really what we should be inflicting upon our children? Some schools try to sugar coat the above, wrapped up in a guise of a sun, white cloud and dark cloud, or green, amber and red charts. They have lovely photos of each child that are moved depending on the behaviours displayed…… They are just posters up on the wall and so surely they can’t cause any kind of damage?…… If you think that, then please please read on.
Our early life experiences and the way we have been nurtured in life directly effect the way our brains are wired. A securely attached child will have the wiring that tells them that they are good, they are worthy, they are loved and that if they do something ‘wrong’ they know that despite this, that love still continues. They are conditioned in such a way that a form of ‘consequence’ for a misdemeanor can be taken on the chin – they are resilient and so can bounce back straight away.
For a child without a secure attachment, their brains have been wired in such a way that they do not feel worthy, they don’t feel loved or indeed loveable and when they are given a consequence for behaviour, they lack the ability to separate the misdemeanor from themselves. They believe that they and the behaviour are one and so any consequence is a direct attack on them as a person – they don’t understand that it is the behaviour that has been deemed as bad, instead they see themselves as bad through and through. Each and every time a ‘consequence’ is given, this adds yet another layer to their already overwhelming feelings of shame. Their psyche because of their ACE’s is such that they believe they are deserving of any further punishment because they feel it was their own fault that they had early experiences of trauma as they are unlovable. Can you just stop for a minute and think, really think what that must feel like?
So if we move away from using punitive approaches, does this mean that we let children behave in any way they want? No, it means we have to use a much more nurturing approach that gives children natural consequences. Although having just read the definition of consequence, I’m not sure I am comfortable with that phrase any more. Instead, I would rather call it logical lessons. In this way, the child is not ‘punished’ with a reward/loss type system, but is instead shown what the impact of their actions have been and provided with a natural follow on lesson. Here is an example…..
Tom and Tiny had chosen to go to North Berwick for a day trip and they wanted to get the train. When I went to Tom to get washed and dressed he started complaining, refusing to get changed, going at snail’s pace etc etc and when I tried to hurry him along, he lashed out and kicked my leg. At this point, it would have been so easy to go with the ‘usual’ parenting technique of giving a consequence by way of removal of privileges – xbox, tv, ipad etc. However, how does this actually relate to what he did? When it would come time for the consequence to actually take place, the misdemeanor would be long forgotten and that time with no privilege would, for him, just be a time of self loathing. What learning would take place? I am bad, I kicked, I get no xbox, I’m not loved.
So how could we change this? How could the message still be given that kicking is not acceptable without evoking feelings of shame? This is where a logical lesson could come in. Tom was desperately wanting to get the train, however it was a 20 minute walk to the station from our house. The imperative part about the logical lesson is that it should be just that, logical. It had to correlate to the kicking of my leg. So, it was explained that because my leg was now sore, I would be unable to walk to the train station and so we would have to take the car instead. What learning would take place this time? When I kick, it hurts people and that person will not then be able to do the task that I was expecting. Isn’t that a better ‘lesson’ to learn?
The difficulty I find with logical lessons as a parent though is that it takes a lot of quick thinking, that sometimes it is hard to do when you are in the thick of it. I feel it is perfectly acceptable to say to the child, ‘I need time to think about what happened and what the next step will be. I will get back to you’ – that is much more preferable that going with a knee jerk reaction of removal of privileges.
Similarly, there is the common practice of using ‘time out.’ For many children who have experience early trauma, a major part of this has been neglect. Why then do we punish a child with an exclusion of our presence? The behaviour caused by neglect is responded to with a similar approach. What would work better is ‘time in’ where the child can still be moved away from the current situation and is given ‘close time’ with a parent rather than being pushed away.
So reward/consequence approaches don’t work for children with insecure attachment, but surely its fine for other children? Yes, maybe – if that child is resilient enough to not feel the shame attached to the consequences, but what I would say to educators especially, is this – how do you know how resilient a child is? How do you know that deep down, they wont feel the hurt and shame caused by such a consequence? Surely in order to protect ALL children we should agree that logical lessons are a much healthier way forward?
So what does removing your watch for the day have to do with all of this? We spoke earlier about how the way children’s brains are wired is a reflection of their early childhood experiences. Those who have suffered trauma and neglect have their brains wired to live in fight or flight mode. If they have a perceived threat in front of them, they will do just that – fight or run away. In Tom’s case, my nagging became the danger to him and his brain caused him to react the way he did. He COULDN’T help it. I know a lot of people will be thinking that this is nonsense and that he should know the difference between right and wrong and that this was a conscious decision to be violent and he should be given a severe consequence in the hope that he would ‘learn’ that kicking is wrong…….okay, so throughout the day, I want you to count how many times you look at your arm even though your watch isn’t there. I told you to take your watch off and so you should know that its not there. Why are you looking at your arm then? Its because our brains have been conditioned by our previous daily experiences that we look at our arm when we want to know the time – we do it instinctively without thinking through what we are doing – case in point for children suffering from ACES – their brain takes over and their previous experience makes them act from insticts – fight the danger or run.
Recently there have been a few posts on Twitter that have really saddened me, the first was asking which members of a school should be the ones best experienced to deal with detentions in school and the other was a school job advertisement for a director of ‘isolations and detentions’ based within a custom built ‘behaviou correction unit.’ Why?????? Why are we still living in a culture that relies so heavily on such approaches. Something has to change. The starting point for this must be deeper understanding of attachment issues and that is why I am doing what I’m doing and will be shouting as loudly as possible to get our children’s voices heard – not just those with attachment issues, but all children.
Lets start giving our children ‘logical lessons’ and stop the abusing them with shame.