By Pam Schaffner

What do the words punishment, discipline, and redirection mean to you? Do you think they are interchangeable; do they mean the same thing? Do they have different meanings? Are they all appropriate ways to manage the behavior of young children?

First let’s explore how these are defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary.

Punishment: the act of punishing, suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution, a penalty inflicted on an offender through judicial procedure, severe, rough, or disastrous treatment.

Discipline: (verb form) to punish or penalize for the sake of enforcing obedience and perfecting moral character, to train or develop by instruction and exercise especially in self-control, to bring (a group) under control, to impose order upon.

Redirect: to change the course or direction of. (Redirect is the verb form of the noun redirection.)

Based on these definitions, it is fair to say that punishment is not an appropriate way to manage children. Physical punishment happens when one inflicts bodily harm on another to stop a behavior. Yanking children by the arm, spanking, and holding children down are some examples of physical punishment. Yelling at children, shaming them through mean comments, or sarcasm are examples of verbal punishment. Neglect is also a form of punishment and includes things such as withholding food or abandoning a child.

Punishment often leads children to want to retaliate because they are harmed through these acts and thus often engage in more negative behaviors. They may say to themselves, “Oh yeah, you hurt me so I will hurt you back.” If the child does not seek retaliation, they may withdraw from any interactions with the one who punished them in the future, not wanting anything to do with the person who caused them pain or embarrassment. Punishment is usually harmful and ineffective because it weakens relationships rather than strengthening them.

The definition of discipline seems to be a synonym of punishment, but if we focus on the “train and instruction” part of the definition of discipline, we see a new approach. While the motivation behind punishment is stopping the misbehavior by any means necessary, discipline focuses more on teaching appropriate behavior.

Parents and teachers often become frustrated when young children grab toys from one another, do not share, push, bite, etc. Stopping these behaviors is desired. Yet, do these adults actually “teach” or “instruct” young children what to do with their emotions, or how to get along with others. We tend to think that pro-social skills are innate and wired into our DNA and we should know these things and be capable of doing these things at birth. But these skills need to be cultivated. Humans are part of the animal kingdom and like other animal babies, they need to learn how to live and interact with others. For example, have you ever trained a puppy and got them to stop biting or chewing the wrong things? Baby humans also need to learn what they can and cannot bite and chew.

The goal of discipline is for adults to teach young children how to behave positively, how to interact with others, how to show respect for people and property, and so forth. In fact, as the definition implies, discipline is used to develop self-control. If we merely punish wrongdoings, we do not teach children how to monitor their own behavior in our absence (self-control). A great teacher and parent will recognize that teaching extends far beyond teaching numbers, shapes, and how to write one’s name in the early years. Teaching involves helping children recognize the emotions of others; helping them to discern appropriate actions for each of the emotions they feel; and helping them problem solve. Great teachers and parents will also recognize that young children need practice to master these skills. Therefore, they need guidance and help from adults in using these skills and likely won’t just stop negative behaviors the first time they are told or shown an appropriate way.

Redirection is a different approach to managing behavior. Some see it as a distraction tactic to get young children to focus on something new and not on the negative behavior. Sometimes that is true. However, it can be used in a much broader sense. Young children often engage in behaviors that are developmentally appropriate because they are practicing a new skill (climbing, throwing, running, poking, etc.); only, they practice these new skills at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate way. It is necessary to acknowledge their need to practice a certain skill and then to find a way for children to do it. First acknowledge the behavior, what the child is doing. Second, ask yourself why they are doing it. Third, note why the child is doing it at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Fourth, find a way for the child to practice that skill appropriately.

Here is an example:
Child throws blocks.
Child is practicing their throwing skills.
Child is hurting others by throwing blocks (Children are too close to the one throwing blocks and blocks are not an appropriate throwing item).
Child will practice throwing when I add a bean bag toss game to the classroom.

As shown, the words discipline, punishment, and redirection are not as interchangeable as we might have initially thought. All three can work to stop a behavior but only two create lasting change and keep a positive relationship between the adult and child intact. When possible, pair discipline with redirection for a full behavior modification strategy. Find out why the child is doing something by talking with them and being emotionally available to them (This builds trust and a deep relationship with the child). Use discipline to help them understand why a behavior is inappropriate and its impact on others. Teach them a better way to respond to situations. Then, redirect them to something more positive. Acknowledge that emotions are legitimate; acknowledge that they might need an outlet for extra energy or to practice their skills. Channel those things into more appropriate activities. You should see some satisfactory results.

Tags : behaviorBehavior Managementchallenging behaviorDisciplineguidancePunishmentRedirectionsocial skills

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