Discipline in the Early Years

Discipline is a word often widely misunderstood.

Discipline is something we get asked a lot about. Whether it be advice regarding discipline at home or questions about our own discipline at school, parents are always interested to know. However, discipline is not the word that many use. The word that most parents use is “Punishment”.

Now, for the sake of this blog, we would like to clarify the difference between these two words in our world as they are completely different from each other… in our world.

Discipline verses Punishment

Discipline is often used hand in hand with the word punishment because discipline is defined as the act of teaching rules and boundaries that are often corrected with punishment. 

Punishment is defined as inflicting a penalty on to someone for not following rules or boundaries.

Therefore, when we use the word “discipline”, it is completely understandable that an anxious parent may connect the two. However, one does not have to follow the other. Discipline can exist without punishment and if done effectively, can lead to an environment of responsible, considerate, caring and understanding people.

Let us explain how…

Understanding Boundaries 

Boundaries (also a word that may provoke anxiety in some parents) are something that all children need. Boundaries, in simple terms, means simply saying “No, this behavior is not acceptable”.

Boundaries will keep children safe – both themselves and others around them. Boundaries will teach children what respect means. Boundaries will teach children what consideration and kindness is.

Can you jump from the top step all the way to the bottom? No – because you may hurt yourself.

Can you hit another person? No – because you may hurt them.

Can you tell another person that their outfit is ugly? No – because it will make them sad.

Can you reject a person from joining your friend group simply because they are a different ethnicity to you? No – because that is unkind.

As children grow, they need to understand that the world exists with boundaries to protect everyone. In our Preschool settings, we always say that it is a Micro Society – it is a little world that our young children may live in for a while to prepare them for the bigger, outside world. In order for them to be prepared for the bigger world, they must understand how it works and while this typically means creating experiences for them similar to the outside world such as learning about different cultures, hearing different languages, shopping with their own money at the book stall, crossing the playground path with the Lollipop Lady and mingling with younger children to practice care and responsibility, it also means learning about how the society around us in the bigger, outside world, has boundaries.

Boundaries should not be viewed as a negative aspect of life, but rather, a positive one. How is this possible? By explaining why they exist.

Explaining Boundaries

When asked about discipline and punishment, we always reply with the same answer: in many instances, adults can be punished. They know about boundaries and choose to ignore them. Children cannot be punished. They do not know about boundaries yet and this is why punishment cannot exist in the early years.

While learning about boundaries in the early years, we cannot express how important it is for our young friends to understand why they exist. Once children understand the reason behind the “no” you have given them, then they will develop an emotional intelligence that will allow them to develop self discipline. We often hear parents saying “no, no, no, no, no” without any sentence following it. And you will often hear children asking “why?”. And this is exactly our point – they are not doing something unacceptable because they like to “misbehave” or they are “naughty” (we cannot tell you how much we hate this word!). They simply do not know why. 

If a child hits, we must explain how their actions are making the other child feel and we should be ready to help with an example of what to do instead.

If a child jumps from the top step down to the bottom, we should be ready to explain the danger behind this action.

If a child tells another child that their outfit is ugly, we must gently explain how their words can make someone feel sad.

Simply saying “do not do that”, “do not say that” or “do not go there”, full stop, full stop, full stop… will stop a child in that moment but will not be effective in the long run.

Understanding Boundaries creates Self Discipline

The testing of boundaries turning into the understanding of boundaries, will not happen over night. It takes patience, consistency (consistency, consistency, consistency), empathy and understanding.

But… once you have helped your child achieve understanding of boundaries through supportive assistance, they will effectively have their own self discipline. This is where your guidance will be needed much less.

They may think about jumping down from the top step but they will consider the danger. They may think a child’s outfit is ugly but they will not say it out loud. They may get so angry that they feel the urge to hit a child but they will use their words instead to resolve the conflict.

At this stage, they have finally reached a level of self discipline required by all people (big and small) living in a society to keep everyone safe physically and emotionally.

And this is the importance of discipline in the early years.