When Lynne, a Rockville mother, was struggling with her older daughter's terrible 3's, following advice to "get stricter" merely exacerbated the conflicts and meltdowns. Instead, the family found the answer in Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn, which advocates working with your children, meeting their needs and resisting the urge to control them.
"We dropped the rewards and punishment altogether," Lynne recalls. "At home, things got a whole lot better. There were really no behavior issues."
Contrasting Discipline Policies
When her daughter entered kindergarten, however, the family encountered an elaborate system of rewards and punishment that ran counter to their own parenting philosophy. Children were bumped down to lower behavior tiers if they misbehaved and received slips of colored paper if they were "good." Suddenly, the little girl who was so compassionate stopped being kindhearted with her playmates―because she wasn't being recognized for it, Lynne says.
Lynne, a certified teacher who works as a substitute, feels the school system is mistaken in trying to manipulate kids and reward good behavior, instead of building on children's inherent motivation and social interest. She's backed up by an increasing body of research―detailed in books like Po Bronson's Nurture Shock―finding that in the long run, rewards actually discourage the behavior they seek to encourage.
"Shouldn't we do good because it's the right thing to do?" says Lynne, whose daughters are now 7 and 10. "I see the intrinsic motivation just die in these kids. The older they get, the more it just dies."
As children go back to school from the freedom of summer, families like Lynne's are feeling the contrast between the school's discipline policies and the positive discipline methods they use at home. "It's really hard for a parent to change something as entrenched as the school discipline program," says Ross William Greene, a child psychologist and author of Lost at School. Still, "a lot of schools are now recognizing that their discipline program needs to be revamped to reflect what we now know about why kids are challenging, and to be more responsive to the actual difficulties of those kids."
Making the Case for Intrinsic Motivation
When every teacher in the building is measuring children on a green-yellow-orange-red scale or doling out candy rewards in gym class, how do you make the case for intrinsic motivation? Greene advises parents to begin with a single conversation. Find someone in the school building who may be sympathetic, and explore how to get the ball rolling.
"This is about new ideas for helping kids, and what's the matter with that?" Greene says. "Where this usually starts is with people being open-minded and recognizing that what they're doing now isn't working for a lot of kids."
The old interpretation of misbehavior was that children were manipulative, attention-seeking, unmotivated, testing limits and parented poorly or inconsistently, Greene says. Now, educators and researchers increasingly understand that misbehavior indicates that the child needs to learn flexibility and adaptability and to build problem solving skills and frustration tolerance. "The new lens is: This kid is lacking crucial cognitive skills," says Greene.
Avoid Becoming Adversarial
In schools where Greene and his nonprofit Lives in the Balance implement their collaborative problem solving approach, they begin small and build on success. Above all, Greene advises parents to "bend over backwards to keep it from becoming adversarial."
That's advice that one Fairfax County middle school mother has trouble swallowing when she sees staff disrespectfully disciplining children. "Screaming at the top of one's lungs and public shaming―I don't think that's going to make those kids behave better," Roseanne says. While her 12-year-old daughter is well behaved and gets straight A's, Roseanne wants parents, educators, students and the school board to change the culture and to adopt a positive and respectful approach to discipline.
"I think the parents of the well-behaved kids need to worry, too," Greene says. "There are a lot of things being modeled for the well-behaved kids that aren't necessarily good in schools. . . . The not-so-challenging kids want their behaviorally challenging peers to be helped so they're not disruptive."
Respect the Chain of Command
When dealing with a specific discipline concern or issue, respect the chain of command, advises Kristin Trible, past president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations. Resist the urge to go straight to the school's principal, and instead begin with a calm discussion with your child's teacher.
"It's so important not to be defensive but stick with objective items or points to bring up," says Trible, whose daughter is a high school junior and whose son recently graduated.
Shawn D. Miller, principal of Little Bennett Elementary School in Clarksburg, encourages parents to bring concerns to school staff. "We'll always make time to meet with anyone that has a concern or a suggestion for improvement," Miller says. "Some of our best ideas come from what parents will recommend."
On topics that parents may feel are sensitive, the PTA president often serves as a go-between. She can bring concerns to the principal and receive information or rationale to take back to that parent or group of parents.
The school system does make changes, such as the new superintendent's emphasis on the importance of daily recess, which previously had been taken away as a punishment. "We've tried to look at other ways to provide consequences to students so they can still participate in recess and get exercise each day," Miller says.
When all else fails, you can explain to your children that, when they're in school, they must adapt to the educators' discipline and behavior expectations, says Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline series. It's OK to enjoy the rewards, parents may say, but "here at home, I have faith in you to do things because they're the right thing to do," Nelsen says. "Teach your kids how to survive in that system and that it's not the only system."
By Katherine Reynolds Lewis