Discipline for children 5 years and older

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Why rules and limits?

To feel safe, school-aged children still need clear and consistent rules and limits. These rules serve to protect the child, develop self-control and responsibility, and establish values. It is normal, however, for a child this age to regularly try to push the limits and disobey the rules.

Discipline is sometimes necessary to eliminate unacceptable behaviour, but more importantly to reinforce good behaviour. To be effective, however, discipline must be respectful and applied fairly and equitably. The use of consequences, which can take the form of reinforcement or punishment, can be very helpful.

Reinforcement

Reinforcement is designed to increase the likelihood that a good behaviour will occur again. There are two types of reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement: In this case, the child is given something pleasant to encourage him to repeat the behavior.

It doesn’t have to be an object, but rather time, a privilege, praise, etc. For example, praise your child every time he/she behaves well, give extra attention when he/she is calm and has done well, offer extra play time, or share an activity with him/her.

Negative reinforcement: With this intervention, the child is taken away from something he or she doesn’t like, such as his or her daily chores, to praise good behaviour. For example, if your child behaved well throughout dinner when it is often difficult for him to sit through the meal, he might get a night off from washing dishes.

Reinforcement is the best way to intervene with a child because it is more effective than punishment. Reinforcement also promotes a better parent-child relationship and has a beneficial effect on the child’s self-perception. On the other hand, if the behavior is only punished, the child cannot learn the correct behavior.

The Motivation Chart to Reinforce Good Behavior

The purpose of positive reinforcement is to help your child see the benefits of good behavior so that he or she can apply it in his or her daily life. The motivational chart can be useful if your child has difficulty integrating and respecting certain rules (e.g., making his bed every day, putting away his toys after using them, doing his morning routine independently). This tool is a temporary support to develop your child’s motivation. See our sheet on the motivation chart to learn how to use this tool properly.

Punishment

Punishment is used to reduce the likelihood that inappropriate behaviour will be repeated. There are two types of punishment:

Positive punishment: With this type of punishment, the child must do something he or she doesn’t like. For example, if your child didn’t do his weekly chore, he has to do it and help you do another chore.

Negative punishment: In this case, the child has something taken away that he likes. For example, he may lose his video game time for the evening if he hurt his little brother.

The act of making amends

If your child deliberately tears up his sister’s picture, you can ask him to glue it back together. This way, your child learns to make amends for inappropriate actions.

Withdrawal to eliminate inappropriate behavior

Because it involves losing contact with others for a short period of time, withdrawal is a form of negative punishment. It can be used with children as young as 3 years old.

Withdrawal allows the child to calm down if he or she is too agitated and generally reduces the amount of inappropriate behaviour. This approach also prevents the parent from becoming too impatient, thus avoiding an escalation. Afterwards, it is important to discuss what happened with the child.

From the age of 6, children have a better understanding of the rules and the effects of their actions. It is therefore easier for them to understand the link between a consequence and their behaviour. Withdrawal can still be helpful when your child needs to calm down, for example, if he or she is not behaving appropriately with siblings during a game.

When your child is relaxed and interested, teach him techniques for calming down (e.g., breathing, cool-down routine, relaxation, etc.). They can then use these to calm themselves down when they are withdrawn. For some children, a visual routine (pictograms) for calming down can help.

Deliberately ignoring a behavior to eliminate it

Paying attention to a behaviour often reinforces it, especially if your child is doing it to get your attention. To eliminate your child’s inappropriate behaviour, ignoring it on purpose is often effective. This is called intentional ignoring. It is also a form of negative punishment because your child loses your attention. However, this technique should only be used when you can truly ignore the behavior, not when you need to intervene (e.g., child hitting).

If you decide to use this method, you will need to stick with it, since if you change your actions during your intervention, your child’s behaviour will continue. However, be sure not to ignore your child’s needs or use this technique too often.

Beware of overuse of punishment

Although punishment is sometimes necessary, it should be used with caution. It is best to teach the child the desired behaviors so that he or she knows how to act. If the disciplinary method is based solely on punishment, the child is not encouraged to adopt the desired behaviours and, in the long term, the punishment will no longer be effective.

How to properly formulate rules and consequences

When stating a rule and the associated consequence to your child, make sure that the 5Cs criteria are met, i.e., the rule and consequence are :

As much as possible, rules should be the same with both parents, even if they are separated, especially when it comes to routines, homework and bedtime.

Clear

Rules and consequences should be clear and known. Use words your child understands. Clearly state the rule in a positive way. For example, say, “I want you to speak in a calm tone of voice” rather than “If you don’t stop yelling right away, you’ll go to your room without a TV. Also explain why you want him to respect her.

Concrete

Make the rules about what behaviour is expected, not what you don’t want your child to do. For example, say, “When you get home from school, hang your coat in the hallway and put your shoes away properly” rather than “Don’t leave your coat and shoes lying around in the hallway!”

Consistent

Rules and consequences should be the same for all children in the family, regardless of the adult present (mom, dad, grandparents, babysitter, etc.). For example, if eating in the living room is not allowed, this applies to everyone at all times. However, if a child is allowed to stay up later because of his or her age, it is important to explain to siblings why this is the case. Once you have established a consequence, don’t change your mind and enforce it, or your child won’t believe you.

Say the rule and its consequence only once, not more. If you repeat them often, your child will not learn to respect boundaries.

Before you set a rule or consequence, make sure you will be able to enforce it. For example, depriving your child of television or another activity for an extended period of time is rarely effective, as managing significant consequences is difficult. In addition, your child may not even remember what caused the punishment. Since you are an important role model for your child, you too should follow the rules.

Consequences

Ideally, when rules are broken, they should have a consequence that is directly related to your child’s behaviour. For example, if your child is grumpy, advise him that he will go to bed a little earlier because he seems to be in a bad mood. Similarly, if he spills something on the floor on purpose, ask him to pick it up.

Spanking and physical punishment

Experts agree that spanking and other forms of physical punishment are not helpful or effective. They should not be used. In addition, physical punishment does not lead to learning, but rather to a sense of humiliation and a loss of trust in the parent by the child. In addition, since children learn by imitating their parents, physical punishment can develop a violent reflex in the child rather than a healthy behavior.

How to use punishment

Punishments should not be made in anger or as a threat to your child. You must also be able to sustain them. In addition, they should be related, when possible, to the unacceptable behaviour, serve to teach good behaviour and be proportionate to your child’s inappropriate behaviour. It should be done with respect and love for your child. It is definitely not a way to vent your bad temper on your child.

For this reason, take time to calm down before applying a logical consequence or appropriate punishment. Don’t act out of anger, as anger is never a good advisor. Use a neutral, calm tone when dealing with your child. If you feel impatient, take deep breaths and, if possible, step back for a few moments in a calm environment.

Apply the punishment immediately after the event so that your child associates it with the offending behaviour. This way, your child can regroup and then act appropriately. Once the consequence is applied, tell your child what behaviour is expected of him/her. Then move on.

If you feel that you need support to establish healthy discipline with your child, do not hesitate to consult your CLSC, a psychologist or a psychoeducator or call Info-Social (811).

To remember

Discipline aims to eliminate unacceptable behaviours from a child, but more importantly to reinforce good behaviours.

Although punishment is sometimes necessary, it should not be used too often. It is better to reinforce good behaviour than to punish unacceptable behaviour.

Punishments should be administered calmly and with respect for your child.

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