As adults, when we think of discipline in early childhood we may think back to a time when our parent’s bare hand (or, even worse, a switch) was the means in which to achieve it. However, this does not have to be. And, indeed, in the classroom this has become unacceptable. So, the question then becomes “How can discipline be achieved in school?”
In order to answer this we must first look past the more common view of discipline as something that is achieved by force. This is the historic view where, in the classroom, children were often made to sit in desks for long hours and listen to the teacher while she gave her lesson. Rather than viewing discipline in this manner, let’s look at it as something that is achieved from within. In order to accomplish something from within a person (or child) must want to do it. And in order for a child to want to do something it must be interesting to him.
Having interesting activities geared towards the child’s own developmental level, then, is the first key to the question of how discipline can be achieved in school. As an example, bright, attractive blocks of different size may be great fun for a three year-old to sort and grade from largest to smallest. A five year-old, on the other hand, will find this activity simply not challenging enough and will quickly tire of it.
By having activities that attract the child’s attention, the child focuses on the materials rather than on occupying his mind through idle or disruptive activity. He also develops his concentration because he is doing something he wants to and will spend great lengths of time and tremendous energy doing so.
Since the child is now focusing on different materials, is he going to develop self-discipline simply by concentrating on these activities? Frankly, it helps. But alone it is not the answer, which brings us to the other key to acquiring self-discipline. This equally important factor is that the child needs to have choices.
By choices it is meant that a child chooses within a structured setting, i.e., he makes decisions from only two or three options. Meanwhile, these options should be defined by the teacher (or parent) through a set of ground rules. Ground rules are the rules which all members of the group are expected to observe. In the classroom they should help foster health, safety and manners. At home they can be designed to accomplish whatever goals are important to the family. The children can, through guidance, help make these rules in both settings. The important thing is that these rules be objective and that they be enforced consistently.
A common example of a breach of a ground rule in the classroom is when a pre-school child is running inside. The rule is that we only walk inside. Running is for outside time. The teacher may then ask the child to go to where he began running and walk back again, this time carefully and quietly. If he refuses the teacher gives him a choice of walking back by himself or while holding the teacher’s hand. And just about every time the child will choose to go without assistance. As with most any person, children crave independence.
By providing a child with choices the child is able to develop the sense that he has control over his own actions. And, when the consequences of his decisions are consistent, he learns that with this increased control comes more responsibility for the outcome of his own actions. He then gains greater independence while developing his decision-making abilities.
How can discipline be achieved in early childhood? It all comes down to the environment, that is, the surroundings in which a child grows. A properly prepared environment, at home or school, is one which has an abundance of exciting and developmentally appropriate activities. It also is a setting in which rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced. This offers the intriguing and stable environment in which learning of both concepts and discipline can take place. And when refined in early childhood self-discipline as well as the ability to make effective decisions can last a lifetime.