6 Key Concepts of Positive Discipline (And How To Use Them)

How do we teach children to do the right thing when nobody is looking? The Positive Discipline approach explores and provides answers to this question for teachers and parents. During our in-service training at Soundview, our staff worked with Penny Davis, Positive Discipline trainer, to review and refine our own skills and strategies. 

We began with a simple brainstorm activity by creating lists for our answers to two essential questions:

What student behaviors do we find most frustrating? 

What qualities or personality "gifts" do we wish for our students as they become adults?

Our list of frustrating behaviors. 

Our list of frustrating behaviors. 

The qualities and gifts we want to teach our students.

The qualities and gifts we want to teach our students.

Our primary job as teachers and parents is to get students to move from doing the things on the first list to being the things on the second list. Typically, we just want frustrating behaviors to go away, but we need these behaviors in order to teach the qualities we’re really after. Often, we use punishment because it works. But it doesn’t teach students how to adopt the qualities on the second list. 

How exactly do kids learn? And what does punishment teach? 

Kids learn through mirror neurons. In other words, they do what they see us do. We are the models.  We need to ask ourselves, if I do this, what am I really teaching? (Body language included.)

When we use punishment, we might temporarily stamp out a frustrating behavior, especially in younger children. However, we should keep in mind: 

The Four R's of punishment:

  1. Resentment

  2. Revenge

  3. Rebellion

  4. Retreat - sneaky

We don't want those things. And there's no panacea. Positive Discipline is not a technique, it’s a way of being based on the following concepts...

A great place to start is with Dan Siegel's work on the brain and how to easily understand the brain's role in behavior. Check out this 7-minute video: 

In summary, the Dan's fist-brain model illustrates these concepts:

  1. "Flipping your lid"
  2. The relationship between the "downstairs and upstairs brains"
  3. The need to "name it and tame it"
  4. The 9 executive functions that are developed throughout life, yet, lost when a lid is flipped

With the fist-brain model in mind, these are the six key concepts of Positive Discipline, based on Adlerian psychology:

  • All children need a sense of belonging and significance. They want to know how do they fit, what contribution they make, and what their job is in the community?

  • There is behavior and purposeful misbehavior. It always has a reason. Behavior is based on a state of either encouragement or discouragement. To be encouraged builds courage, which is the will to be your best self.

  • Mutual respect is absolutely necessary in all interactions and relationships. 

  • Encouraging children requires a consistent balance of kindness and firmness. 

  • To give encouragement is the skill set for adults to acquire. 

  • Mistakes are opportunities to learn. 

All students have jobs that contribute positively to themselves, other students, and their school community.

All students have jobs that contribute positively to themselves, other students, and their school community.

Students and teachers work together to address challenges and find solutions.

Students and teachers work together to address challenges and find solutions.

Penny explained that these days in parenting, we are flip-floppity from either very kind to very firm. This equates to "rewards and punishment." We actually need to be consistently in the middle with both. The challenges to this balance include time (rewards and punishments make kids go faster), distractions, complexities of modern life, and so on. 

Here is a simple exercise to illustrate the difference between encouragement and rewards/praise:

  1. Consider a person that really loved you?
  2. What did they say or do that made you feel loved?
  3. This is encouragement.

There are essentially 3 kinds of encouragement:

  1. Descriptive: “I notice...” This lets the child make the judgement about the worth of the action.

  2. Appreciative: “Thank you for” or “I appreciate…”

  3. Empowering: Focused on growth or process. "I noticed you've been putting in a lot of time practicing..." or "Are you proud of yourself?"

Students learn and practice giving encouragement to each other.

Students learn and practice giving encouragement to each other.

Most of us are mostly used to praise: "good job!" 

The opposite of a encouragement is discouragement, which is created through "mistaken beliefs" about how to feel belonging and significance. Kids are not good at interpreting this yet, which leads to a particular mistaken belief about themselves and to decisions about how to act - unconsciously.

Our clue to understanding a mistaken belief is our own feeling about the behavior, which could be: annoyed, threatened, sad, among other emotions. Positive Discipline texts have a handy interpretive chart to decipher and adult feeling and its correlative mistaken belief. 

There are four mistaken beliefs and what they actually mean:

  1. Undue attention - "notice me, involve me"
  2. Misguided power - "let me help; give me choices"
  3. Revenge - "help, I’m hurting"
  4. Assumed inadequacy - "don’t give up on me"

The best way for teacher and parents to practice encouraging responses to mistaken beliefs is by practicing with each other with case studies and role-playing activities. 

To understand the real effects of punishment or consider what happens when a mistaken belief is misunderstood, consider a time when you were punished. What did you feel? What did you think? What did you decide about yourself or the person issuing the punishment? Was is one of the four R's of punishment? 

Instead, consequences are most effective at teaching children to replace frustrating behaviors (aka mistaken beliefs) with the qualities we listed:

Natural consequences are the best and easiest. They are a result of the way the world works. Adults just get out of the way.

We can also understand the mistaken belief and help find viable solutions.

Strong school communities are built on belonging.

Strong school communities are built on belonging.