Preschool aged children have brains that are still developing. Their logic centers and sense of empathy are still forming, and need guidance from adults in their lives such as parents and teachers to help their emotional development.
Some schools of thought favor “negative reinforcement”; where if a child breaks a rule, or has behavior issues, you penalize them. This doesn’t necessarily mean something as harsh as the physical punishments that used to be en vogue, but even something as simple as taking away a toy from two children who are arguing about it, or other ways of limiting children’s choices. However, more and more studies have shown that this method of negative reinforcement doesn’t teach children what we are intending.
Eventually, children will learn to follow the rules as intended using negative reinforcement, however, most often this will only be when they feel they are supervised. The real lesson they learn is to be mindful when someone is watching. This is what is known as “panoptical discipline” or discipline only when being watched. Many studies have been done about the panoptical discipline having to do with people in prisons, and in a child’s mind, it becomes essentially the same under negative reinforcement. They are people learning the skills they will need the rest of their life, however they have very limited choices and autonomy. If the adults in their life aren’t mindful of that fact, children can become discouraged and act out, trying to gain more autonomy, or simply follow the rules when they think someone is looking, and gain their autonomy when they feel they are unobserved.
How can we support children emotionally, and help them gain crucial life skills, as well as foster a sense of autonomy, while still creating a scaffolding to help them follow rules? A good way to start is by working in positive reinforcement instead.
What is positive reinforcement? It doesn’t mean a free-for-all of allowing children to do whatever they want. Instead, it takes the approach of helping children find positive outlets in their search for autonomy, and in reinforcing the behaviors that should stay, instead of focusing on the ones that need to change. For example, if a child is really struggling because they feel like they don’t have enough choices, and they keep saying no, refusing to do X,Y, and Z, and contradicting, a good idea is to give them at least two acceptable choices: “Do you want to get your shoes on or your boots on?”.
Something else that is helpful, developmentally, is to “call out” the positive behaviors children do. When we fail to do that, the message we send kids is that doing what they are supposed to isn’t a good way to get our attention, and they need to seek our attention through other means, including doing what they aren’t supposed to do. One way I’ve worked on this in my class lately is to have a “Kindness Tree”, since we were learning about Spring, and whenever anyone in our class noticed anyone else doing something positive, especially some of the values we were focusing on (Respect, Love, Kindness, Manners) we would write it on a leaf. We’ve been watching our tree bloom together, and the kids have become very engaged and proud at how much attention they have received for being kind and helpful. Also, because it is a tangible thing, they are able to show it off to their families every day, giving them an added element of pride and ownership of the positive experiences.
Hopefully you are able to find creative and fun ways to call attention to the ways your children, whether they are your students or your biological children, are being wonderful. Make an experiment of it, try it for a month, and see how much of a difference it makes!