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DISCIPLINE: What is Self-Regulation and Why are Preschoolers Talking About It?

December 30, 2017

December 30, 2017


Well, preschoolers may not be talking about it, but they probably have overheard their teachers ask themselves, “What would Mrs. Bookbinder do?” Mrs. Bookbinder is a female figure with butterfly wings and antennae who squats to be eye-level with her students and helps them come up with solutions to challenges they face. Mrs. Bookbinder serves as a model for teachers as they guide their young learners through decision-making processes to help them make better choices. She is part of the Conscious Discipline teacher professional development, and Conscious Discipline is a program that is trying to change the conversation around discipline from “punishment” to “skill building.” It is part of a new trend toward integrating “mindfulness” as a core disposition within discipline.

Bookbinder black discipline on successful black parenting magazine



As we see preschool expulsion rates disproportionately impact Black children, exploring new approaches to child guidance and discipline is a worthwhile effort. Although Conscious Discipline is used in diverse school settings and various grade levels, many preschools are adopting the program as a way to get children to think about their behavior and to consider the choices they have available to make. It is a move away from a ‘one-size fits all’ type of consequences approach for ‘bad’ behavior to natural consequences for making less than good choices, after series of attempts to help the child choose the more constructive path.  Conscious Discipline does not try to squash conflict, either, but instead, teachers talk children through the conflict.  The Conscious Discipline website offers an overview of their approach and has research-based reports and articles that support their claims about how this approach to discipline is more helpful to children’s development than the traditional punitive strategies. Their program includes training materials for teachers, parents, administrators and mental health specialists. The question is, does it work equally well with all children?


Safety, Connection, and Problem-Solving

At the core of Conscious Discipline is the practice of tapping into children’s ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and control one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Safety is an aim so that children feel confident and at ease with their classmates. Connection to others replaces punishing the ‘offending child’ and ‘rewarding the complacent child.’ ‘Problem-solving’ decenters the teacher and injects children as key actors in coming up with solutions. In conversation with the teacher, children propose ways to resolve conflicts or tensions. We can imagine what this might look like in the blocks corner of the preschool classroom. Joey is building a tower, and Sofia walks by and knocks it down. Joey, instead of taking one of the blocks from his collapsed tower and throwing it at Sofia, says, “You hurt my feelings!” or “That was my tower!’ or, even, “I hate you!” The teacher would step in not to punish or make the children apologize to each other but to get the children to talk about what happened, and why Joey is reacting to what Sofia has done.

African 1036183 960 720 on successful black parenting magazineThe teacher would facilitate the discussion and together with the children, consider the choices they have: To return to the activities they were enjoying by choosing to be helpful or to draw out the tensions and potentially having to move to a safe space for reflection. There may be other choices, but the teacher is key in helping children identify them and talking together with them about their choices.

An important shift from traditional discipline is moving away from punishments and rewards to reconciliation through helping. In the case of Joey and Sofia, Sofia might help Joey pick up the blocks and even help Joey rebuild the tower. Joey and Sofia avoided a physical confrontation, and even with a potentially tense exchange of words, neither was punished, a solution was found that allowed for the two children to remain connected to each other and to the project of righting a wrong.



A core idea in Conscious Discipline is connection. Connecting begins at drop-off with greeting rituals in the carpool lane and continues throughout the day with things like, more greetings at the school entrance, and wishing each other well once inside the classroom. As children move through hallways, they see reminders of steps for engaging in Brain Smart Start. This is a four-step process: 1) children participate in an activity to unite all together, like holding hands in a circle and moving toward the center and then out. This collects everyone’s energy and brings it together. 2) Children then disengage stress; this involves learning breathing exercises together and then children doing them individually. 3) The children connect to each other and the teacher; the program states that this “wires the brain for impulse control, enhances attention, and fosters cooperation and willingness.”  4) Finally, children commit. Committing helps children follow through. The program notes that the Brain Smart Start process activates the brain, maintaining children’s optimal learning state and releasing the brain’s ‘feel-good chemicals.’  “Shubert’s School” is an interactive school house that parents and children can navigate to see the many ways children begin to discipline themselves or self-regulate.


American actor, Goldie Hawn, through the Goldie Hawn Foundation, teamed up with neuroscientists to develop MindUp, a program offered to school districts across the country designed to help understand the relationship between the brain, emotions, and their own ability to influence what they are feeling and what their brain can do. This includes the ability to identify stress and how to reduce it. Stress can be a barrier to learning, and teachers using the MindUp approach report calmer, more focused children. Some educators who work with older children even credit the program for improved math scores in their schools. MindUp teaches children how their brain works and how to use this understanding to focus and calm the brain down. MindUp teaches children the names of parts of their brain, how each part works and the function each part has. It is not unusual to walk by a classroom that integrates the MindUp curriculum and hear children say things like, ‘My amygdala needs to calm down,” referring to the amygdala’s role in alerting you to danger. Children are taught techniques in deep breathing, as well. MindUp strategies and techniques are scheduled into the course of the day, even during snack or lunchtime. The MindUp curriculum includes preK through 8th grade and is based on research, including studies conducted with 3-year-olds. A sample downloadable poster shows how the brain is structured and features illustrations and language aimed at young children.



Zaretta Hammond writes about the “unequal discipline” practices that impact children of color. Hammond reports that Black and Latino children are more often punished for subjective offenses, such as talking too loud, and Black children are disproportionately suspended from school. What do you think? Would the mindfulness approach that Conscious Discipline and MindUp use work with your child?  Let us know what you think in the comments section below. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What discipline approach does your child’s school use?
  2. How do you think your child would fare in a setting using mindfulness approaches?

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