When things go wrong

Keep calm, stay connected and kick ass with consequences!

Why punishments are not effective, and how to make consequences have more traction – at home and at school. Reacting – do you have set-menu approach to discipline? How’s that serving you? Whether we’re at home or in class, when we are triggered by irritation by behavioural mishaps – or disappointed expectations, we need to watch for a tendency to go into reactive mode, where we tell off, raise voice, decree a punishment or an outcome. Irritation axes our social wifi. It reduces our ability to communicate, connect, listen, observe accurately, and respond. It reduces our humanity – we are the only species able to respond rather than react to stimuli – threats, encroachments, it means we go to our default thinking and default ways of being that might look like this: In school
• Negative scripts and attributions: ‘He just doesn’t care’
• Mind reading: ‘She’s doing it deliberately.’ ‘He’s winding me up!’
• Decreeing: ‘That’s three behaviour points.’
• Closing down: ‘There’s no excuse’
At home, after the FIFTH time of asking, your kid has STILL not extricated herself from Minecraft, got off their bed, put their shoes on, taken the bins out.
• Any of the above.
• Being judgmental, ‘What a stupid thing to do.’
• Shaming ‘You stupid girl’
• Auto-punishments – ‘Right – no more ipad’
• Shutting down ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ ‘That’s enough from you.’
• Going to defcon one ‘Go to your room’

Ever find yourself so provoked by your kids you turn into your hulk-self? Catching yourself turning into the parent you swore you’d never be? Are you a teacher who prides yourself on being calm, listening and having good relationships? But pushed to the limits by the deterioration in behaviour, focus, social and emotional maturity that results from the disruptions of the past year?Newsflash, when we feel disrespected, unseen, unheard, the bad feeling can be contagious – we push it back out, and before we know it we are in disconnection – playing offence / defence tennis.

In school life, and in my work delivering pastoral training to teachers, it is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that a mechanical approach to rewards and sanctions tends to be limited. Before I have school leaders and those whose mantra is consistency leaping out of their chairs, what I mean is that if we are automatic in our responses, and do not act to preserve relationship and have nuance as to the context of problematic behaviour, things will tend to backfire over time. Discipline – means ‘learning’, and we learn in relationship to one another. Discipline has nothing to do with toughness, strictness, and punishment. The good get increasingly rewarded and recognised, and recidivists will continue to accrue demerits and detentions. Behaviour / rewards and sanctions policies are helpful – and there needs to be reasonable consistency in their application, BUT they are not the silver bullet. Simply recording your dissatisfaction on the school database without dialogue may be cathartic, but changes little in terms of behaviour change. We talk of ‘behaviour management’ – but this term is somewhat strangely applied. IN truth, we have very limited power to manage the behaviour of anyone other than ourselves. What we need to be doing is teaching the kids how to manage their OWN behaviour. And this goes for parenting too. 

Relationship is all – and to be in relationship, we need to be in connection. This is what makes an outstanding teacher. And an outstanding parent. When children don’t meet our expectations, it is vital we go to the why and move to the how they can move forward in a better way. If we stay with the WHAT they did and WHAT the punishment will be, we are surely missing a trick. And the research is with me – whether we are looking at star chart incentives, or incentives in the workplace, carrot and stick approaches do not work to engage. When our kids and the kids and teens in our care get things wrong, parents and teachers have a shared fear, that we might be letting them ‘get away’ with it, that as the old testament wisdom has it, we might ‘spare the rod’ – lose our authority, and ‘spoil the child’, fail to instill the right moral and behavioural social compass. The problem is, our negativity bias, which – coupled with fear – is an accumulator. Once we spot a fault – whether it’s our toddler snatching, kicking, biting – or a teenager caught out in a lie at school or at home, the fault sticks. We say we’ll keep our eye on them and indeed we do, and it is so easy to get into a downward spiral of catching them getting it wrong, instead of catching them getting it right. This is exhausting – we chase them down the drain with correction.
• Don’t stand there.
• Don’t fidget!
• Don’t lean back on your chair.
• Don’t speak while other people are talking.
And if you heap on the embarrassment factor of shame by this happening in a public forum – especially in the theatre of the classroom – even if no shaming words are used, the repetition and the absence of good interactions most children and teens – and colleagues – will disengage. They will create scripts along the lines of them being no good, you disliking them, you being unfair. And they become even harder to reach by developing a carapace – a hard, unreceptive exterior for self protection. Your words will bounce off them, and your consequences will be received as persecutory and so drowned by the noise of the inner narrative of disconnection that no learning takes place. The former – catching them getting it wrong, we know, is disconnecting and disengaging and leads to micromanagement, and less responsibility. The latter – catching them getting it right – is connecting, encouraging, motivating, helping to ‘broaden and build’ more of the good stuff – in the words of positive psychologist and author Barbra Fredrickson. 

Practical thoughts – Getting consequential Accountability and staying in relationship – a framework.

  1. Know your triggers.
  2. Be self aware, and exercise self-care. You need to self-manage your triggers around the teens and children in your life – whether professional or personal. Unless immediate safety is at risk, you don’t have to ‘deal’ with everything in the moment.
  3. You can circle back and be more responsive when you’ve created a gap between the catalyst, and your response. When you do, you need to connect with them in order to have a proper accountability conversation:
    o What you know about the golden thread of the story of them
    o What you have noticed about their strengths
    o What you have seen that’s of concern
    o Why you are concerned – what’s the impact, the importance
    o What’s their take on what happened
    o What they felt about it – and about the reactions to it?
    o How they feel that approach might serve them going forward?
    o What they want to do about it?
    o What can they do to make repair that will also help them approach this more constructively?
    The gorgeous thing about an accountability conversation – if it’s done well it’s a win-win. You don’t have to magically think up the perfect punishment to fit the ‘crime’ – they design the repair (so they have ownership of it) together with you – giving you the chance to catch them getting something right. IF this is done to your satisfaction, and executed well, you can then use discretion about a formal sanction and explain why to them.Parental context. You don’t over use the same tired sanctions that make eg ipad use a battleground and send everything they do online underground because you’ve made their digital life at the heart of your battleground.
  4. Be strategic. Know what are your red light issues – of crucial importance, that you will ALWAYS uphold with rigour and consistency. Your amber light issues – still important – but you will respond in a context-specific way. Your green light issues – these tend to be low level irritations that you can deal with in a discretionary way in order to consolidate the more important areas higher up the chain. Green light issues tend to be low level triggers that continually create red mist in your relationship – but get in the way of the bigger picture stuff, in relational terms, you can’t see the wood for the trees.
  5. Shift your mindset. Control the only thing you can control – you. Your goal is to have authority. If you ‘lose it’ – by shouting – or by being overly harsh, trigger-happy, or crude with a sanction – you lose authority – and it all becomes less about their behaviour and their responsibility – and all about YOUR behaviour instead. It’s a classic distractor. Any form of emotional reactivity on our part – passive aggression, lashing out, caving in – we don’t just make it worse – we create a situation where they feel licensed to work harder to tune us out.
  6. Give choices, and consequences. We are not responsible for our children’s behaviour. OR the behaviour of the children we teach. The whole point is to teach them to manage their behaviour. According to Hal Runkel. You can put the work in steadily now, or you can leave it all to the last minute. We can recognise their autonomy and choice. And we can outline with them the natural consequences of those choices. But we can’t force them to actually do the work, clean their room, be nice to other people, the whole point is to teach them to manage their own behaviour. And allow them to learn by experience. They never do this if we step in to fix / solve / rescue them. One of the top complaints about teenagers is that they are irresponsible. But how can they be – if parents and teachers have been responsible for them all along? We need to discharge our responsibility to them as parents and as teachers. But that’s different to taking responsibility for them. Always ask yourself – who is doing the most work? Who is doing the most caring eg about their coursework. Sometimes we have to step back in order for our kids and our pupils to step up.
  7. Punishment vs consequence, punishment is a form of retribution. A consequence is a natural or logical outcome that results from one’s behaviour. Consequences which are set up as learning experiences will work better if they teach the young person / your child what to do differently next time. Consequences are intended to modify behaviour in a positive way. An accountability sequence that covers a reflection on:
    o Situation
    o Behaviour
    o Impact
    o Repair
    If I don’t focus in class, I don’t take in the information, If I don’t take measures to capture what’s going on by making notes, I won’t be able to recall, if I can’t recall, I can’t learn, or take next steps on accurate / solid foundations. A task oriented consequence could be to show the notes to the teacher eg in the homework diary / exercise book on the way out of class. At home, if a child stays out beyond curfew – a natural consequence could be to come back an hour earlier to show he / she can do it. Once they have shown they can do it over a defined short period, then go back to the previous curfew. At home, if a child has had a violent outburst – have a consequence that replicates what would happen in real life if you assaulted someone – time alone in your room. Consequences need to be time specific – not too long that they give up (eg no swearing for 3 days – long enough to work at – not so long that it’s impossible). Grounding or removing a phone or an ipad for a month will be too long. As a parent it’s going to be hard to stick to because they will wear you down. You’ll get distracted or forget, and your authority will be busted. 
  8. In order to influence them, we have to stop trying to control them. Keep the end in mind – we are raising adults who need to be self-directed and independent. Able to stand on their own two feet and learn from consequences. At school, this is best done by clearly communicating choices, consequences, praising and savouring all the small steps on the way – helping keep track of progress – and having good, timely check-ins with the pupil to find out if something’s not happening – why not, and when things are steering the wrong way –bringing in colleagues and parents. Manage this without surprises. But for parents, teachers , schools leaders, don’t get mad, get matter of fact. Avoid the punitive. It’s messy – they will make mistakes – but that’s how they learn. So at home – your room is your room. IF you keep it a mess, there are consequences. No one else will want to be there. It will smell. You won’t find stuff. Their clothes will be robbled and look a fright when they want to wear them. You can let them discover that from the inside out – by giving them choice and parameters, e.g., once every 3 weeks you’re going to deep clean it on a Saturday / Sunday morning. It is liberating to you to empower them to make mistakes, repair and learn from them. This is how they build up self-esteem and self-regard.
     Let them taste the consequences of their actions. If it affects others – good. They will learn from that. They have the power to make other people late, but they will also have to deal with the irritation and fall out from that. When you do X, it makes us feel Y. Nonviolent communication (Marshall Rosenberg). 
  9. Make sure you ask about how they feel, what they want, how they see the bigger picture around their behaviour. What are their strengths? Don’t just talk about their faults and weaknesses. Help them step into the 3 platforms of self-determination:
    o Autonomy – it’s their life, their choice, what if they do, what if they don’t, will they be at peace with that?
    o Competency – they feel that it is within their capacity. What they can do – what their possibilities are, past strengths, past achievements that might come to bear, helping them spot and savour and track the small steps that help build lasting change, (we feel failure at 10 times the volume of these baby steps for change )
    o Relatedness – get them to want to work at it, so why it might matter to them – now / in the future, and also why it matters to their relationships in the family, in the classroom, in the team etc.
  10. Makes sure you say what you mean – and you mean what you say. Stay calm. Be consistent. Be consequential, and kick ass!

Of course, all of the above, is often a lot easier to write than DO – especially in the moment – or when locked into a pattern of conflict and reactivity. Sometimes certain issues bring things up in us that are hard to separate out in our minds and be effective, reflective, strategic. If this is so, consider coaching. With love and gratitude, Emma.

More to explore