Compassionate Discipline

By Maddie Pribanova, CEI Intern

When we think of discipline, we think of authority, control and rigid rules. To be disciplined is often associated with thoughts or even memories of punishment as a way to correct disobedience and reinforce acceptable behavior. However, discipline plays a fundamental role in establishing healthy behavior and building important skills such as self-discipline, respect for others, and the ability to work in a team. A study in 2014 of almost 1,000 adolescents is representative of other research: Wang and Kenny found that experiences of unhealthy discipline could have adverse effects such as low self-esteem and poor emotional regulation, and that harsh discipline was associated with higher levels of child aggression, and behavioral and psychological maladjustment. Unfortunately, a high percentage of parents appear to use harsh verbal discipline, at least a few times each year, sometimes resulting in lasting trauma for their children (Strauss & Field, 2003).

Opinions about disciplinary style continue to be debated.  Some parents and educators choose to send children into ‘time-out,’ while others may try to avoid conflict, use ‘natural consequences’ or not discipline at all.  While the term ‘discipline’ is sometimes used as if there is only one broad category of discipline, some forms of discipline are more effective than others. Children learn what they see and experience, which means we must be mindful the type of disciplinary styles we choose to employ.  The implications for school are profound.  Imagine a child who is harshly disciplined at home only to encounter fluctuations in discipline at school.  Perhaps the child’s second-grade teacher tends to be lenient, and the following year, the student’s teacher is a strict disciplinarian. With concern over this inconsistency, many, and perhaps even most, schools have developed schoolwide discipline policies and protocols. Certainly, this is an important step towards helping students understand expectations and consequences for misbehaviors.

Discipline through Understanding Children and Providing Positive Examples

Compassionate discipline encourages us to think about disciplinary approaches in a new way, going beyond considerations for schoolwide consistency, to consider factors that underly misbehaviors. It approaches discipline as a moral act and seeks to reinforce acceptable behavior through examining the child’s thoughts and feelings and setting a positive example (Bryant & McCamish, 2015).


  1. In the first component, respect is understood as seeing children as individuals, whereby their views, feelings and behaviours are accepted and appreciated.

  2. Collaboration represents a working together with children, cooperating with them and adapting to their needs.

  3. Limitation refers to setting boundaries in a healthy way. In compassionate discipline children’s personal development and independence is key with appropriate limits and boundaries set to ensure their safety (Wasserman, 2016).

The Difference Between Punishment And Discipline

As Albert Bandura wrote “punishment can control misbehavior, but itself it will not teach desirable behaviour or even reduce the desire to misbehave” (as cited in Wasserman, 2016). Increasing evidence has found that punishment such as spanking or verbal scoldings predict children’s aggression, causing them to not just repress anger but also desire revenge (Gershoff, 2013; Sigsgaard, 2005). Sigsgaard (2005) has suggested that children do not distinguish physical or verbal violence and both result in negative affects on children. In Unconditional Parenting (2005), Alfie Kohn writes about punishment leading to self-centeredness in children and as a result becomes ineffective. When children are punished, the focus is on the type of punishment and its consequences, rather than understanding how their wrongdoing has affected others and how it can be made better.

Accountability. Compassionate discipline rejects the idea of punishment and focuses on discipline through accountability. Parents and teachers are encouraged to show disapproval and discuss the children’s actions with them (Faber & Mazlish, 2003). Showing children and discussing the cause and effect of their wrongdoing enables them to understand and learn the acceptable form of behavior in a more positive and empowering way.

Relationship over Control

Our perception of childhood influences how we discipline. Historically, as the English proverb states “children are to be seen and not heard” suggests, children are of less important than adults. Seeing children as underdeveloped and irrational humans leads to forms of discipline and treatment that subordinates the child, a typical cause of low self-esteem in later life (Entin, 2013). In contrast, compassionate discipline encourages parents and teachers to choose relationship over control (Barrera & Kramer, 2009). The type of discourse and power exerted over children is particularly important as discipline is also about modelling the correct type of behavior.

  1. When a parent or teacher sets a limitation, they are encouraged to explain the reasoning behind it.

  2. Creating a dialogue involves children in the disciplinary process, allowing them to be included in the rule making and problem-solving process.

  3. Helping a child understand why a particular limitation is in place has been shown to be far more successful than an authoritarian ‘because I said so’ response. It also allows children to develop communication skills that encourage a more confident and healthy way of working with others.

Self-Discipline

In a world where young people’s mental health issues are rapidly on the rise, a growing number of special projects are teaching children and adolescents to communicate their feelings and recognize their own emotions. Understanding one’s feelings plays an essential role in a person’s well being (Gross & Munoz, 1995). Studies have shown how an inability to recognize and cope with emotions can lead to depression and  other issues such as eating disorders (Berking & Wupperman, 2012). Repressing one’s feelings often comes from a fear that an emotion is not acceptable. This is a frequently a consequence of one’s emotions being disregarded and invalidated (Wasserman, 2016).


When we discipline, we must consider the types of norms and values we want to instill in our children and the future of the world. Compassionate discipline focuses on showing and teaching children independence, self-awareness and an empathetic relationship with others. Planting these seeds helps nurture far more compassion in an increasingly divided world.






References

Barrera, I. & Kramer, L. (2009). Using skilled dialogue to transform challenging interactions honoring identity, voice, and connection. Baltimore, MD.: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co.

Berking, M. & Wupperman, P. (2012). Emotion regulation and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 25, 2, 128-134.

Bryant, W.M. & McCamish, C., (2015) Breaking all the rules: Radically reinventing moral education through compassionate discipline. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 6, 1, pp. 26-41

Entin, E. (2013). The damage yelling can do.  The Doctor Will See You Now.

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2003). How to talk so kids can learn: What every parent and teacher needs to know at home and in school. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 133’“137. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12038.

Gross, J.J., Munoz, R., F. (1995). Emotional regulation and mental health, Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2, 2, 151-164.

Kohn, A. (2006). Unconditional parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Sigsgaard, E. (2005). Scolding: Why it hurts more than it helps. New York: Teachers College.

Straus, M.A., & Field C.J. (2003). Psychological aggression by American parents: National data on prevalence, chronicity, and severity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65:795’“808. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00795.x.

Wang, M. T., & Kenny, S. (2014). Longitudinal links between fathers’ and mothers’ harsh verbal discipline and adolescents’ conduct problems and depressive symptoms. Child Development, 85, 3, 908-923.

Wasserman, J. (2016). Compassionate discipline: A study of research and practice. New York: Bank Street College of Education.