If you are concerned about the tendencies to over-use time outs, removal of playtime privileges, being isolated from the class, denied treats or ridiculing children in order to control behaviour then please feel free to cut and paste this letter, adapt it as you see fit, and spread widely. Let’s start a revolution in how schools manage children’s emotions! Come on, parents!! Lyndsey x

Dear Headteacher,

Re: Concerns about long-term implications of the school ‘positive’ discipline policy

I am writing to express my feelings of sadness and anxiety about your school behaviour policy.

The word discipline often gets confused with punishment. Discipline comes from the word disciple – which means to ‘instruct someone else in the way they should go’. Discipline in the correct interpretation of it is something good, positive and edifying. Misconstrued, it has the potential to cause repressed feelings, negative self-esteem and poor moral judgment.

The methods of ‘positive’ discipline mentioned in the recent parentmail email are based on control, focusing on the behaviour – not the feelings behind it, and an old-fashioned philosophy of rewarding good behaviour and punishing ‘bad’ behaviour. This is decidedly out of step with current scientific evidence base and recent learning into paediatric neurobehavioral, cognitive, developmental and psychosocial theory.

By way of further explanation, the brain is broadly composed of 3 major sections – the hindbrain, responsible for:

  • Basic bodily function
  • Homoeostasis (keeping things like blood pressure etc. regulated)
  • The fight/flight/fright/freeze adrenaline response
  • Producing some key hormones
  • This part of the brain is common to all animals, and is considered primitive. It is fully formed at birth.

The midbrain is responsible for:

  • Sensory functions
  • Motor control
  • Vision, hearing
  • Sleep/wake control

This is immature at birth but is largely hard-wired (through gentle, responsive and nurturing parenting) by the age of 3 years.

The forebrain is the part of the brain associated with higher brain functions such as:

  • Self-control
  • Empathy
  • Altruism
  • Problem solving
  • Compassion
  • Self-regulation and reflection

This part of the brain is not fully mature until a person is in their mid-twenties. This has massive implications for behaviour and parenting philosophies.

The problem with the behaviour modification strategies employed at this school, and most other schools around the country, is that they assume a child is more capable of self-regulation than they really are. Self-regulation (often known as self-soothing) is something that in recent years has been thought to be applicable to all children – even infants. In reality, the part of the brain associated with this extremely mature function is not developed until adulthood. This is why even teenagers lose self-control and lash out, experience aggression or have ‘meltdowns’.

When a child acts up, it is caused by an immature emotional response to the environment, a person, a scenario or circumstance. It provokes the amygdala (located in the hindbrain) to fire primitive emotional energy that is usually expressed in anger, crying, aggression or excitement. In dealing with the emotion behind the behaviour, you help the child to learn that emotions are not scary, that problems can be solved, that adults care about them and their feelings, and that their fear/stress/anger is just a feeling, not a permanent construct.

However, if you look only at the behaviour, the child never gets the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate. You see – children cannot self-regulate when they are very young. They begin to have some ability to do this when they are about 8 years old, but even then this is only an emerging skill and if they have not been coached then it will take even longer. They learn to self-regulate by having a calm adult help them process their feelings and regulate their stress levels.

Stress causes a hormonal surge of cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline will fuel the aggression and anger, and cortisol cripples the brain from thinking properly. It also hinders synapse formation and brain development. So a child in a state of stress will not learn properly until their emotional state has been regulated. The implication of this is that if you do not deal with the underlying feelings that provoked the behaviour, not only will the child not really learn from the event but also they won’t learn – period.

Taking time out as an example, the premise is that a child who is misbehaving will be removed from the group and given some time to reflect on their behaviour before coming to apologise. This assumes that the child possesses the ability to:

  • Self-regulate
  • Have empathy
  • Have self-awareness
  • Experience regret
  • Provoking them to apologise

Unfortunately, whilst this strategy may have the ‘quick fix’ of removing the problem, the likelihood is that problems are being stored up later in life because children are basically being told/shown that they are unacceptable unless they conform, and their emotions must be dismissed. It is much more likely that a child is feeling the following when placed in time out:

  • Shame (particularly toxic to the developing brain)
  • Anger at being removed
  • Isolation
  • Confusion – their immature feelings have not been dealt with so they are a confused mass of raw emotion
  • Repression – those feelings are not dealt with, so they go underground. Nothing has been learned that is positive in any way, and the child will repeat the behaviour until they naturally grow more mature – but the feelings are still repressed.

I am particularly chilled to learn of red and green marks by children’s names – visible to the entire class. What does this do to a developing child’s sense of acceptance, self-worth and esteem?

Many children will develop the very sensible (in the circumstances) response of ‘toeing the line’ during the school day, not because of a genuine internal locus of control, but because of fear of reprimand and ridicule. This stores up bad behaviour for the home environment. This is not so bad in homes where children feel unconditionally loved and accepted, because they have a safe outlet for their feelings and emotions, but I fear for the children whose parents use the same strategies at home. Of course, the school is a huge role model for many parents who know nothing of current behavioural and developmental psychology, so the problem is being compounded by parents who believe they are doing the right thing by adopting the school’s approach. This leaves children with nobody who is dealing with the underlying raw emotional feelings causing the behavioural response.

Children in the UK have some of the worst mental health in the developed world. More that 1/3 of children have insecure attachments to their parents, and adolescent conduct disorder, aggression and anti-social behaviour is getting worse. There is no evidence that the ‘positive’ discipline strategies used in middle childhood are actually helping to raise morally rounded, secure and emotionally articulate adults. This is an epidemic, and the school has a moral responsibility to be part of the solution.

We have to model how to behave, not demand it, for children to understand. We need to show compassion, empathy, and understanding and facilitate problem-solving rather than push the problem to the side and demand an apology.

Evidence suggests that when a child is aggressive, angry, or melting down, their hindbrain is totally in control, and this is very scary. We all have this response when we are stressed, angry or scared – imagine doing an important exam, or being late for an interview, or a critical appointment, or even being at the end of giving birth. You experience a range of very primitive physiological responses:

  • Heart racing
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Sweating
  • Butterflies in the stomach (this is cortisol being released from your adrenal glands)
  • Inability to think clearly

As adults, we possess the higher brain functions to be able to calm down and think rationally, by doing any number of strategies such as:

  • Deep breathing
  • Rationalisation (what’s the worst that could happen? come on, calm down, it’ll be ok)
  • Mindfulness
  • Calling a trusted friend or family member

But as I have already mentioned, a child does not possess those abilities until they are much older. They require an adult to name their emotion so that they can link the primitive feeling to an intelligent label, which they can understand. This is known by many paediatric neurobehavioural psychologists as ‘name it to tame it,’ and is based on an experiment where adults were shown a series of faces on a screen displaying an obvious emotional reaction. When the adults saw an angry or scary face they all had a response deep in their amygdala mirroring the emotion on the screen. Next, the adults were told to name the emotion they saw on the faces on the screen, and this time, the part of the brain that lit up was the higher brain – showing that having an intelligent rather than primal response to the visual stimuli was calming and regulatory.

In the same way, we can help children to better understand their emotions by first showing the child that they are accepted unconditionally. You will not engage the child any further unless you first calm them down and stop their primitive brain from taking control of their actions. Then you name their emotion – guess if you’re unsure, and check that you got it right by asking the child. Only then can you effectively deal with the problematic behaviour.

A summary of a better approach to dealing with bad behaviour is as follows:

  1. Child misbehaves
  2. Ensure that other children are ok
  3. Connect with the child using eye contact, getting to their level, and showing concern and compassion
  4. Empathise with their feelings first – ‘you must have been so angry to have thrown/hit/whatever’
  5. Reinforce the boundary gently i.e. ‘ it is never ok to hit/throw/etc.’
  6. Model empathy for others i.e. ‘ how do you think …… felt when you did that?’ If you get a shrug, or no response – this is normal. Try asking ‘how do you think you would feel if someone did that to you?’ If you still get no response, suggest the feeling ‘do you think you would feel happy or sad?’ This has to be asked in a gentle voice or you will trigger the amygdala to react again. You are trying to engage the child’s higher brain function here.
  7. Come up with a solution together i.e. ‘what do you think you could do to make this all feel ok again?’

I commend the book ‘No Drama Discipline’ by Dr Daniel Siegel to you for a more in depth explanation and further solutions.

I do hope you will consider this point of view seriously, and I humbly ask for the staff to consider an alternative approach to behaviour, which will coach and nurture the pupils towards better behaviour for the long term, driven internally rather than through fear or embarrassment.

With my best wishes,

A concerned parent

Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, birth trauma recovery practitioner and holistic sleep and behaviour coach, and is also a respected International speaker and the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program. You can pLyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.