A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Mindful discipline: Promoting the social-emotional well-being of students
Punishment won’t help our students learn and grow from their mistakes
By Greg Gero | January | February 2024
Jesse, a 4th grade student, sits in a chair outside my office with arms crossed and a scowl. In a fit of anger, he had barreled headfirst into a classmate during recess, causing his victim physical discomfort and hurt feelings. This being the third time in two days that Jesse had been sent to the principal’s office, I consider what I might say to address his behavior and help him move toward a better path.
Having studied student behavior through the lens of psychology and motivation over the past three decades, I knew what wouldn’t help Jesse — lecturing him about the inappropriateness of his actions, his failure to follow school rules, or how much trouble he was in. Although it might make him feel bad about his behavior, none of these would be likely to promote Jesse’s reflection, let alone prevent him from committing similar actions in the future.
Instead, I would confront Jesse with a practice I call mindful discipline — a three-step approach based on psychology and brain research. During our interaction, I would focus on creating a connection with him, confronting him with his behavior, and helping him see a path towards redemption. I knew this would help Jesse reflect on his behavior, take responsibility for his actions and think about how he could make things right. Importantly, we might emerge from this situation with a greater sense of trust, one that could be built upon to help Jesse make more appropriate choices that lead toward social and emotional well-being.
Being clear about the goal
As educators, one of our most important goals is to help our students learn how to lead happy, productive and successful lives. We want them to grow into healthy and fulfilled adults, with the ability to manage their emotions, empathize with others and live with integrity.
When students make decisions that cause harm to themselves and others, it can be challenging to maintain a focus on the long-term goals that we have for them. Genuine feelings of disapproval and anger often arise within us, triggering the urge to reprimand and punish. To be clear, imposing a consequence for a student’s misbehavior can be a legitimate response to the harm done to a victim, while also promoting reflection and emotional growth. But far too often we succumb to knee-jerk responses, focusing on retribution and shame while sacrificing opportunities to help students learn and grow from their actions. Our own emotional response steers attention to short-term situations, preventing thoughtful consideration of our long-term goals.
As I prepare to meet with Jesse, I take note of the anger I feel about his repeated misbehavior, the harm he has caused his classmate and the tense conversations I am likely to have with both Jesse’s and the victim’s parents. I am mindful of these feelings, without judging them as justified or wrong, and I set them aside. I know that the extent to which I can approach this interaction with a clear mind, the more skillful I can be in confronting Jesse in a way that will lead to a productive resolution.
Step 1: Connect
Among the most important strategies I’ve acquired is forming a connection with the student before confronting the misbehavior. This connection, which can take place rather quickly, essentially communicates to the child: In spite of your misbehavior, I still see you as an important and worthy person, and I care about you. Researchers Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2012) describe this as building a staircase from the downstairs brain (ruled by emotions and impulses) to the upstairs brain (where thinking, problem-solving and reflection occur).
Children who are fresh from an emotional incident are often dwelling in their downstairs brain. Their states of mind are not conducive to a reflective conversation where they might take responsibility for their actions and think about how to learn from their mistakes. Taking a moment to affirm their worthiness of respect and care helps to release the “fight or flight” impulse and provides permission to be vulnerable and open to a conversation about their behavior.
Surprisingly, forming this connection can take just a few seconds. An acknowledgment that this has been a difficult day, or asking about the student’s family, are two examples of how a connection can be created. At other times it takes longer for a child to move into a receptive mindset, but it’s generally not productive to move to the next step before the connection occurs. Of course, the tone and authenticity matters more than the actual words. Hints of sarcasm or insincerity trigger feelings that “this is not a safe space to be vulnerable,” leading the child to burrow more deeply within the downstairs brain.
I approach Jesse, who sits slumped in his chair, and I crouch down next to him. Our eyes are level, but he keeps his gaze at the carpet. I gently put my hand on his shoulder and say, “I know this has been a tough couple of days for you. We’ll get through this, and I’m going to help you.” Although Jesse doesn’t look up, there’s a palpable change in his demeanor and he emits an audible exhale. Together, we walk into my office.
Step 2: Confront
One of the essential strategies in mindful discipline is to shift the confrontation from between the student and the authority figure, to a confrontation between the student and the behavior. It is all too typical for students’ thoughts to be consumed by their feelings about the authority figure: Why do I always end up the one in trouble? What punishment am I going to be given? Does my teacher even like me? While these thoughts may naturally arise, the real problem is that it prevents the student from thinking about the things that might lead to accepting responsibility for the behavior, learning from mistakes and finding a productive resolution.
Holding up the mirror: I often use the metaphor of placing a mirror in front of the student while I stand at the student’s side in a supportive role. The mirror metaphor, first introduced by Dr. Peter Gero (my father), reframes the relationship between the adult and the child. The mirror represents the student’s behavior, and I use the tools of paraphrasing and questioning to facilitate a confrontation.
“So, since you thought it would be funny, you decided to embarrass your classmate in front of the class. And this seems OK to you?”
My goal during this confrontation is for the student to take responsibility for the behavior, and importantly, for the student (rather than the adult) to explain why it was inappropriate. I might even play devil’s advocate to make a stronger point:
“But what if you’re pretty sure the classmate will know that you’re just joking around. Then, it might be OK to embarrass her, right?”
Sometimes, students have a really difficult time taking responsibility for their actions, especially if it feels especially serious or severe. One tool that can be effective is to create a safer entry point. Students are much more likely to acknowledge their misbehavior when asked, “Did you make a mistake?” Once a student takes this initial step, it can be much easier to facilitate a conversation about the significant details of the situation.
Principal: Jesse, tell me what happened at recess today.
Jesse: Nothing! I was just playing on my own, and someone ran into me.
Principal: It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth when you make a mistake. I know a lot of students who just aren’t able to tell the truth because they’re afraid about getting in trouble. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it makes it worse when they’re not honest. Jesse, I value our trust, and I hope you’ll have the courage to tell me the truth. I’m pretty sure I know what happened, and this will be a lot easier if you’re honest with me. Then, we can focus on finding a way to make this better.
Jesse: I am telling you the truth!
Principal: Did you get a little angry at recess and make a mistake?
Jesse: Yeah, kind of.
Principal: Did someone get hurt?
Jesse: Yeah, I think so.
As the conversation continues, I help Jesse acknowledge his mistakes and understand what led to these actions. I validate his emotions, reminding him that he’s not in trouble for feeling angry, but that he has had difficulty managing his emotions.
Step 3: Restore
The final step in mindful discipline provides the student with an opportunity to repair the harm, make things right and restore feelings of self-worth. This is more meaningful if the student has agency in determining how to accomplish this.
Typically, the authority figure dictates the terms — for the next three days, you will sit in the office during your recess time. Although the consequence may seem appropriate, it is unlikely to promote lasting change in the student’s behavior. It steers the student’s thoughts back to confronting the authority figure and away from reflecting and learning from the situation.
During our interaction, I would focus on creating a connection with him, confronting him with his behavior, and helping him see a path towards redemption. I knew this would help Jesse reflect on his behavior, take responsibility for his actions and think about how he could make things right.
Making a slight tweak can make a world of difference! By asking the student how he can make things right, or what he thinks a fair consequence would be, it grants a meaningful role to the student and affirms a sense of agency. Decades of research led by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan point to the crucial role that a sense of autonomy plays in an individual’s motivation and behavior (Deci, 1995). In study after study, Deci and Ryan have shown how the absence of agency tends to make us feel manipulated and controlled, which may lead to short-term compliance but not lasting changes in behavior. Of course, students won’t always propose a reasonable consequence, and there’s no requirement to accept their proposal. Interestingly, I’ve found students often suggest a far more punitive consequence than what would be appropriate, giving the adult an opportunity to serve as their advocate. However, had the adult first proposed the consequence, it would have felt very different. Students don’t need to be given full rein in order to feel a sense of autonomy. Sometimes, it is appropriate to provide the student with suggestions or options to choose from. This can be especially helpful for young children who don’t have the background knowledge to draw from. Students can be given a few examples of how others have successfully fixed similar problems, and then asked if they’d like to pursue one of them. There are times, however, when a significant consequence is called for, and the student may not have a say in the matter. In my work, this has most often occurred when a student suspension has been warranted or required due to the nature and severity of the incident. When this occurs, I have found it best to ensure two things: 1) Define the suspension as a required consequence due to rules and laws, rather than as a punishment; and 2) Emphasize that there will still be an opportunity to make things right. Discuss what the student will do after the suspension to make things right. In other words, the narrative should not end with the punishment — the student needs an opportunity for redemption. Principal: Jesse, I want you to know that you showed a lot of courage by telling the truth about what you did. You also strengthened our trust. Jesse: Yeah, I guess so. Principal: So, given that your classmate is probably feeling angry and hurt, how can you make things right? Jesse: I guess I can say sorry. Principal: Apologizing might be a good start, but I think it might take more to fix this one. I share two ideas with Jesse: Writing a letter of apology or creating a poster showing what he will do the next time he feels angry. Jesse decides he’d like to write the letter. Principal: Jesse, this is the third time since yesterday that you’ve been sent to my office. What do you think a fair consequence would be? Jesse: Probably sit out of recess for the rest of the week. Principal: That sounds fair. How about this: Tomorrow, during recess, I’d like you to stay with the counselor on the yard and notice what students do when they get angry. This probably happens more than you realize. Tomorrow, you can report to me what you noticed. How does that sound? Jesse: OK, I can do that. Why this matters now Although the steps in mindful discipline don’t always unfold in ways that can be predicted, the underlying principles have held true across a wide range of student discipline situations. Now more than ever, in the shadow of a pandemic that has had an indelible impact on the social-emotional well-being of so many students, we need approaches that address both the short-term incident and the long-term learning and growth of the child.
Corollary: Jesse (not his real name) experienced unspeakable trauma as a young child. While not an excuse for his behavior, his past made it even more important that I build a long-term trust with him. Now in middle school, Jesse’s journey continues to be challenging, and his behavior has resulted in multiple suspensions. Importantly, Jesse knows that I care about him, and he gives me a genuine bear hug every time he sees me. In our conversations, Jesse continues to be honest and vulnerable, allowing me to affirm him in spite of his mistakes, and provide mentorship and guidance.
Deci, E. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin Books.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Bantam Books.
Greg Gero, Ph.D., is director of Elementary Education at Monrovia Unified School District.