What is Positive Discipline?

Where did we ever get the crazy idea from that in order to make a child do better, first we have to make them feel worse. Children DO better when they FEEL better! (Jane Nelsen)

Nearly all children and teenagers behave challengingly at one point or another. The difficult circumstances in which EduMais’s kids grow up can further aggravate behavioural issues. To help them develop the social and life skills to be successful adults, we employ a classroom management model known as Positive Discipline.

Jane Nelsen developed this model by building on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs. She argues that many traditional disciplinary models treat discipline as synonymous with punishment. Positive Discipline, however, looks for more effective ways to develop student behaviour. It encourages them to develop self-control, learn from their mistakes, and ultimately make positive decisions for themselves.


Is Positive Discipline permissive?

While Positive Discipline avoids all punitive punishments, it would be a mistake to think it is permissive. Total permissiveness is not good for child development; they need a framework in which to find themselves.

Therefore, there are still consequences for breaking the rules at EduMais. But rather than punishment, we focus on helping the student to adapt their behaviours to meet classroom expectations. We ask them: what would be a better choice to make in the future? How could you find a way to deal with this problem? Would you like me to help you with that? Etc.

The students are also encouraged to have more investment in classroom rules by creating them at the beginning of the school year. Although directed by the teacher, every child has a space to air their voice and set the expectations for themselves. This way, Positive Discipline helps to create a democratic classroom space in which every child can feel a sense of belonging and significance. When this is the case, their behaviour improves drastically as they feel respected and listened to.

Understanding Misbehaviour

We believe that when a child is simply labelled as “badly behaved,” the underlying cause of their behaviour is overlooked. If they are always attention-seeking in the classroom, for example, it could be that they don’t receive enough attention at home. Their behaviour, however misguided, is an attempt to address a need they have that isn’t being met. They’re not behaving well because, at some level, they don’t feel well.

If we can identify a possible cause, then we are able to understand the student better. In turn, this helps us to work on their long-term behavioural development. 

To do this, we encourage the students to develop a greater understanding of their own emotions. When a child has a tantrum, for example, it is very easy to respond by telling them off and shouting. However, this often makes things worse. Their tantrum likely comes from a desire for attention. To shout back at them gives them this attention, albeit in a negative form. In the future, they are thus more likely to throw a tantrum again.

At EduMais, we don’t respond with shouting but model the behaviour we would like to see from the child. We react calmly, or in certain cases might even ignore the tantrum, so the student does not receive negative attention. We get the child to pause and ask them: “Would you like to step outside for a few moments? Then, when you feel ready to join us again, you can come back into the classroom.”

At this point, one of our co-teachers will often leave the classroom with the student and talk to them about their feelings. This is a vital step. It enables what neuroscientist Dan Siegel calls the “name it to tame it” process in the brain. Once children are able to identify particular emotions, they become more aware of exactly how they are feeling. Only then are they able to work on controlling these emotions and the behaviour that stems from them.

The Five Criteria for Positive Discipline

Nelsen identifies five criteria for Positive Discipline:

  1. To be mutually respectful and encouraging, Positive Discipline is both kind and firm at the same time. If you are only kind, you are likely being too permissive. If you are only firm, you are likely seeking to control the child too much. A balance between the two needs to be struck.
  2. Positive Discipline seeks to make a connection with the child so that they feel a sense of belonging and significance. When children feel connected, they both feel and behave better.
  3. Punishment may have a short-term effect on a child’s behaviour but it has negative long-term consequences. Positive Discipline, however, is much more effective long-term. It considers what children are thinking, feeling, learning and deciding about themselves and their world. It helps them discover what to do in the future to survive and thrive.
  4. Positive Discipline teaches children important social and life skills. These include respect, empathy, problem-solving skills, and cooperation, among many other things.
  5. Lastly, Positive Discipline invites children to discover how capable they are. They are encouraged to put their personal power and autonomy to constructive use, giving them a much greater chance of success in the future.
EduMais volunteers sat in a semi-circle while being trained in Positive Discipline
EduMais founder Diana Nijboer in front of the whiteboard in the classroom during a Positive Discipline training session

Positive Discipline in the EduMais Classroom

So what does this all mean for the EduMais classroom? How does Positive Discipline look in practice? Here are some examples.

One of our students is a leader and she needs to be in the lead. Yet this is not always possible. The danger is that she and the teacher become engaged in an unproductive power struggle. To avoid this, our teachers employ Positive Discipline.

Sometimes, when this student enters the classroom she wants to get her own way with where she sits. When this isn’t possible, she can refuse to sit. In this case, we give her two seating options in the room and tell her that she can decide between them. It only takes 20 seconds, or less, for her to make up her mind and sit in one of the two options. By offering her choices, we are able to appeal to her need for independence. At the same time, however, we have not given over our power and control. She has freedom within clearly defined limits.

At other times, the same student can refuse to participate in class because she doesn’t feel like it. We have found that when we give her a helpful task to do, like completing the attendance register for the class, she becomes much more cooperative. Though a simple task, it makes her feel valued and capable of contributing. It gives her the self-belief that she can learn, where before a lack of self-esteem had stopped her from engaging. 

Combination with the UERÊ-MELLO approach

EduMais combines the insights of Positive Discipline with the teaching methodology of UERÊ-MELLO. Based on decades of research by its founder, Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, this is an internationally recognised educational model for children and young people in areas of social risk.

Children who grow up in high-risk social areas are often traumatised by violence. As a result, they can develop learning difficulties and cognitive blocks. For example, they often struggle to associate, forget things easily, and their cognitive reasoning is slowed and impaired.

The UERÊ-MELLO approach offers several ways to combat these children’s cognitive difficulties. At EduMais, for instance, we implement the following methods:

  • To best serve the children’s learning needs, lessons are quick, creative, fun, and stimulating
  • The EduMais classroom is also a happy and interactive space where the children can learn free from feelings of anxiety.
  • To accommodate the children’s low attention spans, classroom exercises are varied and last no longer than 10 minutes for each individual exercise.
  • Many exercises involve work in pairs or small groups with our volunteer co-teachers to help with feelings of low self-esteem
  • To help our pupils construct a sense of security and self-belief, we return to and repeat topics throughout the year. As well as working on all aspects of their memory, this prevents them from becoming disheartened or believing that they cannot learn
EduMais volunteer English teacher Nikola helps out a student with his work over his shoulder
Two of EduMais's girl students make peace signs over their eyes in the classroom
EduMais founder Diana running Positive Discipline Training in Action for Teachers of Solar Meninos de Luz. Exercise Encouragement vs Enabling.

Other Common Strategies We Use

Positive instructions. When you tell a child not to do something – such as “don’t shout” etc. – they don’t always have a clear idea of what they should do instead. It is far better to tell them to speak quietly: it gives them a clear indication of the expected behaviour. We try wherever possible to give them such instructions.

Silent signals. When everyone in the classroom is raucous and excited, it can be tempting for the teacher to try and control the students by raising his or her voice. Yet a silent signal in this context is incredibly powerful. For example, when we need all students to be quiet we often just put one finger on our lips and wait until they are ready to listen. At first, we often had to wait a while for everyone to calm down. But now the students recognise this signal and quieten down much quicker than before!

Warm greetings. When our students enter the classroom, we give them a warm greeting and ask them how they are. If they feel particularly bad or blocked, the chance to express themselves freely can be very cathartic. They become calmer and better prepared to learn.

Classroom layout. Students sit in a horseshoe shape, creating a sense of openness. There is also no teacher’s desk in our classroom. Rather than constructing a “wall” between the teacher and students, this ensures a more democratic space.

All of our volunteers are trained by EduMais founder, Diana Nijboer, a certified Positive Discipline instructor. They are shown the tools needed to create happy, well-adjusted children who are keen to learn!

With your support, we can continue to develop our kids with our innovative methodology!


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