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Disciplinary Style

Elementary School Expert Advice from Barbara Potts

Q: My eight-year-old son seems to constantly irritate the other children in his class and usually the teacher has to talk to him three or four times. He doesn't think what he's doing is wrong. Some weeks are great and then we can go for two weeks and not even have one good day. It is so frustrating!

I'm not a very strict disciplinarian and always try for the positive -- I'll pay him for a good day or I'll buy him a slushy or we'll go out somewhere. I have now started to threaten him with telling his father or taking away his TV privileges. What do you suggest?

A: It sounds like you have tried lots of things across the spectrum. Children respond best to consistency, and you should decide on one approach and stick to it over a long period of time. It's confusing to children when different expectations and consequences come from different people. Sit down with your son's father and try to compromise on your approach. You may want to check in your public library or a book store for a book on a positive discipline approach to which you can both agree. Let your son's teacher know what you are planning to do and ask that he or she send you a daily note (could be as simple as a check mark or a smiley face) to let you know how his day went.

With your son's input, decide on one or two behaviors on which you can work first. Put your expectation in positive terms: "Johnny will talk nicely to others". Then determine the reward he will earn when he does this for a day and the consequence he will receive when he does not. Rewards don't have to cost money -- talking nicely to others for one day can earn an extra bedtime story or a walk around the block just with you, while talking nicely to others for two or three days in one week can earn having a friend over to play on the weekend. Be sure to set the goal at an achievable level, then increase the amount of time required to earn it as your son's behavior improves.

The key to any system like this is consistency. You must enforce the rewards and consequences every time in the same way. Also, talk with the school counselor -- she may be able to give your son some individual attention.

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Barbara Potts has worked as an elementary school counselor for many years. She has a BA in psychology from Wake Forest University, and an M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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