In early childhood, the foundational concepts of a "child-led" practice could be seen as being in direct conflict with the concept of a discipline policy. Discipline surely implies something adult-led. The word "discipline" feels (and is) unpleasant, controlling, a top down delivery, and connected with punishment designed to alter, end, or influence behaviors.
And yet, each year, during tours and open houses, parents will ask about our discipline policy. They ask because that question is on a list of things parents are supposed to ask when they visit a family day care, center, or school. They ask because their child was bit or knocked down or wrangled at another place and they don't want that to happen anymore. They ask because their child bites or knocks down or wrangles and they don't know what to do. They ask because they want to learn, because they want to know, because they want to agree. They ask because the question is important and the answer matters.
We are required to include a "Discipline Policy" in our parent handbook. For seventy-five years, since the school earned its Certificate of Education from our State's Department of Education, we have shared this discipline policy with parents. Interestingly, just as our play-based approach has not changed, the policy itself has not fundamentally changed over the years. Currently, its first sentence reads,
We move from this idea of "discipline" and its negative connotations in order to support something that is better described as one of guidance, of scaffolding, and these are the words that lead how we approach "discipline" at our school. As a parent cooperative, we provide ongoing training for parents. Guidance and scaffolding -- training parents how to observe children's play in order to stop the bite, the shove, the grab before they happen -- are central themes in our parent education curriculum.
What does this look like though?
I often describe it as time "in." If we have spent our time properly observing play (which is how children interact) then we know why a conflict occurred. Is it because of resources? Is there only one shovel? One truck? Was it limited space (or what we call "proximity")? Were people too physically close? Was it about ideas? Did one person see a situation or play idea differently than another? Once we have established the "what came before" then we know how to approach the melt down or fall apart -- those heartfelt and physical expressions of frustration or failures to make a connection.
We have a series of verbal and visual cues that we teach all the children and parents. The best one is simply teaching that each human (adult and child) has personal space. It can be measured by an arm's length, but sometimes it is even bigger. And in every case, conflicts are addressed with meetings. Most of these meetings take place before anything has even happened and others take place after or even the next day. Once on the first day of school, three "best" friends walked in and immediately asked for a meeting about something that happened even before they came to school.
These cues are used to simply signal a need and these often are all that is needed to refocus and recenter so that the play can continue unhindered. We have a second set of cues that will help with what happens "after" the bite, the shove, the grab, once the physical or emotional hurt has been addressed. These will walk a parent through how to allow the children to problem-solve their own way through the conflict.
We publicly shape the agree-to-agree/disagree and model problem-solving techniques together with the children, and then with careful, collaborative observations, we move towards and past conflict, we guide the way to live together in community. Punishment for miscues and misbehaviors will really get you nowhere. We do not have a posted behavior expectation chart, created by the children or otherwise. Human behavior is much too fluid and big to nail down in a list. We hold meetings. We talk. We see each other. We spend time learning about the individual.
Over the summer, it was especially gratifying to see the older children who had attended our school when they were little independently lead the preparation and/or resolution meetings. It was even better to watch a whole crew of children, unfamiliar with our approach, experience it for the first time. The look on their faces showing that moment of realization followed by the recognition that their participation and contributions mattered -- it was priceless.