How to teach children self-discipline

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

NEW YORK -- Call it self-discipline, self-control, self-management, or merely doing what you know you should do even when no one is looking. We all know teaching kids to do the right thing is no easy task.

Dr. Richard E. Bavaria, a.k.a. "Dr. Rick," Ph.D. and senior vice president for education outreach for Sylvan Learning, gives advice on the best tactics for teaching children self-discipline:

It's a topic every parent, teacher, and coach faces now and then, and it's getting some high-profile attention lately.

There are some common-sense considerations to keep in mind. Experienced parents, teachers and anyone else who works with kids have their personal tips and ideas for success. Here are some of them.

1. Start early. This is rule #1 for just about any behavior you want to teach to kids. The longer you wait to teach self-control, the more bad habits to overcome. Same for teaching study skills, high expectations, organizational expertise, and playing fair. Even the smallest kids can learn to help clean up their toys, for example.

2. Have routines. Routines help kids learn. Have simple routines that help kids control their behavior. Wash your hands. Pick up after yourself. Put your coat on the hook, not on the floor. Brush your teeth. As routines become second-nature, the self-discipline does, too.

3. Take corrections positively. Teaching kids to hear corrections without defensiveness gives them the ability to learn quickly no wasting time with excuses and squabbling and then move on to the next thing. It takes confidence to learn. Give your kids confidence.

4. Encourage disciplined activities. When kids are engaged in activities that require self-discipline, they enjoy the fun as well as the confidence they're learning. Playing sports, performing music, acting in a play, caring for a pet, mowing a lawn, being an acolyte at church, all develop self-discipline and give a sense of accomplishment.

5. Provide a process. Teachers find that giving students steps in a process how to write a descriptive paragraph, how to multiply three-digit numbers, how to draw a landscape, how to swim the butterfly makes a complicated task much more manageable. Kids like the structure, and they're much more likely to succeed. With your kids, develop the steps to cleaning their room, brushing their teeth, setting the table.

6. Have rules. Easy-to-follow rules help. Screen time only when homework is done. Privileges depend on report card grades. Allowance predicated on chores completed. Play nicely and fairly with each other. Be punctual.

7. Have rewards and consequences. Praise successes, no matter how small. Kids want to succeed, they want to please us, and our praise means something to them when it's earned. (They recognize false praise, which does only harm and no good.) Also, have consequences when their behavior is not satisfactory. A short time-out, a few minutes earlier bedtime, a loss of playtime

8. Teach about short- and long-term rewards. Delayed self-gratification is one of humankind's most difficult lessons. But it really is better to celebrate after the science fair project is done rather to put it off and have it hanging over your head as you watch TV.

9. Recognize that learning self-discipline is difficult. Kids are impulsive, they want what they want when they want it, and they'll try to persuade you with every cute, cunning tactic they can muster. Show them that you love them no matter what, but stick to your high expectations. When they slip, help them start over with a minimum of discouragement. We learn from our errors.

10. Be a role model. Show that you've learned self-control, that you manage yourself with discipline for your work. Make plenty of time for play and just hanging out with family and friends, but when it's time for your responsibilities, show that you're dependable and in charge. Kids learn from watching us.

Help your kids now by teaching them the skills and behaviors that will serve them well in the future. Self-discipline will come in handy in school, work, and beyond. It even makes fun more fun!