How am I supposed to discipline my young child?

kids riding bikes at our daycare

Well according to world-renowned author and researcher on the subject, Dr. Becky Bailey, the answer to this age-old question is “Consciously.”  Dr. Bailey has written 21 books about teaching self-regulation within children. There are great free resources on the conscious discipline website (link below).

Dr. Bailey’s famous approach “Conscious Discipline” has been named one of, if not THE, top approach to guiding children’s behaviors.

So, what is Conscious Discipline? Well at the surface, let’s break down the two words:

Conscious – intentional, aware, purposefully

Discipline – from the root word, disciple, which means to learn.

Notice that discipline means to learn, NOT to punish, or as Dr. Bailey says, “Discipline is not something we do to children, it’s something we develop within them.

According to Bailey (and every other researcher on the subject), the number one predictor in lifelong success, including school readiness, school graduation, reading skills, test scores, personal relationships, AND professional success is self-regulation.

Conscious Discipline is evidence-based, comprehensive self-regulation, that combines social-emotional learning with discipline.

Self Regulation – is the ability to manage thoughts, feelings, and actions.  A lot of self-regulation skills are developed before age three. Self-regulation is being able to pause between stimulus and response. Teaching self-regulation will help you teach children all other skills they will need along the way. If a child cannot self-regulate they will have a hard time learning.

“Alright, sold! I want that for my kid, how do I do it?!”


Well, first we must lay some groundwork.  All behavior is communication and we need to understand where that behavior (communication) is coming from. When being trained on conscious discipline, we first went back to very basic psychology and the states that all human beings function in, in the following order:

1.       Survival State – Am I safe

2.       Emotional State – Am I loved

3.       Executive State – What can I learn from this

Emotional State cannot be reached if Survival State is threatened, and Executive State cannot be reached if Emotional State is threatened. That is how the brain works. The brain is constantly making sure that you’re very basic of needs are met first (survival then, emotions, then learning).

In survival state our bodies are programmed by our nervous system (set in utero by our mother’s heartbeat) and we are in a state of Fight, Flight, or Shut Down.  It is your bodies response to a perceived threat.

If our bodies understand that we are physically safe, and our needs are met, then we can move into emotional state. This is where much of childhood takes place. (Some of us may even know some individuals who operate from this state as well. 😉 )

Emotional State is regulated by our limbic system, which is our standard operating system. They are the brain messages that are running through our head – these brain messages may be true OR false depending on how we are programmed.  In this stage is where you find many unfavorable behaviors such as whining, nagging, complaining, name calling, guilt, clinginess, social exclusion, attention seeking, and perfectionism. All of these behaviors are really asking “Am I loved?”

IF and when our emotional needs are met, we can then as humans move into executive state where we have attention, time management, organization, empathy, task orientation, etc. Basically, the attention span and processing skills that allow us to learn.

Here is the kicker as parents and caregivers – our emotional state will help regulate our child’s emotional state. If we respond with anger, impatience, or passiveness, we are not helping children get out of the first two stages.   There will be more in the upcoming weeks about Conscious Discipline and how to implement in your house.  But the biggest take away from today’s article should be the foundation for moving with intentional learning. Remember your state regulates your child’s state.