Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

May 13, 2014

Discipline method can aid teachers and parents

Debbie Blank
The Herald-Tribune

---- — LAWRENCEBURG – “Sticks and Stones: The Power of our Words” was the theme of the 18th annual Southeastern Indiana Economic Opportunity Corp. Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect Conference.

“Not all abuse leaves marks on the outside, but rather scars on the inside,” program director Amy Matzet told 93 attendees April 26. During the day, they learned strategies to be better caregivers, teachers and professionals.

Jenny Spencer, Pendleton, Indiana’s only conscious discipline certified instructor, learned about the program from its creator, Dr. Becky Bailey, who has said, “Discipline is not something we do to children. It is something we develop within them.”

“Who are the infant/toddler people?” she asked. Hands flew up. “Two-year-olds?” More hands. Spencer counted up to school-age child care providers, then wondered, “Special needs?”

In 2007 she was at a state conference workshop on “how to handle all the fussing, fighting, fits and tantrums.” Although Spencer already used rewards and punishments in the classroom and at home, when the speaker was first introduced to conscious discipline, “I was sold right away. I ended up pursuing that journey and discovered a new passion – to find a new way to discipline myself and my children.”

The former 18-year special education teacher has used conscious discipline techniques with students. “I learned it applies to everything I do in life.”

“How many of you have said or done something and thought, ‘I shouldn’t have done that?’” She pointed out, “If we are out-of-control adults, how are we supposed to make our children behave? This is a guidance program, to come alongside our children” to develop skills.

Spencer repeated phrases she’s heard parents use: “I am not even going to talk to you right now. When will you ever get it right?” Then the educator reminded, “You can’t take harsh words back.”

According to her, “All behavior is communication.” When a child is naughty, “answer this question: What is this behavior telling me?”

She urged adults to develop skills to put a pause between stimulus and response. “Learn to respond to children acting out.”

“Everything in conscious discipline is based on four brain smart principles: The brain is pattern seeking; the best exercise for the brain is exercise; connections on the outside build connections on the inside; and the brain functions optimally when we feel safe.”

Some children come from homes “where the pattern is chaos.” There are no routines, they wonder where food is coming from, are there materials for homework? “And they bring chaos into the classroom.”

Spencer observed, “When children are moving, they’re learning. Instead of stopping the motion, … we want to organize the movement for them.”

“You are brain builders, especially those of you working with the 0-3 population.”

When an adult is “a calm model of self-discipline, you are able to help these children to do that for the rest of their lives.”

The presenter, who has a blog and is on Facebook, discussed brain states at different ages. Toddlers around 15-18 months could be “kicking, spitting, screaming, biting, running out of the door” as their brain stems form. That’s because they are in the survival state and have developed “the same skills we share with the animal kingdom. We have to help them understand they are safe.”

An old job description for parents and teachers was “My job is to make you behave and your job is to make my job hard.” The new job description: “My job is to keep you safe. Your job is to help keep it that way.” A baby absorbs the adult’s internal state, so parents and caregivers must realize, “I have to become the state I want the child to be.”

Children from 18 months to 6-8 years are in the emotional state while undergoing a lot of development in the brain’s limbic system. Adults might hear back-talking, sassing and phrases like “I hate you,” “This is stupid” and “No!” According to Spencer, “What they need is connection and understanding and love.”

When a child misbehaves, “It’s not about the blocks. It’s not about cleanup time,” she emphasized. There’s a deeper problem and if an adult simply reacts, “nobody learns any new skills.” Spencer suggested using active calming and problem-solving to improve the behavior.

From around 8 until 25 is the executive state, when a youth’s prefrontal lobes are developing, which helps with impulse control, flexibility and time management.

Spencer said children need safe places where they can recognize and express their feelings and learn how to manage them. For infants, “the safe place is your chest and you breathe with them. With a toddler, the safe place is your lap so they can feel you breathing.” For preschoolers, it’s by the adult’s side. “Our goal for older children to adults is inner peace.” The aim is to have kids go to the safe place by themselves.

What triggers adults to get angry? She listed all the ways a child can get under someone’s skin: arguing, whining, talking back, pouting, blaming, interrupting, not listening, lying, showing anger, tattling, showing disrespect, physical aggression, sulking and laziness. The teacher recommended, “Instead of getting away, get closer. Have a relationship.”

She admitted, “The last thing you want to do when they call you stupid is connect with them.” Later, Spencer noted, “The most difficult children are the most disconnected children.”

“Self-regulation is the ability to regulate your thoughts, feelings and actions in service of a goal,” the speaker reported. “It is the No. 1 skill necessary for success in school.” Yet 40 percent of children enter school without that ability.

“Without self-regulation, we act out our internal distress.” Her mentor, Bailey, explained, “The way we handle the internal upset can be a bridge to responsibility or a roadblock.”

Spencer concluded, “Conscious discipline is not easy. It’s like learning a second language.” With enough practice, it becomes more natural: “For my kids, it’s becoming their first language.”

Debbie Blank can be contacted at or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.

Two resources • Karen Hickman, a national conscience discipline certified instructor, will teach how to effectively implement consequences, problem solve and create safe classrooms where everyone can learn June 23-24 from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at St. Francis and Clare Catholic School, Greenwood. The cost is $120 per person. To register: or 765-620-5988. • Spencer recommends the book "Managing Emotional Mayhem: The Five Steps for Self-Regulation" by Becky Bailey, published in 2011. "We have to befriend our emotions in order to help us teach that to our children when they're having difficult feelings."