HiMama Logo
Management Tips

Scaffolding and Discipline Without Punishment

Scaffolding and Discipline Without Punishment

September 26, 2017 | Ron Spreeuwenberg
Episode #63 exploring discipline without punishment.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

#63: Ron chats with Jack Wright, Early Education Consultant This week Ron chats with Jack Wright about scaffolding and discipline without punishment in early education. Jack Wright was previously a Mental Health Consultant who worked with a HeadStart program on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. Jack describes the impact of punishment on children long term and why scaffolding and discipline can be trained without punishment. A relaxed, nonpunitive approach is more effective than a punishing approach for behaviour-changing in children.

HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #63 – Jack Wright Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Wed. Sept. 20, 2017



So we have physical evidence now that punishment is damaging to children. So what else can we do? How can we train children to have better behaviors without punishing them? So when you’re disappointed or upset with them, you need to figure out what they’re ready for, what they did learn poorly, what they haven’t learned, what’s upsetting them, not punishing or being disappointed. The way I see it clearly is, children are never naughty.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Jack, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

WRIGHT: Hello, Ron. Welcome to Montana. SPREEUWENBERG: So you’re at the Flathead [Indian] Reservation in Montana. Let's start there. Tell us about your experience living in that area of Montana.

WRIGHT: Well, I retired from licensed Clinical Psychology in northern Idaho and I was 70 [years old] – it was 1977 when I retired. And my wife is Metis and wanted to live on a reservation. And this was the closest one. SPREEUWENBERG: Very interesting. And so you’ve also spent some time as a mental health consultant, working with Head Start programs on that reservation. Is that right?

WRIGHT: Right. I went in to volunteer because I wasn't doing regular psychology, and I told them I’d had 30 years experience advising and training and so on with Head Start in Northern Idaho as a volunteer. And they told me I couldn't volunteer – they had to hire me. They needed a mental health consultant. So I gave them a real cheap price and consulted for seven years. SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. And can you tell us about what are some of the main things that you learned in your experience as a mental health consultant working on the Flathead Reservation with Head Start programs?

WRIGHT: It was an incredible experience, partly because I wasn't doing well. Consulting was a whole new bag for me, and I learned something about what was Vygotsky called “scaffolding” with children. And I found you need it with adults. I'd been a researcher since my doctorate. I started researching and developmental in the 60’s and kept up with it as a counselor. I saw that quite a few children, not just adults. And so when I was working here I observed for 3,000 hours both the staff and the kids, and it was quite an awakening. SPREEUWENBERG: So some of our listeners may not know what “scaffolding” is. So can we define what that is for our listeners?

WRIGHT: Well sure. I was hoping we'd get there. “Scaffolding” was researched and mentioned by Vygotsky in the early 20th century. He was the Russians psychologist, did a lot of good research. John Dewey talked about it as “the growing edge.” Jerome Bruner – these are famous psychologists, now, educator and Dewey and psychologist –worked a lot with it. It basically means people – children was there emphasis, I'm adding adults now to my experience – people only learn at a place where they know enough to engage in the subject. And that’s scaffolding - your education is like scaffolding, helping them build their building of knowledge. SPREEUWENBERG: Makes sense. So you say you observed over 3,000 hours of time about children and adults in this environment. What were some of the things that you observed to come to some of these conclusions about scaffolding being and effective method, both for children and adults?

WRIGHT: I had all that experience working with kids and adults. I had research in development, which I then focused on child development more. And that got me into biology in genes, and what we call environment – this is this is fairly new information, called epigenesis – how environment changes genes. And here I am watching the environment called “staff” changing the behaviors of children by changing their genes. Now I know that sounds real technical but I won't go further with it. But then I would try to talk to the adults about, “Well, what you did was kind of punitive, and that doesn't help the child learn.” And it wasn't taking. They weren't ready to hear that. I had to find out where their “growing edge” was. SPREEUWENBERG: And how did you go about that?

WRIGHT: Well, it took me years. I wait until… and I do this now in my consulting. Well, if you invite me to speak I assume I can find an edge to speak to because you invited me; you're listening. When you didn't invite me – I'm just observing you – I try to find what you're frustrated with, and then use my research knowledge to speak to that. Because if you're frustrated with a child's behavior, you are asking questions, and that means I can scaffold some answers for you that you're ready for. SPREEUWENBERG: Got it. So the one point you touched on was discipline and using punitive measures to try and rectify a disciplinary situation. But clearly that wasn't working in this scenario. So what are some method or approaches that you suggested or worked with these early-childhood educators to be more successful?

WRIGHT: Partly told stories. Punishment has looked bad in correlational studies. That means you see a child punished and you followed him for up to 50 years, and a huge percentage of the time their life doesn't prove out well. And people keep saying that that doesn't mean that you caused it with a punishment. But it is a significant worry. Now we're actually finding brain damage from as much punishment as three spankings a week. Connections – this is a genetic part – are not developed out to where a child is thinking, only to where the child responds like in fight or flight. So we have physical evidence now that punishment is damaging to children.

So I will present some ideas like that to get their attention, that doesn't look good. But then I have to say, “So what else can we do? How can we train children to have better behaviors without punishing them?” And I've even added that being disappointed in a child is punishing them. Now, Ron, we're we out here with this. I just talked about this in Chicago, and about half the audience were really excited. 50% were fairly excited, and 30% were somewhat excited. About 10% were unhappy with me. One of them said, “Don't go to him again,” because we're so used to punishing.

In the [United] States over 80% of parents say they believe in spanking. And it's hard to find a psychologist anymore that believes in corporal punishment. So what I'm saying is, all behavior in children is what we've learned. They can't do any better than that. So when you're disappointed or upset with them you need to figure out what they're ready for, what they did learn poorly, what they haven't learned, what's upsetting them, not punishing or being disappointed. The way I see it clearly is, children are never naughty. SPREEUWENBERG: Right. Not intentionally, I guess, it’s more of, “That’s what they know, that’s what they learn. So they just do.” And I guess in this scenario, then, what would you do? So you're having a conversation with that child…? How does that play out, then, if you’re not using discipline or showing disappointment in them?

WRIGHT: My favorite story is, I would visit for three or four hours at a time [at] 14 centers. So I was only getting there about every six weeks. But in one visit, children knew that I was a caretaker. I was a hugger; I was never upset or disappointed. So when this little boy –I didn't see it until this bus flew across the room, this classic bus – but I saw an aide standing in front of him, getting upset. And I walked up and I offered this boy my hand. I don't know what the aide would have done, but she looked angry, and he thought she was angry. And knowing me to be a hugger who is never mad at him he took my hand and we walked away. I brought him over to a chair, pulled him into my lap, where he had been before – and that's a big argument; we have another couple hours to do with that one. We had cameras and things; sex abuse wasn't an issue – put him into my lap where he had been before, and squeezed him and ask him how hard I could squeeze him.

Now, people who believe in punishment are upset by that. He just did a naughty behavior – he threw a plastic bus. And I was squeezing him and asking, “How hard?” And he said, “Harder.” And I felt his body relax in my arms. And then I said, “Something went wrong over there, didn’t it?” Now I’ve got his “growing edge.” I'm scaffolding and learning about what went wrong so we could learn to do it better. If he'd been punished, the dendrites in his brain out to the executive function, which is prefrontal, would not have been developing. Only the fight-or-flight ones would’ve been developing.

So he was willing to discuss this with me. And I said, “It looked like you were angry.” “Oh, yes, I was angry.” Well, anger is very important to figure out what to do about it, because sometimes it gets worse when we don't express anger well. I probably said “Don't do anger well,” or something. He says, “Yeah,” or something like that. I said, “Whenever you're ready to go back and play,” – I didn't even say “Play well” – I said, “Go back and play. Let me know.” And he sat there in the hug for another couple of minutes and went back. [He] had no further trouble the rest of the day. That's what I call “training without punishment.” I think he learned not to throw the [bus], at least in the next couple of instances. Learning doesn't happen overnight. SPREEUWENBERG: Any suggestions for the early-childhood educators out there who are working with numerous children throughout the day? It obviously takes a lot of energy to do this job day-in, day-out, dealing with children, with challenge behavior, to have that patience. Because on some days, some moments you might have the patience for that; on other moments you won’t. Are there things that we can do as ECE’s [early-childhood educators] to help that from our side?

WRIGHT: Ron, This is so huge. I'll try to start it a little bit. First of all, early-childhood caretakers need to take care of themselves, get their lives as in order as they can. Get to bed early, which is one of their problems – I hear them talking about late night TV shows. Get up in time to have a relaxed breakfast, especially if you have children. And get to work with some protein and ready to go. instead of coming in and having a cup of coffee. So yes, I would talk to educators: the first approach to dealing with all those behaviors that get your goat is to have yourself ready. The second one is to realize: if you can take the relaxed – not punitive – caring approach, it's effective more quickly than where punishment isn't even effective. So use whatever you got. If you come frustrated without breakfast, just remember the idea that you're making your life worse if you punish. And if you can comfort the child and get them thinking about what happened, your life's going to get better quicker. SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, that's a good point. A lot of times we talk about training and professional development in these kinds of things. But we sometimes lose sight of the very basic, human needs of sleep and food. And so, as with children, we get very cranky if we don't have either one of those two things. So that’s a very good point.

WRIGHT: Absolutely. We had a couple of kids we literally put down on a mat when they first got there, and they would sleep for a half hour and that would solve a normal aggressive problem. SPREEUWENBERG: That's a good tip. Any other parting thoughts for early-childhood educators out there that are staring at their careers?

WRIGHT: The thought is to pay attention to what's happening in general scientific theory. Most educators have come from an educational background. They've gotten their degrees in education; they've had experience in education. And I came from this different standpoint of psychology and research background, and I keep reading research that's unknown. Even the punishment research isn’t well known.

And there recently was some research about what they end up calling “invasive parenting,” which early-childhood educators need to understand. They don't like the harshness of that title, but they had mothers train attention with a very dramatic little doll of multi-colors and rings and things. And the mothers who were synchronous were just kind of following the child's lead and supporting their interest in this object. The mothers who were named – I think, poorly – “invasive” were trying to push the child to pay attention. And I'd like that research to be well known, even though it comes from psychology. Because any time an early-childhood educator is trying to push something – like, we're trying to get more pre-mathematic, pre-scientific stuff into kids – when we push it we're losing. And we need – and this scaffolding, again – to follow their interest and support it.

So I would love for people who have been in educational circles to pay a little attention to the research coming out in a journal like Child Development. SPREEUWENBERG: So there's a few factors that play here. There is the scientific theories and research themselves, and also implementing those theories and that research through practice. Where do you think the biggest gap is at the moment? Is it more on the actual research itself about brain development and child development? Or is it actually implementing what we already know?

WRIGHT: I'm confident it’s implementing. The brain science has exploded. Epigenetic stuff started 20 years ago but is really only getting out to the public [over] the last two, and not very well. I just presented that that epigenetic stuff in Chicago and it stunned a lot of people. It was a very hard thinking. It probably won't go that extreme, if I'm invited back next year. But it's just dramatic what we've learned about brain [development]. We're now getting pictures of the brain through MRI’s and EGE’s. And we know how it's developing, and learning is developed brain. It’s memory. Memory is a cell that is divided and created as a neuron in the brain.

That's very technical. I joked at a conference that, “I'm sorry, I really need to be technical. I want you to know, I don't tell my wife I love her with ‘all my brain’. I love her with all my heart. I don't love her with all my ‘pump.” SPREEUWENBERG: But I think it's an important conversation, that science is one of those things that, as an educator, you can say, “Well, that's not my domain. I don't know all of the brain development and all the science behind it. I just need to I know what I need to do in the classroom.” But I think what you're saying, and I think what we try to emphasize on the Preschool Podcast as well, is that understanding the “Why” behind what you’re doing and the science behind it is actually very important.

WRIGHT: And I think that's up to us presenters. I don't think we can expect early-childhood educators at the teacher and aide level to read scientific documents. And even high-level educators are often not used to reading a technical article. So it's up to those of us who can, or are willing to learn about effect sizes and statistics and that kind of sizes. And to understand science as theory-developing – so it’s not always true and we change it a lot; we admit mistakes. And that turns some people off when this is what we got. It's where the new stuff is coming from.

And so somehow we need to get people who present, and then they have to know who know the growing edge. If someone hires me, I try to not give a lecture. Lectures aren't well-understood or even remembered two days later from the research. And I don’t use PowerPoint for the same reason – it's just found not remembered two days later. We take the paperwork home or we never even look at it again. So I always try to stimulate discussions where I can find out what the questions are and I can respond to. And more presenters need to do that. Because the research, I read it all the time. SPREEUWENBERG: Jack, if I'm listening to this and I think it's super-interesting stuff, where would I go or how would I find out how to get in touch with you, either online or offline?

WRIGHT: I don’t have a website, so really the only way is through my email: AlexJack@Blackfoot.net. SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful, Jack. It's been wonderful having you on the show. As always I learned a lot. And I couldn’t agree with you more that it is very important that we're applying scientific theory and research in the classroom every single day to help improve child development in our classrooms. So thanks again for coming on the show, Jack.

WRIGHT: Thanks for the opportunity. I hope I expressed it well enough. SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely, you did. Thanks, Jack.
Related Links

Share this post:

Learn how HiMama can transform your center

HiMama brings parents, teachers and directors closer together and saves everyone time.