Fall 2008




Arni Thorlakur Gudnason

Austurbæjarskóli (East side primary school of Reykjavík)

Reykjavík, Iceland.







In this paper I will explore the issue of discipline. The paper is written from the perspective of a preschool worker in Iceland, but I hope that people outside that field will be able to apply the perspective to their own situation. Central themes in the paper are discipline as interaction, as well as the essential role of respect in the relationship between child and adult. As adults we are responsible for children’s happiness and well-being. In shaping a constructive environment for ourselves and the children we use authority and leverage. Ideally, the authority that we exercise as adults is based on a relationship of friendship and acknowledgement of our interdependency.



The experience of the inexperienced

This paper is based on my experience as a novice in terms of working with children and some of the problems I faced due to being a ‘non-professional’.[1] When starting to work in a new environment there is much to be learned. One of the major challenges I was confronted with, and probably common to most who have worked with children, was that of discipline. In my experience discipline is the most fundamental aspect of working with children.[2] More experienced workers are expected to have mastered the maintenance of discipline but often they lack the ability to pass on that knowledge to those who are less experienced. They have become so accustomed to using the required skills in their work that they no longer recognize them as such and hence do not equip those who are inexperienced with the tools needed to achieve what is expected of them. Both formal teaching and raising a child may be compared to building a house: when building a house, a carpenter is given blueprints of what the house should look like and a set of tools with which to accomplish the task. However, when a newcomer starts working with children they are not given a ‘discipline toolbox’ or a ‘set of blueprints’ for what a child should be like. I believe we often regard the ability to deal with children as common sense. Of course, over time, as with any skill, the ability to maintain discipline becomes common sense, yet to those who have not yet mastered these skills, they are not obvious and hence have to be developed. The tools of discipline are enmeshed in the relationship between the teacher and child and are therefore not as easy to detect as, for example, a hammer. Later in the paper I will suggest some guidelines that I have accumulated in my ‘toolbox’. However, first it is necessary to give an idea of what kind of discipline teachers aim for, what our role is and what we want to avoid.


Setting the stage

Discipline is necessary in order for people to be able to work constructively and, in turn, discipline needs to be constructive. Discipline has value because it enables us to carry out a variety of activities which we could not do otherwise, such as participate in field trips, complete projects and tasks, and have an enjoyable working environment. A lack of discipline inhibits us from reaching such goals. However, discipline also has value in itself. We not only use discipline to reach other goals but we seek to instil discipline because of the goals it embodies. Discipline embodies self-discipline and self-control, and enables freedom and responsibility. A child that has been taught discipline and that has self-control can be trusted with more freedom and more responsibility. Discipline should be beneficial to a child and a tool to be used by responsible adults to enable a child to become an independent, responsible and free individual.

Our role as teachers is to provide a stimulating learning environment, and the knowledge and methods to facilitate it. As a teacher it is also important to realize not only what we are providing but also what we expect of a child, i.e. the child’s role. It is not for the child to make him- or herself easy for us to handle so that our day at work is undemanding; rather the role of the child is to be a child. To be a child is to play, discover, try new things, experiment, and have fun. Hence, children are challenging, and that is the way we want them to be. The role of the teacher is not to ruin the joy that comes with being a child but to utilize childhood curiosity and industriousness to stimulate further growth and development.[3] Teachers instinctively tend to regard unexpected behaviour as a threat. However, unexpected and even undesirable behaviour should be regarded as an opportunity. When a child confronts a teacher or steps over the line, it is an opportunity to address an issue that otherwise would not have been raised and the child can learn something that it would not have learned otherwise.

We ourselves learn from other teachers. We learn from our colleagues by observing what appears to work well, yet we may also observe methods that we decide not adopt ourselves. In my opinion, there are three common mistakes made by teachers and these, including the fallacies upon which I believe they are based, are as follows:[4]


·      To oppress or pacify – the illusion of discipline

In an attempt to gain control over a group of children, or possibly an especially difficult child, teachers may make the mistake of using oppressive discipline, teachers bully children into obeying. While such teachers may be satisfied with the results this kind of unsympathetic obedience does not encourage a child’s independence, responsibility or freedom, and therefore should be avoided.

·      To neglect – the illusion of freedom

A teacher that renounces (rightly so, in my opinion) authoritarian control over a child as described above, and who instead adopts permissive techniques, risks losing sight of his or her responsibility as an adult. A child lacking the influence of adult authority becomes responsible for its own behaviour. This kind of neglect and inappropriate responsibility placed on a child deprives that child of adult support. However, children need the support of adult judgement and guidance.

·      To indoctrinate – the illusion of ambition

When education and upbringing no longer revolve around children’s abilities and wishes but instead centre on teachers’ or parents’ ambitions, they becomes ego centred. The fallacy is to mould a child in the way that we as adults want it to be, imposing our own values and beliefs upon the child rather than helping it to form its own. Examples include cases when parents push their child to excel at sports in order to satisfy their own pride or when a teacher puts a lot of effort into improving the average grade of his or her class in order to impress others. In such cases, adults need to set their own vanity aside and remember that children are not there for us; we are there for them. Children do not have to find the same things to be important as we do, nor should we attempt to force them into a mould, but rather we should allow them to grow.


I have probably made all the mistakes that I just said should be avoided. I would not say that what I did was wrong because I do not believe that making mistakes is wrong. However, we cannot have ambition and do our best without making mistakes. Even learning from our mistakes does not mean that we stop making them, only that we make new ones. In this fallible condition it is valuable and encouraging to have an understanding and supportive tutor. Children also make mistakes, even when they are doing their best. Accordingly, adults should bear in mind that when a child does something that is considered to be wrong it is natural for them to make such mistakes. Hence, we should value the opportunity to reach out to them with the same understanding and encouraging support that we would wish for ourselves.





Respect is at the heart of discipline. Without respect there can be no discipline. Most people probably remember teachers who they and their classmates respected and also teachers who they had less respect for. From my own experience, the teachers that did not enjoy respect were those that bullied children or let themselves be bullied by children. The ones that let the children control them were pitied or even laughed at, while those that were too harsh were resented. Neither type enjoyed respect, the former because they failed to earn our respect and the latter because they failed to show respect. The following sections will focus on these two themes of earning and showing respect.


I. Earning respect

We have to know what we want if we are to acquire it. Take, for example, an ideal day at work. As a preschool teacher, I would want children to be polite during their time at school, I would want them to listen when I speak to them and to sit at the dinner table when we eat. How do I achieve this? How do I construct an economy where I get what I want, and the children enjoy themselves?


1. Setting boundaries

Step one in earning respect is to set standards and rules. We set the framework for what kind of behaviour we want to see, what behaviour we will tolerate or ignore, and when and how we will interfere when children cross boundaries.


If we grade the behaviour of a group of children on a scale from better to worse, we should come up with something resembling the linear scale above, where better behaviour is represented on the right-hand side and worse behaviour on the left-hand side. Scaling children’s behaviour in this manner makes it apparent that half of the time the group is showing ‘better’ behaviour than in the other half. Hence, we reward them for showing better behaviour, even if it is not completely to our satisfaction, because we want them to move away from negative behaviour towards better behaviour. Their development is facilitated by us being more accepting and giving more rewards when they show better behaviour. However, if we always maintain the same monotonous tone of criticism, we give the signal that their efforts are not good enough and thereby run the risk that they will just stop trying.

When we identify an action as being ‘off-limits’, we also need to define what is wrong with it. We either have to place an inappropriate action in an appropriate environment or replace it with an appropriate action. Being loud is not wrong in itself. Indeed, very few actions are implicitly wrong in my opinion. However, we have to identify the time when and place where it is appropriate to exercise one’s voice. It is not wrong for someone to be angry when hit by someone else, but an unacceptable reaction has to be replaced by a more appropriate action. If acceptable responses can be recognized then it is possible to steer behaviour that is off-limits towards better behaviour in a constructive way.


2. Enforcing rules

Step two in earning respect is to enforce rules and deal with non-compliance. For this we need to know our leverage. If the standard is set too high then in the absence of sufficient leverage we will not be able to maintain it. When we claim respect we have to afford it. This implies some form of economy.[5]



We have to know what kind of behaviour we find acceptable and draw a line between this and the kind of behaviour we regard as unacceptable. We also have to realize what a child’s wants and what it wants to avoid. If we are conscious of this matrix of ‘wants’ and ‘don’t wants’ we can more easily construct an economy where both we and the child find what is desirable and avoid that which is not. We should inform children of the repercussions of behaviour that is ‘off-limits’, and while this might be perceived by some children as ‘threatening’ we should aim to inform them in a way that seems reasonable. We should also inform children of the rewards of living up to our standards. This is a form of ‘bribe’, which admittedly is not a very acceptable word, but essentially describes what we do. Besides ‘threatening’ and ‘bribing’ children, ignoring them is a powerful and underestimated tool. Because children want attention we ignore as much negative behaviour as possible and divert our attention towards positive behaviour. The underlying logic is that actively ignoring a child that is showing negative behaviour consistently teaches it what behaviour it benefits from.[6]


3. Being coherent

Step three in earning respect is to be coherent when enforcing rules. The predictability of repercussions weighs more heavily than the severity of the punishment.


The approach shown in the upper part of the following Figure is much more efficient than that shown in the lower part.






By using the first approach described above, we are relating to a child’s sound judgement and self-preservation in a world where negative behaviour has repercussions. By using the second method we are relating to a fear of punishment. However, while it is not desirable for children to live their lives in fear, we want them to exercise sound judgement and self-preservation, and to contemplate the repercussions of their actions. Because of the importance of coherency we have to be strict with ourselves in what rules we lay down. Being strict means having fundamental guidelines that we adhere to. It does not mean pointing out everything we do not like. If we are to follow through every rule we declare we cannot afford any excess. If a child is unable to obey a verbal command, we should step in and help. Children are good at what they practice. We should not allow them to disobey us, but instead help them to practise the form of behaviour we find acceptable. Further, we should not address all the behaviour that we do not like in a hypercritical way, but start with the rules that we consider most fundamental. In the course of time, once these rules have been established we can shift our focus to others.


2. Showing respect

If we want children to learn respect we have to show them respect. A child that is treated with respect has more self-respect and, in turn more respect for others. We show children respect by how we talk to them, by embracing every child as different and by encouraging their self-esteem.


1. Respecting our responsibility as role models

Children learn from what they observe. They learn from what they see us do and what they hear us say. It is our responsibility to model the behaviour we want them to show. We have to be careful of what we do and what we say. If we are not, then we are failing them as role models. When talking to children, one golden rule is that we judge the behaviour not the child. When we interfere because their behaviour is off-limits we should not attack the person but instead guide their behaviour towards constructive alternatives. To describe a child as ‘naughty’ is to make an attack on its person. If effective, criticism of the child’s person is likely to arouse a sense of shame and feelings of guilt. If ineffective, it is likely to alienate the child from the teacher. Either way, it is unproductive and pacifying. In order to be an effective role model we need to set boundaries to our own behaviour. What we expect of a child we should also expect of ourselves. Hence, for example, if we consider it would be rude for a child to tell someone to stop wining, then we should not use these words ourselves. We cannot expect children to show us more respect than we show them.


2. Respecting a child’s personality

Given that every child is different, we have to respect that difference and adjust our approach to individual children accordingly. Some children are more emotional than others and some find it more difficult than others to focus on a lengthy discussion on what they did wrong and what they should do instead. In a lecture given to teachers on the subject of discipline, Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir pointed out three personality types which she categorized as physical, emotional and intellectual, according to the way people express themselves:[7]


·      The physical types are those who use physical messages rather than vocal or emotional ones to express themselves. They use physical force to control their environment and enjoy physically challenging activities such as sports. The negative side of this is a tendency to express negative feelings with physical violence such as pushing or hitting. The appropriate way to approach this personality type is to accompany messages with physical contact such as a hand on the shoulder when we speak to a child, or holding them until they calm down.

·      The emotional types are those who use emotions to express themselves. A negative tendency of this type of personality is to assume the role of a ‘crying victim’ in order to control one’s environment. A good way to approach children with this personality type is to use empathy. We can reach out to them by offering our participation in their problems. When we talk to them we should express our feelings and try to address their emotional sensitivities. However, just as we would not reward the physical type for using violence, we should not reward the emotional type for turning into a helpless victim, unless that is what we want the child to become. Instead, we should involve ourselves in their troubles to give them the strength to turn a challenge into an opportunity.

·      Children with intellectual personalities enjoy cognitive challenges and problem solving. The negative side is that if they are under-stimulated they may have a tendency to create trouble. Intellectual types use manipulation to control their environment. They tend to enjoy outsmarting others, tricking their peers into giving them what they want, or making a teacher lose his or her temper. It can be challenging to beat such children at their own game, so to speak, but it is helpful to use cognitive messages that involve cause and effect and to strike bargains or deals that both parties can benefit from.


3. Giving complements

Teachers have a tendency to become hypercritical of children’s behaviour. It is a part of a teacher’s job description to correct children, and this is regarded as part of making an effort. We have to find a way to compensate children for our criticism in order to prevent them constantly feeling they are not good enough. We should inspire self-confidence in them by frequently complementing them for what they do and who they are, using both behaviour-oriented compliments and person-oriented compliments. By doing this we will not only reinforce positive behaviour by giving them signals as to what we expect of them, but perhaps more importantly we will make them feel good about themselves, thereby making them more independent and resilient individuals. Compliments make children feel that they are valued individuals and that their efforts are acknowledged. A child that feels appreciated and has good self-esteem can tolerate criticism and failure better than a child that feels weak and ignored. A popular rule in Icelandic pedagogy is that for every negative criticism we give to a child, we owe it four compliments. This is a safeguard against our tendency to put children down and an effective reminder of the impact of our criticism on a child. On one occasion I had a hyperactive boy in my group. As I was walking home from work one day, I was struck by a sudden realization regarding that boy’s situation. He had to endure adult interference in his behaviour every two minutes. For the young boy, changing his situation was not an option. So, while it remains necessary to interfere when negative behaviour goes ‘off-limits’, we should try to keep our criticisms to a minimum and compensate for them by giving all the compliments we can think of.





I hope that readers of this article will find some aspects worth considering and some methods worth putting into practice. At the very least, I hope I have succeeded in provoking thoughts about how we treat children. Especially, we should not be afraid of placing demands on them and challenging them in order to stimulate their growth and development, and also it is important to take care in the creation of rules, and then to follow through on any rules we set.

We need to contemplate why we want discipline and what we want to achieve by it. Do we just want obedience or do we want to nurture self-confident, free and responsible individuals, brave enough to meet life’s challenges? Childhood is a one-off opportunity, and whereas adults can change their job if they do not like children are not in a position to change their childhood. Children are not responsible for their own childhood. Rather, adults are responsible for the most influential years in a child’s development. It is our responsibility to do our utmost to ensure that these years are happy and enjoyable. This is the best education we can give them.

[1] During and after my studies I have worked at four different preschools, one primary school and two after school activity centres.

[2] This paper draws upon a lecture I delivered for new employees at Klambrar preschool in 2006.

[3] The curriculum of Klambrar preschool is greatly influenced by John Dewey (Klambrar curriculum 2007).

[4] The fallacies identified here are not based on research, and are open to critisism.

[5] The four phases of the economy are left blank for the user of the model to fill in according to their situation.

[6] Lecture for support teachers working with children with ADHD and autism. Reykjavík. 2005.

[7] Margrét Pála runs the Hjalli preschool. She is an influential figure in Icelandic pedagogy for her feministic viewpoint. The distintive policies of Hjalli have been adopted by a number of preschools and primary schools in Iceland.




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