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Guide, not punish, a child

Disciplining a preschooler involves guiding a child's behaviour, say experts

Punishment is not the same as discipline and it is not right to dish it out to young children, say experts.

Dr Christine Chen, president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), says: "Punishment is imposed on the child. The adult has the power to punish and intimidate the child into submission. The child feels powerless."

This is not in line with the Code of Ethics that the association has drawn up for the early childhood education profession, she adds. The overarching principle of the code is that early childhood educators should ensure the safety - psychological, intellectual and physical - as well as physical health of each child in their care.

In contrast to punishment, when an adult disciplines a child, he empowers and encourages him to choose the appropriate behaviour based on consequences, and learn self-discipline in the process.

But experts The Sunday Times spoke to decline to comment directly on a recent incident at a preschool here that has drawn much interest.

Shouting at a child, punishing her by making her stand with a pencil on her head or sending her to a 'thinking chair' - all these are outdated ways.

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A teacher reportedly made a six-year-old boy stand in front of his class and put on a girl's hair clip for sporting long hair.

The boy later told his father that he felt like dying when the entire class laughed at him.

Amid polarised opinions on the incident - one camp says that the teacher went overboard, the other says that the boy's parents were overprotective - it has raised the question of how best to manage what teachers think is inappropriate behaviour in younger children.

For instance, when a child grabs a colour pencil from another child, an adult can punish the child by taking away playtime from him. Or he can empower the child by giving him a choice: Return the colour pencil and continue drawing with another pencil or go to another corner to do other things.

Dr Chen says: "In disciplining the child, the adult guides the child's behaviour by articulating the expectations and consequences so that the child can choose how he should act."

This approach works on children and even teenagers. When the foundation is set early, the teenage years become less stressful as the teenager will be able to discipline himself, says Dr Chen.

Dr Yang Chien-Hui, a senior lecturer in Early Childhood Education Programme at the School of Human Development & Social Services at SIM University, adds that instead of punishment, teachers can use a proven technique called positive behaviour support to manage inappropriate behaviour.

"This approach considers that all inappropriate behaviour serves a purpose to the child," she says.

Moreover, punishment does not target the cause of the problem behaviour and the purpose it serves to the child, and hence, is not effective in the long run.

Dr Yang provides an example: A child may stop grabbing a friend's toy after the teacher scolds him, but he may later grab another friend's hair, if the function of his grabbing behaviour is to achieve social interaction with a peer.

To stop a child's inappropriate behaviour, she says, teachers should find out what purpose that behaviour serves the child and offer the child opportunities to meet his needs in other ways or teach him the skills he lacks.

In the case of the six-year-old boy with long hair, if he is keeping his hair because his parents want him to, the teacher needs to work with the parents to ensure that the expectations at home and in school are consistent, says Dr Yang.

She adds: "But if the child himself prefers long hair because it offers him sensory stimulation, teachers can direct his need for sensory stimuli, for example, by teaching numbers and maths using fabrics and objects that he can touch and feel."

Experts such as Dr Yang also say that most preschool children's misbehaviour is due to the lack of skills, for instance, the lack of language or social skills. Hence, instead of punishing a child when he grabs a friend's toy, the teacher can teach the child language skills (get him to ask, "Can I play?") and social skills, such as how to take turns.

At preschools under the EtonHouse International Education Group, teachers use positive guidance, which begins with a desire to understand the child.

Ms Leanne Sunarya, the group's executive director of pedagogy, says: "If we see beyond the problem and seek to understand the child, it helps us see differently and respond in a positive way."

She recounted an incident: When a child kept pinching her friends during storytime, her teachers told the child that that it was not appropriate and encouraged her to check on and care for her friends.

The teachers also found out why she was behaving that way. They observed that the child needed sensory stimulation and gave her a sensory ball during group time. She stopped pinching her friends after that.

At the Garden House Preschool, teachers also teach children how to manage conflicts.

Its founder Ana Peckham-Cooper says: "When a child gets hit, he is taught to say, 'Stop, that hurts.' And when another child does something he does not like or intrudes on his space, he is encouraged to say, 'Stop, I don't like it when you do this', or 'Stop, I don't like it when you are in my space'."

Teachers intervene only when children are not able to resolve a conflict themselves.

Ms Peckham-Cooper says: "We would ask the child who hit the other child if he heard what the other child just said or, if he is too young to understand, we would show him what 'gentle hands' are like."

If the hitting persists and the teachers are not able to find out why, they call up the child's parents and work together on a solution that can be practised at home and in school.

Mother of two A.T. Ng, 31, says how a school manages misbehaviour is an important criterion in her selection of preschools.

The stay-at-home mother says: "If its methods aren't respectful to the children, it affects the children's mindset towards school and, in turn, their self-esteem."

Another parent, Web marketing manager Edmund Lim, 37, says he expects schools these days to use positive discipline and explain right and wrong to a child gently.

Mr Lim, who has two daughters, aged four and two, says: "Shouting at a child, punishing her by making her stand with a pencil on her head or sending her to a 'thinking chair' - all these are outdated ways.

"When my wife and I chose preschools for our children, we were more concerned that their programme structure should be enriching, rather than how our children will be disciplined."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Guide, not punish, a child'. Print Edition | Subscribe