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The core components of conscious discipline

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We've all had classroom experiences we'd rather forget.

You might attribute your fear of public speaking to a cranky teacher who spoke badly of your presentation skills. You might be a harsh disciplinarian towards your employees because your schoolteachers ruled with an iron fist.

Or you might be scared to raise your hand in meetings because in your classes, wrong answers were punished.

Some people think that school should produce more well-rounded, emotionally intelligent humans than they currently do. And some people think they've found a way to do just that.

Conscious Discipline aims to offer a kinder, gentler approach to the psychological development of students. It's an interesting program - the science behind it isn't 100% robust, but it does seem like an attractive and sensible approach.

But how does it work? What are the principles of Conscious Discipline? And should you consider implementing it at your school (or even workplace)? Let's dive in and find out.

Table of contents

What is Conscious Discipline?

Conscious Discipline is a 'classroom-first' behavioral model that extends into a wider life model. It's based around empowering adults first, and subsequently children, with positive conditioning, emotional regulation, and 'loving guidance'.

Dr. Becky Bailey, the architect of the Conscious Discipline program, claims it can have a multitude of positive effects when followed in a school environment, such as:

  • improving the social and emotional behavior of students
  • increasing academic achievement
  • improving relationships between students, teachers and wider school organizations
  • decreasing impulsivity, aggression and hyperactivity in students
  • improving parenting effectiveness

It's important to note that Conscious Discipline began as a proprietary program, designed and operated by a single person. It isn't a concept shared throughout academic science, and the research supporting it isn't the most robust.

That's not to say it isn't effective - there are many case studies showing positive results coming from its implementation - but anyone looking to use it in their school, home or organization needs to look at it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

What is the goal of Conscious Discipline?

Conscious Discipline aims to implement systemic changes in schools by 'fostering the emotional intelligence of teachers first, and students second.'

As a 'social-emotional learning program', it rebalances the driving force behind teaching and discipline from a 'fear-based' one to a 'relationship-based' one.

What does this entail?

Essentially, Conscious Discipline aims to teach adults – the role models in children's lives – important skills in self-control and emotional regulation. It claims to help them understand their own impulses and stop harmful behaviors by bringing them into the spotlight.

How do we deal with feelings of anger? Pain? Frustration? Fear? How do we understand what triggers these feelings in us? How do we gain control over those 'automatic' responses to negative stimuli? These are the issues that learners are confronted with in a Conscious Discipline environment.

If adults have a great hold on this aspect of their lives and minds, it's thought that they pass down their own positive behaviors to the children in their lives - both through direct teaching and indirectly through being observed.

Negative behaviors are, of course, passed down to children too - that's been a given since the onset of psychological science and the time of Freud and his contemporaries. But intervening when these feelings come to the surface can make a massively positive difference in adults' lives. And so, the thinking goes, they'll help children to spot their own triggers and deal with them in a healthy way. 

Conscious Discipline's approach to conflict

One major part of this strategy is conflict resolution. In the 'non-conscious' world, it's easy for us to muddle our way through conflict with emotions running high, making bad decisions that have poor long-term outcomes.

Handling conflict badly can lead to arguments, lack of teamwork, and damaged relationships. With Conscious Discipline, these issues are said to be avoided by acting early before they cause too much trouble.

It's not just interpersonal conflict that's a focal point, but the conflict between success and failure. One common example is that of a child failing a test.

Conventionally, teachers might present the student with a scorecard, showing a lower-than-desired figure or a color that's yellow or red in hue, rather than green. In a Conscious Discipline environment, this kind of 'reward and punishment' dynamic is avoided in favor of more immediate, compassionate teaching. Don't expect to see essays covered in red marker ink here.

According to program founder Becky Bailey, the difference is stark. In a model of traditional discipline, "conflict is a disruption to the learning process." Whereas with Conscious Discipline, "conflict is an opportunity to teach."

It seems like there's a risk that this euphemistic approach to avoiding the pain of failure won't teach kids the skill of resilience - and outside the classroom, in the harsh realities of life, they'll certainly need it. But rather than building resilience through punitive measures, the program claims to do it through a compassionate approach instead. (i.e. healthy positivity rather than toxic positivity.)

'Overcoming trauma' is a major focal point of Conscious Discipline, which explains why avoiding overt negativity is a core aspect of it.

According to Dr. Bailey's book Conscious Discipline: Building Resilient Classrooms, around 60% of US adults report 'adverse childhood experiences', such as 'verbal, physical or sexual abuse, or family dysfunction like incarceration, mental illness or substance abuse'. These experiences have a multitude of effects on the individual's learning, personality development, and health. They also filter through to the cultural level, causing behavioral problems in communities that become increasingly difficult to manage, trapping their members in a cycle of negative thinking and socioeconomic stagnation.

So, a different learning approach is the way to go: through healing, connection, and openness.

In short, it's based on the idea that children learn best when they feel 'safe, loved and calm.' And to achieve that, the adults in their lives need to feel the same way too.

How does Conscious Discipline work?

Conscious Discipline involves organizing schools, classrooms and other children's organizations around the concept of a 'family', which consists of both home and school. That means parents, caregivers, teachers, staff, and other adults are part of the family alongside children.

Each member of the family—adult and child— is taught important life skills, like how to form relationships, communicate honestly and resolve conflicts.

Conscious Discipline isn't based around a sequential curriculum of subjects, like a conventional class. Instead, it 'emerges from daily challenges, acts of kindness, academic struggles, interpersonal conflicts, chronic rule breaking and celebrations.'

This means that its core skills are taught alongside academic subjects, and validated through experiences, rather than prescribed instruction or exams.

The core tenets are split into beliefs and skills. The beliefs it teaches are known as the Seven Powers for Self-Control:

  • Perception: no-one can make you angry without your permission.
  • Unity: we're all in this together.
  • Attention: whatever we focus on, we get more of.
  • Free will: the only person you can change is you.
  • Acceptance: the moment is as it is.
  • Love: choose to see the best in others.
  • Intention: mistakes are opportunities to learn.

From these beliefs stem abilities that they enable - the Seven Basic Skills of Discipline:

  • Composure: anger management and delayed gratification
  • Encouragement: kindness, optimism and helpfulness
  • Assertiveness: respect for oneself and others, setting boundaries
  • Choices: control of impulsiveness, persistence, achievement
  • Empathy: understanding others, emotional regulation
  • Positive intent: co-operation, generosity, problem solving
  • Consequences: responsibility and learning from mistakes

With these skills, it's said, children and the adults in their lives should be able to deal with opportunities and adversity in a healthy, resilient manner.

What are the 3 core components of Conscious Discipline?

The reasoning behind the above beliefs and skills lies in a particular view of how the brain works.

Conscious Discipline is driven by its 'brain state model': three core states of being that our brain is supposed to exist in. The thinking goes that if we're conscious of this 'brain-body state' in ourselves and others, we're more likely to have control over our behaviors.

Here are the three internal states that Conscious Discipline seeks to highlight.

1) Safety

Creating physically and psychologically safe classrooms and schools is an important driver in Conscious Discipline. This 'survival state' is said to be based in the stem of the brain, and represents our primal urge to be safe from threats.

The stress of daily life and its conflicts take a toll on children and adults. Anxiety and the stressors that cause it can cause us to fight, flight or surrender, which means we're not able to properly think straight. And if proper coping strategies aren't learnt early on in life, it's thought that they could lead to adverse behaviors in the long-term, like aggression or soothing oneself with addictions.

So the creation of safety is important here. It's not about controlling others so much as it's about controlling ourselves, through composure and assertiveness. Owning and regulating emotions during challenging times is key; this is about taking a moment to remember that we have the power to choose our response when things get tough.

It also seeks to neutralize the power of bad behavior; by showing children that aggressive, obnoxious or manipulative actions don't influence people in their favor, it means they're less likely to use them. These are approached as calls for help, rather than reasons for punishment, and this creates a safe environment for everyone.

2) Connection

The second state is concerned with the limbic system of the brain, and it's all about feeling connected with others or not: the 'emotional state'. Conscious Discipline says that states of 'emotional upset' are healed by connecting with others.

These episodes of emotional upset are triggered by the 'world not going our way' and limit our ability to think straight and empathize with others.

So, the solutions to this upset consist of various forms of social positivity, contained in the list of skills above.

Firstly, encouragement: the skill of kindness, empathy and helpfulness. It's about knowing your responsibilities towards others and that everyone is part of a community. Reinforcing positive behaviors instead of punishing or bribing is a part of this. It's all about encouraging students to make the best for themselves and their peers.

Secondly, the 'power of free will' – the knowledge we're able to make positive choices ourselves, and so are students. If they choose to do good things, it's their choice - they're not forced to. This discourages manipulation from teachers and respects the autonomy of students' choices.

Thirdly, empathy: the 'power of acceptance'. This skill is about making children feel accepted for their choices. It's also about adults accepting the way things are – some things in life can't be avoided, and some people can't be changed. Our ability to connect with people grows when we realize that.

3) Problem-solving

The final state that Conscious Discipline is concerned with is the optimal one: the 'executive state'. This is focused on the prefrontal lobes of the brain, and is where we're capable of learning and solving problems.

After our primal, emotional beings are calmed down, it's thought that our level-headed inner selves are able to thrive. This state is thought to free us from bad habits, past conditioning and trauma. It allows us to focus on the task at hand without the turbulent distraction of feelings like fear or frustration. It's the 'zone' in which we're best able to set and achieve goals.

Encouraging the problem-solving executive state involves five tools, laid out in the acronym S.P.A.C.E. – Solutions, Positive intent, Academic integration, Consequences, and Executive skills. These skills use 'higher brain systems' to rationally approach challenges and opportunities.

The problem-solving skillset aims to instill a mindset of 'letting the moment exist as it is, seeing the best in each situation and focusing on solutions instead of fault finding.'

What are the downsides of Conscious Discipline?

Conscious Discipline has faced criticism for the effectiveness of its models, so it really should be seen as a framework rather than a recipe for guaranteed success. It is quite reductionist, in that it simplifies complex neuroscientific concepts into basic but distorted ideas.

This can be good in practice, as it makes things easier to understand. But it brings risks of inaccuracy and false attribution, so it needs to be observed with some healthy skepticism. Some of the claims made about brains and emotions border on pseudoscience, and wouldn't stand up to scrutiny under rigorous academic examination.

The main point of criticism is that it's not been studied in a controlled way, and the research backing up its power is rather one-sided. While it can be argued that Conscious Discipline contributed to successful outcomes in many cases, critics suggest that the same outcomes may have occurred from other interventions just as effectively:

"They are very small and do not contain proper controls. They simply introduce conscious discipline as an intervention and see that behavior changes. Since they do not compare it to other interventions controlling for observation bias, novelty bias, etc. we have no way of knowing if it is anything specific about conscious discipline that is having the effect, or simply the fact that something – anything – is being introduced and observed."

Like many programs and frameworks related to the psychological sciences, repeatability isn't always easy to come by. So it might be a case that you can implement the methods suggested by Conscious Discipline and enjoy positive outcomes, while being mindful that it's not particularly the framework that's the key – it's the fact that you're doing something to guide behavior rather than nothing.

As with anything related to behavioral science interventions - your mileage may vary. But teaching skills of compassion, emotional regulation and conflict resolution is a pretty commendable endeavor – however you choose to do it. 

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