Ask the Scientist:

What is the connection between discipline, social-learning, and neuro-functioning?
Featured Scientist: Paula Tallal, Co-Director, Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers, Email:
Note: This response is based on her experience as a licensed clinical psychologist

What is the connection between discipline, social-learning, and neuro-functioning?
Discipline is highly related to self-control as well as self-esteem. There are really two factors we emphasize re discipline:

  1. Self-control/discipline (internal control) -- Getting the individual to recognize that when they “make an agreement with themselves” to do something or behave in a certain way, but then do not do it, they are letting themselves down, and training themselves that they cannot trust themselves to follow through on what they intend to do or to control their own behavior. Conversely, getting them to internally reward themselves for making and keeping the agreements they make both with themselves and others, builds self control and self esteem.
  2. External control -- learning to do what another person tells you to do and then getting reinforced positively for obeying and negatively for disobeying. This is generally the kind of discipline that is used most with children, particularly in school.

While rarely explicitly done, there are many advantages to “teaching” an individual that they have control over their own behavior (self-discipline) rather than just imposing external control. Sort of like “give a man a loaf of bread and he will not be hungry for a day, but teach the man to make his own bread and he will be able to feed himself for a lifetime.” Conversely, there are studies (eg. Zimbardo and colleagues) that demonstrate potentially negative consequences of replacing internal self-control/discipline with strict, external control - “just do what you are told because I said to.” This approach to discipline is used most often in schools and also in the military to get groups of people to act in an orderly fashion. The problem with this kind of discipline is that while it does train an individual to do what they are told, it does so without giving them any responsibility for evaluating the consequences of their actions, because they were taught to “just following orders.”

How do parents/teachers teach children to develop internal control (self-discipline)?
This is often discussed as learning to take personal responsibility for one’s own behavior. These concepts generally need to be explicitly taught to children, by teaching parents and teachers to reinforce the good behaviors and actions of their children. In therapy, we teach parents/teachers to look for opportunities EACH DAY, to explicitly praise the good behaviors of a child, rather than criticizing the bad behaviors. We teach them to do this by having them practice framing explicit positive reward statements such as, “I really liked it that you said you would do X... and then you did X;” “What I really admire about you is that when you decide to do something, you get it done. I bet that really makes you feel good about yourself as well.”

You usually have to explicitly teach a person to become aware (“mindful”) of making and keeping agreements to themselves and others. Teachers and parents can do exercises with children that will help them develop the skill of monitoring and strengthening their own internal control/discipline processes. At the beginning of each day, they can ask each child to think of two or three actions they would like to make an agreement with themselves to achieve that day. It is often good to get them to write these down, and even review them during the day. To begin with you have to help the child (sometimes adult!) by giving him/her an example of what an agreement is that would be easy for them to understand and comply with, such as, I am going to brush my teeth before I go to school/work today; I am going to finish my homework before I watch TV tonight, etc). Avoid overarching or vague agreements such as, “I am going to be good today” or agreements that may be out of the child’s direct control. It is important to avoid using words like “try to,” when setting up intensions/agreements, because you can succeed at “trying” without actually accomplishing the goal. It is important to teach the child how to set up agreements that are specific, that are easily evaluated in terms of whether they were successfully completed and that they are likely to be able to be successful at achieving. Then, at the end of the day or the next morning, it is very important for the parent/teacher to ask the child to go over their list for the day and score themselves on whether they kept their agreements with themselves. Finally, it is good to have them write down or tell you how they feel about themselves when they do or do not actually keep their agreement with themselves - helping them understand that they are actually the one in control of setting their own goals and controlling their own behavior, and the most important person they are either pleasing or disappointing is themselves.

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