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Teaching children the real consequences of their actions

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

I have been assisting a school in writing a new behaviour policy. In preparation for this journey I completed an online behaviour course with Paul Dix; it was life changing, not only for the school in question but unexpectedly it had a profound impact on my parenting.

Since my eldest was able to argue back or refuse to do things (around age 2) I have used consequences as a means to manage his behaviour. I always threatened to take a toy away or remove something he was looking forward to “if you don’t help me tidy up your bedroom I will have to take your blue dinosaur away”. It always worked. Of course it did. I was manipulating his behaviour.

What I was doing wasn’t out of neglect or a lack of love for my child - I wanted him to learn to help, learn to listen and be kind - this was just the response I had acquired, it seemed to be effective and made my life as a parent manageable. What I didn’t realise, was that I wasn’t teaching him the real consequences of his actions.

Following my behaviour course, my partner and I reflected on our approach and decided that we would remove the current consequences in place. My son (now 7) was joyous with this new trial, smiling like a cheshire cat he walked around feeling powerful. I, on the other hand, was terrified; I felt vulnerable and was worried that I'd lose a sense of control.

It was not long after making this decision (a few minutes!) that I was faced with the first (of many) challenges. He didn’t want to tidy up before bedtime and was refusing. A familiar situation for us all, but now we didn't have the tools to manipulate him with. Knowing this, his response was “I’m not going to tidy up and you can’t do anything as there's no consequences anymore”. Panic set in - my partner looked at me, I looked at him and we walked off for a quiet chat. A mini meeting allowed us to confirm that, yes there are no physical consequences (having toys removed) but of course there are consequences, there are always consequences; how we are making others feel. We explained to him that by refusing to tidy up his bedroom it had caused a sense of frustration and stress for his mummy and daddy and in turn probably hadn't made him feel too good either? With that he looked at me and said “I’m not tidying up” and he walked off. Concerned with the decision we had made, we kept our heads down, continued to tidy up and reiterated to him how his behaviour had made us feel.

This response went on for a few weeks - we kept at it, despite our apprehension - a cycle of his refusal, followed by us telling him how his behaviour was making us feel and so on. Then in week 4, something magical happened - he suddenly began demonstrating the skill to predict the natural consequences of his actions, adapting and managing his behaviour to avoid making others feel negative emotions. The hard work had paid off; he was no longer behaving in order to keep his toys but was behaving as he didn't want to cause upset to others - he had learned such a valuable lesson.

I can’t say it's been an easy journey but now we are in a place where he truly understands the consequences of his actions, his place in the world and the power he has to make others feel good.

It can feel much easier (and quicker) to manipulate a child’s behaviour - it provides a quick fix to complex situations and can get us out of some very tricky situations but in the long term it is important for children to truly understand what comes of working as a team, being kind and listening to one another.

It's important to reflect upon our approach to this in schools too - handing out extrinsic rewards such as stickers and small toys and punishments such as removing play times or golden time isn’t really forcing our children to think about the effect their behaviour is having on others. It may take more time (and time is of course something us teachers struggle to find) but once embedded, this approach could have a profound effect on connection, understanding, empathy and overall wellbeing of staff and children. I think it is highly important that settings explore their use of reward systems and reflect on what learning is taking place when these moments arise.


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