Q: My five-year-old daughter has some listening issues at school. When she comes home with a note from her teacher indicating one or more of these incidents, I confine her to her room for the rest of the day. However, she constantly calls, wanting to ask me something, wanting me to get something for her, and so on. She doesn’t come out of the room, but she constantly tries to engage me. It’s driving me nuts!
A: I have three suggestions. First, you and the teacher should get together and define these so-called listening issues as concretely and concisely as possible. A lack of specificity makes it nigh unto impossible for a child at this age to understand what’s expected of her, in which case any disciplinary method is going to do nothing but frustrate her. In turn, her repeated failures are going to frustrate both you and the teacher. This is how young children get referred for special attention, and you want to make every effort to avoid going down that road.
Second, you and the teacher should avoid working on more than one problem at a time. Expecting too much of a child too soon is a common mistake that dooms disciplinary programs of this sort to failure. The two of you should target one problem behavior and cut your losses in other problem areas for the time being. When that one problem is pretty much cleared up, move on to the second problem, and so on. This approach will require a good amount of patience from you and the teacher, but the attempt to build Rome in a day is going to create additional problems and solve none.
Third, at least initially, your daughter needs to be given a margin of error concerning whatever issue she’s working on. For example, if the target behavior is talking while the teacher is talking to the class, and that tends to happen, say, three times a day on average, then your daughter needs to be given a free pass the first two times it occurs on any given day. On the third occurrence, the teacher should impose some form of discipline, such as staying in the classroom during the next recess. Once she’s learned to keep quiet while the teacher is talking most of the time, the margin of error can be reduced from two to one.
This approach will give your daughter a much greater chance of success—and keep in mind that success does not build on repeated experiences with failure. If, after being put on a disciplinary program, a child experiences a lot of failure right out of the gate, she is very likely to give up. And you certainly don’t want that.
Concerning the fact that she calls out to you from her room, I’d give her a margin of error there too. Tell her that you will respond to the first two calls, and make sure you do so cheerfully and helpfully. Then tell her that though you will continue to respond to her calls (again, cheerfully and helpfully), the third call will result in 30 minutes being shaved off her normal bedtime, the fourth call will result in one hour shaved off, and so on.
Above all else, once you chart a course, stay the course!
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.