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You and Oliver’s Mom have Different Beliefs about Discipline…What Do You Do?

Oliver’s mother calls you and tells you, with a shaky voice, that he’s been “kicked out” of his third child care center. The center director told her that his behavior has become “more than we can handle” and “a safety concern for the other children.” You’ve been working with this family for several months now on IFSP outcomes related to reducing Oliver’s acting out behavior and increasing his ability to communicate using words. You’ve been struggling because whenever you’ve tried to discuss positive discipline techniques and share other information about social emotional health, Oliver’s mother tells you that she doesn’t believe in disciplining her children. She wants them to grow up with freedom to become who they are and she feels that they will have their whole lives to have boundaries. At the same time, she needs for Oliver to attend child care while she works part-time.

What do you do?

How Can You Support Oliver’s Mom?

What do you do when there’s a difference between what you believe you know about child development and a parent’s beliefs and style of guiding his/her child’s social-emotional development? In Oliver’s scenario, it can feel like you are bumping up against a wall. You might think the “wall” is this difference between your beliefs and the parent’s beliefs, but really, the wall is probably your own approach to the situation. It can be very tempting to judge Oliver’s mother’s beliefs and think that she should be parenting differently, but we have to remember that it is not our role to judge her. We are there to provide support and share what we know about development in a way that supports her and Oliver. This usually requires lots of active listening, observation, collaborative problem-solving, and maybe most importantly, keeping an open mind. Instead of trying to change how Oliver’s mom thinks or “make” her see things our way, it can be helpful to step back and revisit our coaching skills to think about how we can provide the right kind of support.

Here are a few strategies to consider when preparing to support Oliver’s family:

Pause and Reflect – This is always the place to begin, especially when there is a disconnect between what you think and what the parent believes. It’s easy to imagine feeling frustrated and judgmental. Keep in mind that it’s your job to learn about Oliver’s family and how he behaves at home and at child care so that you can figure out how to support him and his caregivers in both environments. Sometimes, putting your feelings aside can help clear the way for progress.

Help her Reflect on her Goals – Check in with Oliver’s mother to find out how you can help and what she would like to see happen. Don’t take it for granted that you know these answers. Ask her what she thinks is contributing to Oliver’s struggles and what she thinks she can do at home to help him be more successful in child care. Find out about her goals and encourage her to voice them.

Ask about What She Knows about Discipline – Find out how she defines “discipline” and “boundaries.” Be sure that you both are speaking the same language. You could find out that “discipline” means spanking to her, and she is unwilling to spank. Get specific so that you both understand.

Provide Information Linked to her Goals – Share information about social emotional health and discipline techniques as they link to what’s important to Oliver’s mother. If she says she doesn’t agree or doesn’t want to use those techniques, ask if she’s open to trying something new. Her answer will inform you about whether or not this is an issue about which you can actually help her.

Consider this: you may not have all the information you need you figure out what to do next…

First, what questions arise for you? What else do you need to know??

Once you have all the info, consider:

Option 1: What would you do if Oliver’s mother says that she is not open to a new strategy?

Option 2: What would be your next move be if she replied that she did want to try something new?

How do you support a parent when his/her parenting style is different from what you know/believe about social emotional development? 

Share your experiences in the comments below.

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2 Comments to “You and Oliver’s Mom have Different Beliefs about Discipline…What Do You Do?”

  1. Thank you Dana for this provocative post. My first reaction was empathy for Oliver’s mother. Sadly, expulsion from child care/preschool is not an isolated occurrence in the United States. See the Joint Statement “Standing Together Against Suspension and Expulsion in Early Childhood” http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/Standing%20Together.Joint%20Statement.FINAL__3.pdf .

    There is not enough information in the blog post to know whether the IFSP team has observed Oliver at the child care center or whether the team has been working with the child care workers to understand causes of the challenging behavior or whether the team is aware of the many factors that contribute to challenging behaviors. As Mona Delahooke, Ph. D., Psychologist has written, we should think of behaviors we observe as the “tip of the iceberg and all the potential reasons for the behaviors as the larger chunk underneath. For young children, underlying reasons for challenging behaviors include sensory, motor, cognitive, language and emotional distress, among many others”. (Mona’s Blog – Ain’t Misbehavin: Understanding Behavior from the Inside Out. January 26, 2016, https://www.monadelahooke.com/aint-misbehavin-viewing-challenging-behaviors-from-the-inside-out/) In this blog, Dr. Delahooke recommends that children be given the benefit of the doubt. Though we may be inclined to label their behavior as willful, children have an innate desire to please, AND the cause of the challenging behavior may have nothing to do with motives we are assuming. She also recommends that we prioritize loving relationships as the foundation for regulation of emotions and behaviors. Warm, positive emotions support all learning and development. Which brings me to the discipline question. Discipline means “to teach”. It is really important that everyone on the early intervention team understand what discipline is appropriate for young children. Some of the most popular forms of discipline, time out and consequences not only do not teach missing skills, but that are ineffective in addressing challenging behavior that is a result of sensory processing differences, lagging social emotional skills, delayed cognitive skills, etc. They can also interfere with children’s relationships with parents (and other adults) and their feeling of safety and security.

    As a parent of children/grandchild with challenging behaviors I immediately identified with Oliver’s mother and felt that she was being judged by the EI provider. Parenting a child who has challenging behaviors is exhausting physically and emotionally. A lot of energy is spent trying to understand the source of the misbehaviors, then figure out effective strategies, then figure out why some strategies work sometimes and not other times. Any hint that we are to blame for the child’s problems is a stab to the heart. We already entertain insecurities about whether we’ve searched enough, tried enough, been consistent enough, etc. Meanwhile we are exhausted and worried. So, I think the suggestions about pausing and reflecting, and asking for more information from Oliver’s mother about her beliefs, his behaviors, and her goals are all good. Regarding information about social-emotional development, I would recommend that the entire team review in depth the new book by Mona Delahooke, Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention; A Skills Guide for Working with Children. I would tell Oliver’s mom that the team wants to be sure we are doing everything we can to support Oliver and her; that this new resource has become available and we will be using it to help us. I might even obtain a copy for her so she is a part of this process. The other thing I would recommend is assessments related to the challenging behaviors (such as an OT assessment to see if there are sensory issues).

    • Thanks so much, Beth, for such a thoughtful comment. Yes, we definitely don’t have enough information to really know how best to support Oliver and his mother and help him be successful. We would need to really explore the multiple factors that could be contributing to his struggles at child care. Further assessment seems very appropriate. It’s easy to “assume” that the problem is related to his mom’s parenting style and beliefs, but that kind of thinking could hurt our relationship with her and limit how we support her and Oliver. It is certainly possible that there are other factors as you suggested. I’m glad you pointed this out!

      I appreciate what you shared about how it feels to be in Oliver’s mom’s shoes too. It’s so important for EI practitioners to be aware of their feelings (and biases) and keep their minds open to all of the available info and possibilities for how to support a family. I hope readers will check out the resources you shared. Thank you!

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