One of the most trying and vital areas of parenting a child who is placed in foster care is discipline. When I first entered into the realm of fostering children, I understood that I couldn’t spank. I was rather adamant against spanking at the time anyway. I can only recall being spanked twice during my childhood and only grounded on two occasions. Now that I have adopted a boy who is currently ten years old and “all boy,” I am much less adamant. That said, upon first fostering one of my initial questions was how to adequately address discipline. The only solutions offered by CPS and the independent licensing agency that where I obtained my foster care license from were a time out (one minute per year of the child’s age was suggested) and taking away privileges. I was told that the childcare’s home where most of my children lived prior to coming to my home did not ground for more than three consecutive days but did place the children on a safety plan if needed. In my opinion, a safety plan is basically a loss of freedoms and stricter monitoring of the child for a lengthy period of time.
So there I was, left with such an array of options. I began with grounding because the three children in my home were already in their pre-teen and teen years. I quickly found that as behaviors escalated so did the length of grounding until a time came when almost every child was grounded and some for as long as a year. After all, when they misbehaved you tacked onto the original grounding until both you and the child had forgotten why they were in trouble in the first place. In addition, there was no incentive to behave because they were already grounded for the remainder of their life. Needless to say, this did not work particularly well.
I also thought that sending children to their room would be a good option. There were a couple of problems with this plan. First of all, I found that some children really enjoy being sent to their room. Second, it did nothing to calm their anger. Instead, it gave them a quiet place to sulk and become angrier. The only instance that I have found sending children to their room to be effective is to do so before they are truly in trouble. For instance, you might say “Amy, your attitude is really not very good at this point, and I’m afraid if you continue this you’re going to get into trouble. Why don’t you go to your room and calm down? Then, come out when you feel better so you don’t end up getting into trouble.” This serves two purposes. First, to help the child to stay out of trouble. More importantly, it helps prevent the bad attitude from spreading. I have found that in a home with a large family a bad attitude is easily caught by other children. I had much rather have one grumpy child (which is inevitable at times) than six. If you can separate the one grumpy child from the others, not as a punishment, but merely “looking out for their best interests” it will make your life much easier and your hair less gray.
My next plan of action was to have the kids pull the tall and rather daunting weeds that grew right behind the fence around our home when they misbehaved. This worked extremely well because it gave the child a chance to cool down and re-think their behaviors. It was a productive activity, and it gave the children something to occupy their time other that sulking in their room or singing a chorus of
“I hate it here!” However, we ran into a problem when all of the weeds were gone and the behaviors continued.
My next idea was to charge them for misbehaving. Each of the children received ten dollars allowance every week. I decided to charge them a set amount each time they misbehaved. Typically, I charged a dollar, but the amount could easily be increased if the behavior warranted. The problem with this method quickly surfaced as I found that children often not only lost their allowance for that week but for months into the future as well. Again, where is the incentive to behave? This method quickly ceased. Around the same time, several additional children were placed in my home. The other children were ages five through ten so even more methods of discipline were tried. I did try time out. However, one minute per year for the child seemed to be somewhat of a joke and no punishment at all. For the seven-year-old girl, it worked slightly. However, she was the type of child that if you simply talked sternly to her and explained the offense it was just as effective. In addition, some of kids took the took the opportunity to damage the wall while in time out, so I must say that I never found it to be especially helpful.
By this time I was at my wits’ end. I had a house full of kids. Two of them were classified as moderate and the ages of the children ranged from five to fifteen years old. I was attempting to use all different forms of discipline from time out to grounding, taking allowance, pulling weeds and loss of belongings. I was doing my best to “tailor the punishment to the needs of the child.” However, I began forgetting which child had which punishment. In addition, I felt that we were caught in an endless cycle of discipline that didn’t really work. To make matters worse, the children were always in trouble because they typically got in trouble for something new before the last punishment ended.
One particular morning I was praying about this problem and asking God to offer me guidance when an idea came to me. I felt that I should find a book or activity that was catered to each child. For instance, if a child has difficulty with losing their temper, find a book about maintaining control or if a child was learning to read, have a list of sight words. If nothing else, have a developmentally appropriate book or activity for each child that is his or her own. When the child has broken a rule, give the child one warning. Each child may have one warning per day without any consequences but no more. The warnings do not accumulate from day to day and there are no records to keep. If a child breaks the same rule or any other rule during the course of the day, he or she is assigned a page or pages to copy. Typically, the pages are assigned one at a time. However, for greater offenses such as, being sent to the principal’s office at school, there is no warning and a larger number of pages, typically between 10 and 30, would be assigned. When children have pages are grounded from all activities until the pages are complete. If they choose to just sit in the kitchen and not work on the pages, don’t worry about it. Eventually, they will get tired of sitting in the kitchen and choose to complete the pages. If they choose to misbehave while in the kitchen, assign additional pages but do not relent. Some children take to the system more quickly than others, but it absolutely works. This is why:
1. It gives the child control over how long their punishment lasts. Several of my children can easily complete 20 pages in less than a day.
2. The children know exactly what is expected of them and you are able to be extremely consistent. Most of my children rarely receive any pages. They simply stop the behavior at the warning because they know what will happen next. I never give more than one warning to a child in a day. The next offense will be a page.
3. Even if a page is assigned, the children are able to complete it in 30 minutes or less, which means that they do not spend their lives in trouble.
4. It allows me to differentiate between large and small offenses by simply changing the number of pages but not the form of discipline.
5. This works extremely well for both small children and older children. My youngest child does pages by practicing to write his ABC’s or his sight words. I have also had a child write his multiplication tables when he was trying to learn them.
6. It gives the child something to do and diffuses the anger. When children are sent to their room, time out or grounding, they are left with nothing to do but sit and stew about why they are angry. I promise they don’t think about what they did wrong. Instead, they are thinking about what you did wrong. By the time they finish writing their pages, I have never seen a child who is still angry. Mentally, it forces them to calm down and think about something else for awhile.
Now, I do want to address what I know will very quickly be a concern. I know that someone is probably thinking. This is all well and good but why not have the child write a report about what they did wrong or a letter of apology? I have tried this and I can promise it doesn’t work nearly as well. The child often becomes even more frustrated with this assignment because they don’t know what to say or how to word the report. I remember, I assigned one particular child this punishment, and literally she worked on it for weeks using both a dictionary and a thesaurus because she couldn’t get it just right and didn’t know what to say. It was a very frustrating experience for her and, instead of serving to calm her down, it only seemed to agitate and dismay her more. In addition, a young child certainly can’t be expected to write a report, but they can very easily copy their ABC’s or sight words.
When I switched to this method of punishment: I “exchanged” all of the grounding the children had been assigned to pages. The number of pages they were assigned was based on the length of the grounding they currently had.
I guarantee this form of discipline has worked for me. It allows me to be
extremely consistent both with small and large offenses and among children. In addition, the children appreciate the one warning. Often, they self-correct the behavior after the warning is given before any pages are assigned.
One a side, this, as well as any of the other methods, can and should be adapted to meet the individual needs of your children and structure of your home. As time progressed and my children required less structure, I adapted the page system in my own family. I assigned a much higher number of pages (They became very proficient at completing pages quickly.) and in a less structured manor. The children / teens were no longer required to sit quietly at the table to complete their pages but could do them at any time. In addition, they were grounded from all electronics while they had pages but could continue to play outside or do activities not involving electronics.
The key to discipline is not the consequence in and of itself but the consistency with which it is enforced. As with any area of parenting, provide as much structure as needed to promote growth but no more than is required. In other words, structure is only as necessary as it is beneficial. This level will vary with each family and should evolve with time.