The Line Between Guidance and Discipline


In conversation with school age educators one topic that is often discussed is children’s actions. The conversations usually center around two main focuses, children’s actions the educator disagrees with or the preconceived ideas that the educator has about specific children’s actions. What motivates the actions of children? Is there a reason for the choices children make? What influence does an educator have over the choices children make?

The difference between guidance and discipline is engagement. Discipline is defined as “training to act in accordance with rules.” Meaning that all actions of children are dictated by rules instead of other factors. In fact a wide range of factors defines children’s actions. All behavior has a purpose. The purpose is not to go against a formulated list of rules the purpose is to gain something.

Discipline is rule focused and compliance focused, while guidance is engagement focused and learning focused. When talking with children about rules I like to promote the idea that instead we could have agreements. Often rules for children are predetermined by an outside force in places like formal education or by parents.

Guidance focuses on agreements. Agreements are different from rules. Agreements are ideas that groups of people create through a process of trial and error. Agreements are in place to provide a baseline from which our actions are influenced.

With agreements in place it is not all unicorns and rainbows, since children’s challenging actions will need to be addressed. A good practice is to respond to these challenges by talking with the children involved and inviting children to talk with each other. We have the opportunity in these moments to be the model for children of how to work together in a learning community. There are days as an educator when we will feel less resilient and tell children what to do. Giving children direction based on rules feels effective in the moment but never offers lasting results and usually effects the actions of the entire learning community.

The way educators approach a challenging situation definitely influences the other children. If educators are calm and positive even when a child’s action is challenging, the learning community will respond better and learn to self adjust quicker than if the educator goes old school and begins reciting rules. In creating a classroom culture we have a choice in how we lead the children and it is a fine line between guidance and discipline, a line that represents what we believe about children and what we believe our learning community can be.

How do you respond to children’s challenging actions?

How does your response influence future actions?