Teachable Moments

Discipline is a teaching tool. It helps our child recognize the difference between right and wrong. And it helps to establish the concept of consequences for actions and decisions. But often, children with a cognitive impairment have difficulty understanding when their behavior has crossed the line. In some cases, their behavior may be a substitute for their inability to effectively communicate their needs and wants. And if we’re unaware of its underlying purpose, we incorrectly interpret their actions as misbehavior.

Over the past 20+ years, I have been the primary disciplinarian for our daughter Melissa. In our house we have sort of the “good cop, bad cop” routine—Kathy spoils her and surrenders to her every request … while I have to draw that line in the sand.

I can appreciate the  desire to give our child whatever they we want because we see it as their reward for surviving their daily struggles in life. We want them to be happy. And making our child happy also makes us, as a parent, feel good. Sort of a reward to ourselves for all of our hard work.

But I can also see a downside of this dual discipline approach because we are sending conflicting messages—the request or behavior is OK (from Mom) and it’s not OK (from Dad). As you might expect, our Melissa has learned how to use this to her advantage!

My job, however, is to impart discipline and I take it seriously. That’s because I know that her life will be much better if she has a good understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I’ve struggled with this over the years. And what I’ve come to realize is that the most effective approach for me is when I can find a “teachable moment” to leverage.

The concept of the “teachable moment” was popularized by Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education. In the context of education theory, Havighurst explained that when the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. Here’s my approach (of course yours may be different):

  • Identify my child’s inappropriate actions as soon as possible after it occurs. This ensures that she remembers the behavior and can correlate cause-and-effect
  • Seize the moment. Rather than defer action for later, maybe more convenient time, I try to STOP and TEACH. But this takes discipline. Such a situation typically happens just when I’m the busiest.
  • Replay the behavior. I try to calmly (easier said than done) replay for her the inappropriate behavior. For example, I might say, “Melissa do you remember when you were calling Sue those names?”
  • Explain why the behavior was unacceptable. Then I try to get her to understand WHY it was the wrong thing to do. So following this example, the discussion might be something like, “When people call you names it makes you feel bad, right? Well it makes Sue feel bad too”
  • Explain the consequences. Then I offer negative consequences that removes something that she likes (the basis for “positive discipline”). “If you call Sue names again, then you won’t be able to go to her house to play anymore.”
  • Reinforce via feedback. To make sure she got the message, I ask … “So Melissa, what’s the lesson we learned from this?” And hopefully I get the answer not to call Sue names. If she doesn’t give the right answer, I return to step #2 and replay the behavior again. This replay happens more than I would have thought. I’ve discovered that Melissa learns through repetition. Eventually, I’ll get the right response.

As I write this I’m thinking that I am “preaching to the choir.” That all of you have already mastered this approach and maybe even have a better plan for imparting discipline into your child. I’d like to hear from you about your approach. I’m sure that through our collective wisdom we can become better parents.


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