Parenting in a pandemic: Encouraging positive behaviors and self-discipline

Loving dad comforting crying daughter showing empathy

As everyone continues to stay home to stay safe, new routines may have begun to normalize for parents and their children.

As this new way of life continues, behavior patterns also begin to adjust. Everyone begins to settle into their “new normal,” adapting to online learning and finding new interests to keep everyone entertained.

Early on during this quarantine period, chances are you noticed changes in your child’s behavior. Disruption to their routines, combined with their own fears and the visible stress of adults in the home, are all things that test their social and emotional wellness.

Sometimes children misbehave in situations like this because they haven’t yet developed the ability to verbally communicate what they are feeling. Acting out is  their way of telling you, “I’m feeling something on the inside and I need support.”

Take advantage of your time together with your child to help them grow and develop these social emotional skills. In this article, we give an overview of how to help your child grow in their ability to manage and maintain positive behaviors.

Positive Behavior and Self-Discipline

In schools, behavior management strategies are used to create a safe and productive learning environment. They help students develop the social and emotional skills that they need to be successful in school and beyond.

As a parent with your child at home, you can use some of these strategies to help your child continue to learn and manage their behaviors. 

To start, positive discipline practices are effective in the short-term for steering your child away from behaviors that add stress to your relationship or could cause them harm.

These strategies are also beneficial in the long-term because they help your child learn behaviors that will enable them to be happy and successful as they mature into adulthood.

Using positive discipline will help you and your child focus on the social and emotional causes of their misbehaviors. Getting to the root of issues will help them learn how to better identify and name what they are feeling and find new ways to manage those emotions.

Not only does this help set your child up to use these skills for a lifetime, but it will also help bring more calm to your home. And who doesn’t need that, especially these days? 

In his book on school discipline, George Bear (2010) shares strategies to reduce misbehavior, promote positive behavior, and grow the students’ social and emotional skills. Here are some of the strategies you might find useful as a parent:

Use praise and rewards strategically and wisely, with the aim of developing self-discipline.

Tell your child when they are behaving in positive ways. Be specific about why it’s helpful to you and to others. Guiding your child to notice their positive behaviors and why they are helpful will encourage them to behave in similar ways in the future.

For example, saying something like, “John, I really like the way you are putting away your toys now that you are done playing with them.” 

Build and maintain positive child-adult relationships, with a balance of structure and support.

Research shows that combining authority and guidance is a good approach when helping children learn social and emotional skills. Children need boundaries, and to learn that if they test these boundaries, there will be consequences. This helps them to grow their decision-making skills.

For example, you could say “You have until 1:00 to do your homework. If it isn’t done by then, then you lose TV time.” This gives them boundaries and lets them know the outcome if they decide not to stay within them. 

Children also need to know that they will be supported through both success and disappointment. Make it clear to your child that you love them even if you don’t like how they are acting.

Providing support and guidance allows your child to develop self-discipline over time. Like the scaffolding on a tall building, parents can provide more or less support overtime to meet children where they are in their development.

Provide models of social and moral problem-solving, emotion regulation, and responsible behavior.

Children are always learning by watching how the adults in their life behave. Model for your child the behaviors you want to see from them. Seeing you make helpful and healthy life choices and explaining why you make those choices can be a powerful learning tool.

Provide multiple opportunities to apply social, emotional, and moral abilities.

Just like with any sport, hobby, or skill that takes practice to improve, the same is true for your child’s social, emotional, and moral abilities. Your child needs opportunities to practice their self-discipline skills.

Social and emotional skills are best learned by using them in everyday life. Look for opportunities throughout the day to help reinforce the development of these skills. 

Use disciplinary encounters as teachable moments to develop self-discipline.

Making mistakes is part of learning. Talk with your child about their behaviors and how they connect to the consequences.

Guide them to think about alternative positive behaviors that they might choose in similar situations that will happen in the future.

Ask them, “What do you think you could have done differently to have a better outcome?”

Try this

Practice social and emotional skills throughout the day/week.

Talk to your children about social and emotional themes in the books they read, the videos they watch, their school work, or the news of the day.

  • Ask them how they think characters might have felt in a particular situation.
  • Why might people feel a certain way?
  • Were their behaviors positive?
  • What could they do next?

Treat misbehavior as an ask for help

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Misbehaviors can be signs that someone is having difficulty coping.

Discuss your own feelings throughout the day. Let your child know when you’re happy, sad, or angry. Describe the reasons you feel that way. Encourage your child to share their feelings and reasons as well.

Learn more:

Treat misbehavior as a learning opportunity

Sometimes you miss a shot in basketball. That’s why players practice shooting and get tips from the coach. See misbehaviors as a chance to do some coaching with your child toward greater self-discipline.

Learn more:

Try to find your “new normal”

The pandemic likely has everyone feeling a little “off.” Try to maintain the routines that help your child feel safe and happy. Continue to work on establishing new routines that bring structure to this “new normal” we’re living in.

Learn more:

Being together at home like this can be an opportunity for more connection and support and, sometimes, greater conflict. Behavior management techniques can help tame misbehaviors and disagreements in the short-term while supporting your child’s self-discipline skills for the long-term.

Parenting in a Pandemic (Blog Series)

With students home from school, social emotional learning strategies can help parents support their children’s overall wellbeing in the face of global stress from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this blog series, we offer strategies to help parents support students’ social and emotional needs during this disruptive time. If you’d like to receive notifications when new blogs in this series are available, you can subscribe to our blog here.

Picture of Lauren Kazee

Lauren Kazee

Lauren Kazee is the founder of LivingSLOW. Throughout her career as a licensed social worker, her efforts have focused on mental health and wellness for youth, inside and outside the school setting. She received her Bachelor of Social Work in 1993 and Master of Social Work in 1994, both from the University of Illinois in Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work. As a licensed professional, she worked in inner-city Chicago, rural communities in Ohio, and urban areas in Michigan as a school social worker and an outpatient therapist. Her experience within the mental health field and education system led to participation in various federal and state-funded projects throughout the state of Michigan, as well as opportunities to contribute to and support mental health efforts in other states.

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