Discipline for Skill Building


Your child will naturally test limits and break rules. These mistakes or misbehaviors are a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning. As a parent, you have the opportunity to transform a poor choice into a teachable moment. Your child is actively developing self-control, a fundamental ingredient of self-discipline. They are working to empathize with others and to view thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective. This too is an essential ingredient of self-discipline.

It is important for every child to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This kind of consequential thinking – “If I pinch my sister, she’ll cry and run to Mom” – is developed over time and requires a lot of practice. In fact, a teenager’s brain is reorganizing from their childhood magical thinking processes to thinking more rationally and logically. However, those higher order thinking skills are not fully formed until the early to mid twenties. Your support and guidance as your child develops these critical life skills matter greatly.

This document focuses specifically on how your discipline practices can build skills and is divided into three parts. First, discipline for skill building is defined. Next, why paying attention to discipline for skill building is not just important but essential is explored. And finally, examples of ways to support discipline for skill building are provided.

I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.– Fred Rogers

Discipline for Skill Building Defined as Teachable Moments

While there are many different approaches to disciplining your child, seeking to discipline your child in a way that allows for teachable moments is key. Disciplining in this way builds your child’s social and emotional skills through the interaction during or after a misbehavior. This is an approach in which you, as the parent, draw clear boundaries and teach your child how to be successful in staying within those boundaries. You realize you are serving as a model of behavior. When upset, you take the time to calm down before responding. You allow for natural consequences to take place without imposing or inventing new consequences that may not naturally occur. You reflect with your child on the outcome of choices and help your child repair harm when they have caused physical or emotional harm. In essence, through disciplining your child in a way that allows for teachable moments, you proactively teach your child what to do instead of simply saying what not to do. This helps your child figure out what’s right and wrong, grow responsibility, and learn vital social and emotional skills.

A national parent survey by Zero to Three, revealed that 57% of parents report they struggle to figure out the most effective way to discipline.1Should we do something instead of just using punishments? And if so, what do we do? Many parents feel that if they let go of punishments, their child will not understand the importance of their misbehavior or poor choice. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. They may also feel a sense of misunderstanding or injustice. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt focuses on their relationship with you – not on the misbehavior that occurred. So your child can miss the lesson you want to impress altogether while feeling unsafe.

Without learning new discipline skills, particularly during the toughest moments of parenting, parents are likely to resort to what they learned from their own upbringing with parents and friends reinforcing those actions that may not align with a family’s deepest values. Learning and practicing new strategies based on solid research can help you feel competent and confident that you are responding to parenting challenges in ways that promote your child’s development.

Each time a child makes a poor choice, it’s an opportunity to teach a vital life skill and cultivate a sense of responsibility.

Discipline for Skill Building Is Essential

Typically, children make poor choices because they are feeling badly about themselves or attempting to meet an emotional need like getting attention or gaining power. Research confirms that when children and teens learn to manage their emotions, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.2 They are better able to use self-control, problem solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success and ability to follow the rules. However, the converse is true. Those children and teens who do not learn to manage their emotions through the guidance and support of caring adults have attention issues, a lack of impulse control, and difficulty in problem solving.

Schools that focus on cultivating social and emotional skills in the curriculum, skills like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making also show significant drops in disciplinary issues. And, the same is true at home. Why? Children and teens are empowered with the skills to responsibly manage their lives, their emotions, and their relationships.

By supporting social and emotional skill development through your discipline practices, you as a parent can directly impact your child’s decision making and improve outcomes in a number of ways. Social and emotional skill development results in a better work ethic, better family relationships, better job performance, and improved health across the lifespan.

Ways to Support Discipline for Skill Building

Discipline for skill building means working to understand your child’s unmet needs they are trying to fill through their poor choices and then responding in ways that guide them in the right direction. If their misbehavior makes you upset, then taking time to calm down first is a critical step. As a parent, there are many ways that you can support your child’s social and emotional skill development through discipline approaches. Four strategies include: Identifying Motivation or Unmet Needs, Modeling the Skills, Focusing on Decision Making, and Intentionally Practicing.

Identifying Motivation or Unmet Needs

To respond to a misbehavior by transforming it into a teachable moment, it is critical to discover the child’s motivation for the misbehavior. If you can uncover why a child is acting out – and there’s always a good reason – then you can best respond in ways that prevent that destructive behavior for the future while promoting other more positive behaviors. Here are the most common mistaken goals children and teens have that motivate misbehaviors.

Your child’s behavior could be motivated by3:

    1. Attention
      Your child might be talking at you incessantly while you are talking to someone else. This action is a ploy to get your attention. How you feel when your child is acting with the goal of attention can clue you in to the fact that that’s exactly why your child is misbehaving. You’ll likely feel irritated and annoyed but not yet intensely angry. Every child seeks their parent’s attention and requires it for their very survival. Children need to learn how to ask for attention appropriately. This is normal, and your response will be key in helping define boundaries and practice positive skills.
    1. Power
      Whether it involves a meltdown, refusing to do something or go somewhere, or giving an impassioned “I can do it myself!” the message of these behaviors is “let’s fight!” Your child may be feeling out of control and needing to regain some power in their life. All humans – young and old – require a sense of control and power over their own lives, but they need to seek it in positive ways. A child can also quietly not comply or conveniently forget as a form of passive power seeking. But the way they are seeking power is inappropriate. In this situation, you’ll likely feel angry, highly frustrated, or upset. Power struggles can press our hot buttons. If you deal with your own heated feelings first, then you can examine ways to help your child learn to gain power in positive ways using leadership skills, intentional communication, and independent thinking. These are key attributes for wellbeing, and often children who try to engage in power struggles need to be re-guided to use them in contributing ways.
    1. Avoidance of Failure
      This can manifest as a frustration tantrum. “I’m too upset to do my homework.” A child might procrastinate on a task they know they must do. It could also result in refusing to go somewhere or do an activity. Some children may claim “boredom,” sheer lack of desire, or just give up on the task and on their abilities. The goal of the child is to avoid failure. And, with an emphasis on competition and performance in academics or extracurriculars, this can be a common occurrence. Initially, as a parent, you may feel concerned, worried, or even sad. That worry can escalate into anger and frustration if your child refuses to do what they have committed to doing time and again. Your child is likely so intent on being successful that they cannot bear the thought or chance of failing. They may feel like they just cannot meet their own or others’ expectations for them and their performance. They also might feel as if their identity or even others’ love is wrapped up in whether or not they can perform to a certain standard. Your child needs to learn that they can make mistakes, learn, and tackle their challenges with your constant support.
  1. Revenge
    Children motivated by revenge may be generally more unhappy than happy most of the time. When they lash out, it’s about retaliation regardless of whether they are seeking revenge for real or perceived hurts. The message this child’s behavior sends is that they are hurting or feeling rejected. They may anger easily. They may attack with words that may cut to the very core of parents like “I hate you!” or “you don’t love me!” There may be physical attacks or the threat of physical attacks like breaking a sibling’s toy on purpose or taking a parent’s wallet or phone. Withdrawing and giving the silent treatment can also serve as revenge if the child is intending to hurt you with their removal. As a parent, you may feel angry, hurt, and upset. You may even feel scared for yourself and for your child or siblings since your child is intending to harm others. When your child is seeking revenge, you know that they are hurting deeply. This behavior may be a protection mechanism attempting to ward off more hurt. This is a sign that your child needs ongoing emotional support.

Modeling the Skills

Skills are developed through watching others and learning from their behavior. As parents, you are constantly modeling for those around you, whether they are your children, coworkers, or family members. Share examples of when you demonstrate self-control and self-discipline. This does not mean that you have to be perfect. What it does mean is that when you make mistakes, talk about them. Having a growth mindset is important when supporting your child’s social and emotional development. Having a growth mindset means believing that skills and abilities can be learned and that information and feedback are pathways to learning and not a reflection of a person’s value or worth. Actions then become experiments, and failure can be seen as a pathway to learning. This means that as a parent, you don’t always have to do things right. But, it does mean admitting mistakes and being willing to recognize and apologize for the impact our actions have on others. We admit failure fast and are willing to apologize.

Focusing on Decision Making

Although improved social and emotional skills develop healthier decision making, it is helpful for you to explicitly focus on how your child makes decisions. Get curious about the thinking process involved in your child’s decision making. Ask your child what the thought process was and whether the outcome was positive or negative. It can be as simple as asking, “What made you make that decision?” or “What were the considerations you took into account when you made that decision?” or “What were some of the consequences you thought about when you made that decision?” This will help highlight for you any gaps in their decision making, but more importantly, if you do this on a regular basis, it will increase the likelihood that your child will slow down and pay more attention to their decision making.

Intentionally Practicing

Discipline for skill building does not always come easily. In high stress situations, it is tough to maintain self-awareness and express empathy. Being in a high-drama conversation with your child, it can be tough for both parties to engage in constructive conflict that supports the relationship. It is therefore imperative that social and emotional skills be practiced with intention on an ongoing basis. The more these skills are practiced, the more natural they feel and the greater likelihood that they will be accessible when needed, especially in high-stress situations. Intentional practice means being deliberate about trying a particular social and emotional skill you want to develop. Once you get better at this skill, try adding the next skill.


Discipline for skill building is the process through which you can assist your child in acquiring essential life skills focused on knowing oneself, knowing others, and achieving their goals when they make poor choices. These skills are developed over the lifespan from childhood into adulthood and are learned through identifying motivation or unmet needs, modeling, attending to decision making, and intentionally practicing. The skills built through discipline approaches are critical to success in life as these social and emotional skills are correlated with outcomes such as academic success and emotional wellbeing in childhood as well as improved work performance and higher pay in adulthood.


Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Discipline for Skill Building. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.