Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we discuss the impact of relationship-based teaching that involves the educator as much as it does the child. In our conversation with Dr. Bailey we learn about the neuroscience that informs her Conscious Discipline program, and the practical applications of her methodology. The program encourages a positive approach towards teaching, and has impacted the lives of millions of children, parents and educators around the world. If you’re looking to learn about how to apply self-awareness when working with children and be inspired by the impact that it has had, then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Dr. Bailey, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
And so that sparked me. I went back and thought, “We’ve got to change this.” That sparked one of my first books and a lot of research on the dynamic influence of how we got to do these early years better. So that was a passion: “We’ve got to figure this out.”
The other one was more realistic. I was working with some older children with disabilities, and I was a youngster. We had a field trip day, and these kids were in the lake and they wouldn’t come out. These were kids with disabilities – I think this particular guy’s name was John, and he had Down’s Syndrome. They would get mad at him because he wouldn’t come out of the lake. And so they threatened to take his lunch. They threatened this and they threatened that, and in my head I’m going, “My gosh, there’s got to be a better way.” Now I’m just a kid and these people are seasoned educators. But I spoke up when I said you, “There’s got to be a better way to help him choose to come out of that water than threatening his lunch.”
So I jumped in the lake. I’m like, “I’ll go get him, I can do this.” I might have been 25 or some ridiculous age. So I went into the lake and I talked with him. Long story short I came back out and threw his lunch in the trashcan and he did come out. I was completely unsuccessful. And I left that situation saying, “This is not a good way to treat a human being. And I’m going to spend my life figuring out how to do it differently.” And I can tell you right now, if John was in that lake and I went in there today we would come out together holding hands, smiling at each other. I feel confident that I have the skills. And so I committed to myself that I would learn these skills no matter what it took and how long it took. And then I would share them with others because we all faced with a lot of kids like John who does not want to come out of the lake.
So those are the two big moments in my life: “We got to do it different with the toddlers,” and, “There’s got to be a better way”. We just need new skills as teachers; we just need new skills as parents.
I think that’s very much an ongoing thing, which brings me to my next question, which is this program that you’ve developed. A social, emotional and classroom management program called Conscious Discipline. What’s that all about?
When people hear the word “discipline” some equate it with punishment. So let me just kind of define it in general terms and then I’ll tell you. In my mind, at least in my life, I want to be disciplined enough to set and achieve my goals. Despite distractions, maybe people saying, “You can’t do it,” lack of approval, any kind of obstacles. And I want to be conscious enough to know when I’m off-track. If I say I’m going to go on a diet and then I order a pizza I need to go, “Ding-dong, Becky, that’s not going to help!” I want to be conscious enough to pull myself back on track when either I’m sabotaging myself unconsciously or sabotaging someone else. That’s the source of Conscious Discipline: conscious enough to set and achieve goals despite any obstacle you might find.
That’s kind of the basics of it. But it’s all about the brain. So I have to really be aware of the unconscious things that I’ve learned from growing up. That notion that we discipline as we were disciplined and teach as we were taught. And now we know more. We change and evolve just like you said, all through our lives. And now we have so much more information. So I don’t want to be working on that notion of, “If was a doctor I certainly wouldn’t put leeches on people now when I’ve got penicillin I could throw out.” I want to be able to change but if I’m unconsciously doing things that I’m not aware of I can’t change them.
So Conscious Discipline, I guess is fair to say, it’s referring as much to the educator or the adult as it is to the children?
Exactly. You know the old saying, “Do what I say, not what I do”? We now know [that] in our brain we have mirror neurons, so that’s impossible. I’m going to do what I see is done. So we have to become the model. For example, Conscious Discipline is all about self-regulation. But if we’re unregulated adults… you know, we watch the news. And you can walk just behind me – it’s not like I’m the happiest person when someone cuts me off in traffic. But I’ve gotten better with it. I’ve gotten so much better. So when the world doesn’t go my way I demonstrate a different set of values when the world is going my way. What we do then is teach children [that] when the world doesn’t go their way you have the right to call people names, to scream at them, to show disrespect. So we have to become the models that we want children to become. It is about the adults first. We learn it. And then it’s just like anything else – we can teach the kids. Once you understand math and numbers then you can teach your kids. But when they come home with this new math, now you’re, like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t help you.”
What research is Conscious Discipline based off of?
It comes from pots of research. First of all it’s heavily involved in neuroscience. Again, when I was starting off I was heading into the medical profession. I also had a very bad car wreck which caused a little bit of brain damage in me, in my memory system. So I’ve got a passion for how our brain works and kind of seeing what’s under the hood.
It also comes from resiliency and mindfulness and self-regulation, and it’s very trauma-informed. It’s like, “How do we learn something when people are punishing us for wrong behaviour?” When I’m punished, I’m scared. When I’m scared, I’m in the lower centers of my brain. And when I’m in the lower centers of my brain, I’m learning unconscious condition programs that are going to show up repeatedly. So I’m thinking, “We can’t punish kids for misbehaviour.” Then what are we going to do? We have to teach them how to behave. And to teach them they have to be in the higher centers of their brain. So we’re going to have to create a culture or a relationship that is safe enough to allow a child to go, “Oops, I buggered that up. I really do want to play with these children. I really do want to be successful. I really do want to feel safe. Will you help me?” And if my relationship with that child is so based on safety and connection and helping them problem-solve and they trust me, then I get to become their teacher. Whether I’m a parent or a teacher, I’m teaching you how to behave. Not punishing you for not knowing.
And that’s the important thing to understand. We want to be conscious of what we’re doing not drive these kinds of negative conditioning into us that sabotage us and all our relationships for the rest of our lives.
Taking a step away from the science side and moving more to the practical side, if I am an educator listening to this podcast right now and I would like to know, “if I’m not using discipline in the traditional sense of the word to manage children’s behaviour,” what are some of the other strategies that I can take?
I’ll give a couple of simple ones. Let’s just take this wonderful phrase called “You wanted”. Let’s go home, let’s say we’re parents and we have two kids, let’s say six and four. One [child] gets ready to push the other one down. We typically want to go, “No pushing her”; “Be gentle with your brother”; “Stop pushing”; “If you push him you’re not going to watch TV,” or something like that. And all we say is, “You wanted. You wanted your brother to move. Say, ‘Move, please.’ You wanted the remote control. Say, ‘Turn, please’. You wanted.”
So we’re going to shift from “Stop, No, Don’t”. If you do then we’re going to shift all this language to simply, “You wanted”. “You wanted your brother to give you more space, say ‘Go play with something else’. You wanted him out of your room. Say, ‘Get out of my room’. You don’t have to beat him up.” That’s a one-phraser that people can take. And if so if they look at a child just about to be aggressive, you go, “You wanted.” And say, “You wanted this? Then say this.” Give them the social skills they need to be successful. And you have to do it over and over. It’s not at one-time… we don’t say, “Okay that’s the color red, you’ve got it. We’re moving on to blue now.” We talk a lot about red before blue.
And that’s where the Conscious Discipline comes in, too?
Right. And that’s just one thing. Another thing, if you have a child upset in front of you… So let’s say the child’s flumped on the floor and screaming and going “I hate you”. They’ve lost their cookie, so to speak. We want to approach that child becoming the state we want them to be. So as that child is hollering stuff and carrying on, instead of getting triggered by what they’re saying – which means pushing our buttons or getting upset with them – we want to approach them consciously breathing. We don’t say, “Breathe, calm down.” We approach them in a calm state. So we’re going to have to inhale and exhale and we don’t say a word. Just calm yourself, calm yourself, and watch the miracle in front of you happen.
If they make eye contact with you, my breathing will automatically stimulate their breathing, based on my mirror neurons in their brain. And they will start to calm automatically. And I know this sounds strange but I encourage anybody who listens to this podcast, go off and try it. It’s a miracle.
This is something that I think is an interesting topic, which is: I believe that it would be very valuable for early childhood educators to understand at least the high level concepts behind the science that you’re talking about, this neuroscience. What do you think about that? Do you think that’s helpful for educators?
They should definitely know, because of our own self. Basically we change our states all day. We have three basic states. When you get into a survival state – which we all have – you only have a couple of skills available: fight, flight or freeze, you know, surrender. And then when you get into emotional states, basically what you’re going to do is blame everybody for your upset.
It’s not until you get to the higher centers of your brain, the executive state, where you have a choice. You get freed from all this past programming stuff and then you can choose to do something different. You can choose to see the child is missing a skill as opposed to being disrespectful. Understanding that just because a child upset me yesterday and I said, “You should know better than that” and all that,” I can go, “Oh, I just slipped into the lower centers of my brain. I’m not a bad parent.” If I were in Russia or China or Bangladesh I would do the same thing. This is just how the brain works. It doesn’t mean we’re these horrible people. It just means I got upset. I went into the lower centers of my brain and now all I’ve got to do is take some breaths, calm myself down, come to the higher centers my brain, start being conscious of what I just did, and say, “That is not what I meant to say. I got upset and I’m going to take some deep breaths and I’m going to talk to you about putting your seatbelt on in the car so that you can stay safe.” As opposed to, “You put that seat belt on or I’ll strangle you.”
We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to open our mouth and out comes our mother without us moving our lips. Then we go, “I didn’t want to do that.” I think every parent has said at one point, “When I grow up I will never do this to my child.” And then within a year they’ve already done all those things they promised themselves they would never do. And then they feel bad about it. But that’s just how the brain works. I think if we understand how the brain works we know how to get ourselves into a mess and we know how to get so calm again, and back up to her own brilliance so we’re empowered to make a change.
The further along we get in the conversation the more I can make sense of the definition. Conscious Discipline, it’s all coming together now. This sounds like a really great program that makes a ton of sense. Are a lot of preschool and early learning programs following this methodology? Do we have a long way to go? Are we improving? What’s the state of things in terms of how we’re dealing with children with challenging behaviour and using some of the methodologies of Conscious Discipline versus some of the less effective approaches we may have taken many years ago?
This is our 20th year, actually. We’re in our 20th-year celebration. We calculate that we are in 36 countries, 22 languages. And I think we’ve calculated [that] we’ve probably touched three million children’s’ lives. But the beginning of this – and this all kind of has snowballed in the last four or five years – before that I would be talking to people, it was like, “We’ve got to put the fear of God in them or something.” And people had their arms crossed and they couldn’t really hear. But in the past four or five years people have just opened up their hearts and their minds to that there might be another way. They’re more interested in trying to control themselves than control others. A lot of us have families. More difficult kids have brought us to our knees to examine our own selves. And I just think they’re part of this evolution of humankind, to know that we’re all in this together.
And we’re shifting from this notion that rules govern behaviour, and, “If I could just make the right rule and the right consequence then all would be well.” And now we’re knowing that relationships govern behaviour. Everybody knows this. If you’re with your significant other and you don’t talk and you’re mad at each other and one gets up, they say, “Would you get me something out of the fridge?” It’s like, Get it yourself!” But if everything’s going well in that relationship and you really have been communicating and developing a deep sense of connection, they get up and you’ll go, “Sure. What would you like?”
So it’s our relationship with each other that says, “I’m willing to cooperate and learn a new way.” Relationships build willingness. We can’t rely on coercion anymore because we’re going to kill each other.
Based on the number of people and the scope of people across the world picking up on Conscious Discipline – and especially with the trend in the last four or five years – it sounds like people are really opening up. That’s great news. And that’s a constant theme that we’re hearing on the Preschool Podcast is that a lot of change has been happening in the last five years or so. So it’s great to hear that you’re experiencing the same thing.
So you’ve been doing this for 20 years. How much longer are you going to do this? What’s next for you? What else are you up to?
Well, you know, this is my life’s work. So this will be what I do. In addition to this I have what’s called Conscious Discipline Care, a non-profit. The beauty of doing it for 20 years, now I’m doing pretty much what I want to do when I want to do it. It’s a little bit nicer. In Conscious Discipline Cares we’re doing a lot of work in different countries. In Grenada I work with the Syrian refugees in how to help them build little school families. The center of Conscious Discipline is creating a school family that is an extension of the home family. But it’s built on a healthy family model instead of this factory model. In a healthy family you want each person to be all they can be. In a factory model you want to pick out the good widgets and throw away the bad widgets. So this whole shift is phenomenal. I’m working with that with the refugees and doing it with some people in Thailand with the children who have been recovered from the sex slave industry.
I also like to go to other countries. I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, but a little slower. Now when I go to work in South Africa I work for two days and stay for two months. I’m just slowing down. But I think I’ll be doing this forever. The name of the game is having healthy relationships. What we hear from people who use Conscious Discipline is that it’s improved their relationship with their significant other, their parenting skills, their teaching skills, their skills with their coworkers because it’s a relationship-based. We’ve got to create healthier relationships between ourselves and different communities and – despite what’s happening here in the United States – between countries. So it’s a goal – peace on Earth. You know, I’m a Sandra Bullock from Miss Congeniality. What’s her main goal? Peace on Earth.
It sounds like a lot of people begin the journey on Conscious Discipline as perhaps a teacher-educator to improve the way that they work with children. But then you’re saying it actually ends up having a positive impact on their other relationships in life as well?
Exactly. And I didn’t even have a marketing person until last year, so it’s all been word of mouth. So how do you get to 36 countries? Word of mouth. It’s because it helped people and they tell their friends. And it helps their marriages; it helps everything. It’s just blessed. People say, “What’s the favourite thing about your job?” And I say, “I get to go out and help people. I get to go out and teach people, which reminds me to be a better person.” Every day I just go out and remind myself to be a better person. And then I get paid for it. I’m the luckiest person on the planet.
Very neat. And if I wanted to learn more about Conscious Discipline or your work where would I go to get that information?
You would go to ConsciousDiscipline.com, and let me tell you what’s up there, Ron, because this is kind of cool. And this is all free. You go to ConsciousDiscipline.com and you click on “Shubert’s School”. “Shubert’s School” is actually classrooms, whether you work with zero-to-three or first grade or second grade. And in this school you click on different structures in the classroom and it shows you Conscious Discipline in action, with real-life video from real programs. There’s over 300 videos in Schubert’s School. Whether you’re an administrator of the school, the principal of the school, whether you’re the bus driver at the school, whether you’re the teacher or the paraprofessional… you just click on that and it’ll show you different things that you can do. Over 300 wonderful videos from kids of different ages, also disabilities. I also have a YouTube channel up there. So if you go up to ConsciousDiscipline.com and look on the videos, that’s me teaching. I think there’s over 50 videos of me just teaching throughout the years.
And then our Facebook page, each day gives a lesson about Conscious Discipline. I think we have about 78-, 79,000 people on there. They answer questions too. So if you have a question or concern, or, like, “Help me with tantrums!” And then you’ll get people’s brilliance. We’re all very brilliant people. It’s just a matter of getting to those higher centers and living the values we hold dear to our hearts.
Sounds like some super-helpful resources, actually. And I know I’ve heard in the Preschool Podcast in the past as well that people really benefit from the content that comes from real classrooms, because those are real experiences, right?
Yes. It’s not all you know pretty and sweet, but you see how it makes a difference. Sometimes they’re a little loud in there, but the videos are just phenomenal, what you see. It works more than I thought. My two-year-old granddaughter, at two, was able to regulate herself. She didn’t go off to time-out. She took hold of her emotions. We had taught her how. We have a program called The Feeling Buddies, too. So she knew how to regulate her “feeling buddies”. “Instead of heavy feelings being bad guys that make me crazy, they’re my buddy. And if I work with my buddy and I go, ‘Oh your face is going like this. You seem sad. You were hoping you could play longer. You can handle it. Breathe with me.’” And then she breathes with her buddy. And what she’s doing is learning an internal speech to help regulate herself for the rest of her life. It’s quite exciting to see what’s happening.
Very exciting. Dr. Bailey you’ve clearly been doing some phenomenal work. Keep it up. I hope you have many more years of work that you can continue to produce around your work with Conscious Discipline. And I hope it leaves a big legacy as well because it sounds like you’ve come a really long way but I’m sure there’s many, many, many more people out there that can benefit from the work that you’ve done. So thank you for that.
And thank you so much for what you’re doing, and thank you for inviting me and giving me this opportunity to share.