Empathic-Mindset Vs Punitive-Mindset: Discipline That Works

For the last few months, I have had the privilege of working as a Military and Family Life Counselor (MFLC) in an elementary school. I still can’t believe I get paid to love children. Although I do miss working in the trenches—collaborating with couples who are at each other’s throats yet longing for connection, running groups with brave military men and women dealing with the woes of trauma, or journeying alongside individuals longing to undo their debilitating aloneness—I am learning to be okay with working with very big, kid issues.


I am learning to appreciate opening stuck lunch boxes, listening to wild drawn out stories about made up monsters, mediating catastrophes (“he said I was weird”), helping with math problems that I pretend to know the answer (I confess, I am not smarter than a 3rd grader when it comes to math), and compassionately listening to them when they are having a tough day.


Since my heart is usually for the rebel outcasts, (hmm, probably because I have always felt like one), I can’t help but notice how they are sometimes treated by well-meaning teachers. I will not disclose any details of what teachers are doing or not doing, instead, I will offer a few thoughts inspired by a research study I read today.


A recent study looking at discipline in the classroom (Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016), demonstrated the obvious—teachers who had an empathic-mindset, as opposed to a punitive-mindset, increased the child’s respect for the teachers, increased student motivation to want to perform better and cut suspension rates in half. One of the best forms of discipline for children who ignore instruction and tend to act out is not raising one’s voice, giving them an immediate consequence, and shaming them in front of the class. The most empowering form of discipline is adopting an empathic-mindset. Although the article does not go into detail about the differences between the punitive-mindset and empathic-mindset, I will share a few thoughts.


A teacher with a punitive-mindset sees a kid acting out and automatically thinks they need punishment and consequences to thwart their behavior and get them back on task. Their hope is that by firmly and immediately correcting their behavior the child will learn to stop acting out and do better next time. Typically, with a punitive-mindset comes automatic thinking and labeling such as “There goes the trouble-maker again.” Unfortunately, the child usually feels they get what they deserve, which is an adult being firm and cold towards them who constantly dishes out punishment. The child internalizes an identity of being the “trouble maker,” not worth being liked with a disposition to repeat the negative cycle. If they believe they are no good, they will do what no-good kids do.


A teacher with an empathic-mindset cares about behavior but they are first and foremost relationally and empathically minded. They see a kid acting out and automatically wonder how loving connection and attunement can bring about the desired outcome—which is a child learning skills that will set them up for a lifetime. Regardless of the child’s defiance and emotional dysregulation the teachers are mindful to speak with a respectful tone and choose to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. They are curious how the child’s inner world is interacting with their outer world. In other words, they care about context. They ask questions to themselves, such as, “Is the child having a bad day.” “Perhaps something is happening at home.” “Perhaps, there was not enough time between transitioning of class tasks.” The teacher also does something novel—ask the child what they think is going on and see if they can come up with a plan together to work towards mutually agreeable goals. The empathic-mindset takes care not to label the child negatively but believes in the child’s capacity for greatness and growth.


I was recently working in a classroom with a child who unfortunately perceived himself as a “problem child.” Before class, the anxious and frustrated teacher gave me a list of all his misbehaviors and told me he was a kid to watch out for. At some point in class, I squatted down, looked him gently in his eyes, and told him, “I believe in you. You are an amazing kid and you are capable of doing anything.” The young man, with shame-filled eyes, said in a slow sincere whisper, “Could you tell the teacher that?” My heart was crushed. Another young child who yearned to be connected with, longed to be believed in, and gently called into greatness.




Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 113(19), 5221-5226. doi:10.1073/pnas.1523698113