Children and conscious discipline

Conscious Discipline in South African Schools

Conscious Discipline is a comprehensive selfregulation programme that integrates social emotional learning, classroom management and self-regulation into one seamless system. The programme – created by Dr Becky Bailey, an internationally recognised expert in childhood education and developmental psychology – is brain-based, trauma-informed and research backed.

There has never been a more appropriate time for schools to partner with parents in order to look after the social and emotional needs of our children and create safe, connected and problem-solving environments.

I was part of a group of Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) members who were introduced to Dr Bailey and Conscious Discipline at an International Confederation of Principals at the Cape Town Convention Centre in September 2017. Since then, I have travelled to the United States (US) twice, trained with Dr Bailey and become the first International Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor in Africa.

Conscious Discipline works with both adults and children. It teaches children how to regulate and manage emotions in order to make safe and healthy choices. But first the focus is on us as adults because we can’t teach skills we don’t have. We need to do the work on ourselves and our own emotions first in order to see all behaviour (even conflict and misbehaviour) as a call for help, not a disruption.

Conscious Discipline teaches adults to control their own emotional responses to children so they can stay present in the moment, connect with the child, and then work through the feelings the child is having together.

Being aware of pupil feelings, and yours

Seeing the opportunity

The Conscious Discipline approach invites us to examine our mindset and then upgrade our skillset from viewing discipline as punishment, to thinking of discipline as an opportunity to teach missing skills. Classroom management systems that fail to address the conscious awareness and emotional intelligence of the adult in the space, are not going to produce permanent behaviour changes.

Conscious Discipline advocates for us as adults (parents and teachers) to control our own emotional responses to children so we can be present with the child in their moment of upset, and then respond instead of react. Think about how adults, especially parents, have traditionally responded to their children’s big emotions (temper tantrums/melt downs etc); they range from dismissive (‘Stop your nonsense’/‘You’re just looking for attention’ to responding with anger, to minimising feelings (‘You’ll be okay’).

The Conscious Discipline programme is based on four essential components which are scientifically and practically designed for success:

1. Conscious Discipline Brain State Model

Conscious Discipline empowers us to be conscious of brain-body states in ourselves and in the children in our care. It then provides us with the practical skills we need to manage our thoughts, feelings and actions. With this ability to self-regulate, we are able to teach children to do the same. By doing this, we help children who are physically aggressive (survival state) or verbally aggressive (emotional state) to become more integrated so they can learn and use problem-solving skills (executive state). When we understand the brain state model, we can clearly see the importance of building our homes, schools and businesses on the core principles of safety, connection and problem-solving.

2. Seven Powers for Conscious Adults

The ‘conscious’ part of Conscious Discipline is based on consciousness and mindfulness research, and consists of seven powers. The Seven Powers for Conscious Adults empower us to self-regulate. These create long-term, lasting success by guiding us to become conscious, present, attuned and responsive to the needs of ourselves and children. Perceptual shifts empower us to see discipline encounters as an opportunity to teach new skills. There is nothing scarier for a child than an adult who is out of control. The key to safety is a conscious, mindful adult.

The seven powers are Perception, Unity, Attention, Free Will, Acceptance, Love and Intention.

3. Creating the School Family

The School Family is built on a healthy family model, the goal of which is the optimal development of all members. The School Family creates a positive school climate by eliminating reward and punishment in favour of safety, connection and problem-solving.

The three essential ingredients for school success are: willingness to learn, impulse control and attention.

4. Seven Skills for Discipline

Have you ever been at a loss as to how to deal with power struggles, defiance, verbal attacks, bullying or physical aggression? Have you ever wondered what would help children stay on task, pay attention and finish their work? The Seven Skills of Discipline are the only skills we need to effectively transform these everyday discipline issues into teaching moments. These moments are our opportunity to teach children the social-emotional and communication skills necessary to manage themselves, resolve conflict, prevent bullying and develop pro-social behaviours.

The seven skills are Composure, Encouragement, Assertiveness, Choices, Empathy, Positive Intent and Consequences.

Diagram of the Seven Skills for Discipline

Connection before correction – EQ before IQ

Research from Dr Bailey tells us that ‘Connections on the outside, build connections on the inside’, in other words, as we connect with children, we literally help wire their brains for willingness and self-control. Connections are made up of four components: eye contact, physical touch, being present, and being in a playful space. The interesting thing is that these moments of connection are as beneficial for adults as for children.

Traditional discipline vs Conscious Discipline

In times of anxiety, like COVID-19, when sensitivities are heightened, I’m concerned (but not surprised) to hear that some schools are enclosing children in hula-hoops and then threatening them with a demerit if they step outside their hoop. This is an example of a traditional discipline system. Here is the fundamental difference between Traditional and Conscious Discipline:

Traditional DisciplineConscious Discipline
You can make others change – you just need the right ‘carrot’ or ‘stick’Controlling yourself is possible and can profoundly impact others
Rules govern behaviour. Rewards and punishment are foundations for changing behaviourRelationships govern behaviour. Connection is the foundation for change and encourages willingness
Conflict is a disruption and should be avoided or stoppedAll behaviour, including conflict and misbehaviour, is communication and an opportunity to teach a skill
External model: Stimulus – ResponseInternal model: Stimulus – PAUSE – Response
Based on fearBased on safety


Self-regulation is more than just self-control or impulse control, it is the ability to intentionally put a pause between the impulse and response. Self-regulation is managing our own thoughts, feelings and actions, and is the cornerstone of a successful life.

Two decades of research show that self-regulation is more important that early reading, maths skills and IQ. Selfregulation is the skill that helps you stay calm and present during difficult moments of upset.

Research tells us that in order for a Social Emotional Learning programme to be most effective, it needs to be embedded in the culture and fibre of daily life at school. Conscious Discipline is unique in its approach, Adult First, Child Second. The healthier our ability to handle our emotions, the more we can help children develop their self-regulation skills and emotional health.

The feeling buddies technique is part of conscious discipline

Conscious Discipline at The Ridge Junior Prep

It is important to acknowledge that, even before the pandemic, the rates of anxiety and depression in children were significantly high. In January 2020, before COVID-19 was a reality, the World Health Organisation named anxiety and depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.

I incorporate the following routines and rituals into my weekly lessons and assemblies with Grade 0-3 boys at The Ridge School in Johannesburg.

The Brain Smart Start is made up of four components:

  1. The activity to unite as a School Family involves everyone doing something together. It builds connection, fosters a sense of safety and releases endorphins.
  2. The activity to disengage stress involves deep breathing and stretching. It prepares the brain for cortical learning and turns off the stress response.
  3. The activity to connect helps to maintain focused attention and the motivation to learn. It also releases oxytocin, which promotes connection and reduces aggression.
  4. The activity to commit oneself to learning involves affirmations and positive thinking. It produces serotonin, teaches responsibility, promotes mindful attention and develops the prefrontal lobe.

The Feeling Buddies help boys to identify and name what they are feeling in any given moment. There is a big difference between feeling an emotion and becoming it. When we ‘are’ an emotion, we react with no control over our thoughts, feelings or actions. Only when we feel and identify an emotion can we consciously choose to regulate our behaviour. I incorporate the ‘Feeling Buddies’, a programme that develops healthy self-regulation skills by helping boys identify their feelings, so they learn healthy, confident ways to respond to their emotional upset and understand that the feeling is temporary.

The Wish Well ritual

The Wish Well ritual is a practical and visual way to instantly calm ourselves and offer love and caring to others. It is a way for children to help others when there is no physically tangible way to offer their help. To wish well 1) put your hands over your heart; 2) take a deep breath in; 3) pause and picture something precious in your mind; 4) breathe out while opening your arms and sending those precious, loving thoughts out to the person you are wishing well.

When we are triggered by upset, only the lower centres of our brain are accessible, limiting our skills to fight, flee, freeze or emotional meltdown. Active calming through belly breathing: slow inhale through the nose and longer exhale through the mouth helps to cut off the fight/flight response and tell our brains that we are safe. Belly breathing and moving the diaphragm also help to stimulate the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of our brains, and allows us to put a pause between stimulus and response.

Our lessons end with a time of reflection through a guided meditation. Our favourite one is from Dr Bailey, called Safe and Calm (see:

In my 25 years of studying education and working in schools, I have come to believe that Conscious Discipline has the most transformational potential for children and adults, families and homes, schools and communities.