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Children sit next to each other on a classroom carpet. One child has her hand extended, thumb raised.


Paulette Maggiacomo

Paulette Maggiacomo

September 10, 2020

“Discipline isn’t something you do to children,

It’s something you develop within them”

Becky Bailey

There were so many excellent speakers at the Transforming Challenging Behavior Online Conference 2020. I truly felt that I learned something from each one. The presenter that spoke straight to my heart was Elizabeth Montero-Cefalo. She spoke on How to use Conscious Discipline Strategies in Preschool. As an Early Education Coach I have seen the positive impact that Conscious Discipline can have when practiced with fidelity. When practiced this way it can transform how you self-regulate and in turn be taught to the children entrusted into your care.

To better understand why challenging behavior occurs we need to be aware of the brain states and how they affect decisions that are made by both adults and children. Conscious Discipline refers to these three brain states: Survival, Emotional, and Executive.

  • The Survival State equates to the Brain Stem and is asking, Am I Safe? The developmental need is for safety. The trigger can be perceived as a real threat. Behaviors exhibited are fight, flight, or freeze.

  • In the Emotional State which is the Mid-brain, the question being asked is Am I Loved? Connection is the developmental need. This state is triggered when things are not going our way and we respond with verbal and social aggression - here is where we will see the swearing, name calling, words such as ‘poopey head,’ ‘I don’t like you,’ ‘You can’t come to my birthday party;’ blame (‘It’s all your fault’), and guilt (‘You are a mean teacher’).

  • The Executive State is the optimal state which occurs in the Pre–Frontal Cortex. In this state learning can occur because the brain is asking, What Can I Learn? Problem solving in social settings is what the brain is looking for. In this state there is empathy and goal achievement.

So how do we guide ourselves and children through these states? Elizabeth spoke about the concept of DNA which translates to Describe the body, Notice the feeling, Acknowledge the child's intention. Here is an example of how DNA can be used:

Levi is not participating during clean-up time.

  • D(escribe): “Levi, you are leaning against the wall, your head is down, and you are holding tightly to a Lego truck.” When you see that moment when he looks at you, you can take a deep breath (ideally three) and move to the next step.

  • N(otice): “You seem sad.”

  • A(cknowledge): “You didn’t want to stop building with the Legos”. This is usually a guess on your part and believe me they will correct you if you are wrong. In this case I was and Levi said, “I didn’t want anyone to help me clean–up. I wanted to do it by myself.”

Levi has upshifted to his Executive State, he is now ready to problem solve. It looks like this:

“Oh, you wanted to clean-up by yourself. What words can you say to your friends the next time it is time to clean–up?” Depending on the child’s verbal skills, you may have to coach them through it. Levi said to me, “I can tell them don’t help me.” I asked him if he could think of a nicer way to say it. He thought and said, “I could say, please don’t help me, I like to do it by myself.” Mission accomplished!

Ideally, the best time to model this (and any other behavior you want to see) might be during your morning time gathering where you could practice this as a class.

One of my all-time favorite acronyms that Elizabeth spoke about is Q-TIP, "Quit Taking it Personally." This year I am going to keep these in my teacher bag and hand them out to those in need. Some early educators believe that “Debbie” woke up in the morning and her first thought was, “How can I bug my teacher all day”? Are you willing to try the Q-TIP approach and use DNA when observing challenging behaviors?

Brain research has proven that children strive on routines and predictability. What better way to do this than to have visuals around your classroom, these instill a sense of safety in the children. (See below for a picture of a hand washing routine in a 2 year old classroom.)

Children achieve a great sense of independence when they are able to ‘read’ the visuals, it truly empowers them. So take out those phones and snap away :)

Don’t hesitate to send me pictures of your schedule, routines, or even a video showing DNA.

In a perfect world we would all remember to self-regulate ourselves first and then go to the child, see the positive intent and see the best in others, and to remember that ‘discipline’ means to teach not punish. Remember to allow yourself to feel the grace you give to others when you have an ‘oops’ moment.

Keep breathing and remember,

You’ve got this, I have faith in you.

Until next time, as always, I wish you well,


An illustration of the brain. The regions of the brain are highlighted: prefrontal cortex - decision making, midbrain - connection, brainstem - safety.
An illustration of the DNA concept - Describe the body, Notice the feeling, and Acknowledge the child's intention. The illustration is of an adult kneeling next to an angry or upset child.
A photo of a handwashing routine for young children. It uses visuals to show the step of getting hands wet, adding soap, scrubbing, rinsing, drying, and turning off the water,
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