MacKenzie instructs on how to set classroom limits

October 13, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Rob MacKenzie has watched parents, teachers and children fight with each other for years. He knows a lot about discipline and very frequently, he says, the discipline problem lies with the adult, not the child.

MacKenzie, who graduated from UC Davis with a master's degree in educational psychology in 1977, has written two self-help books designed to help parents and teachers break out of destructive old habits that hinder effective discipline.

His first book was "Setting Limits" and his most recent book, available in paperback, is "Setting Limits in the Classroom."

"I started off as a school psychologist working with children, parents and teachers and I had a good look at kids in the classroom and what I noted was that a lot of children were unprepared for successful performance in the classroom. They lacked a basic understanding of some of the social skills to be successful. They lacked responsibility, independence, self-control and communications skills."

In order to learn these skills, the students and teachers had to learn to communicate effectively with each other.

He also noted that discipline was as much a problem with parents and teachers as it was with children or students.

"What makes both books unique is the fact that I devote some time to helping parents and teachers look at their behavior in a way that doesn't cause them to feel embarrassed or humiliated but is positive and reassuring and helps them take corrective action," he said.

The key is communication.

"Both books are about communication and how that breaks down," he added. "I try to help parents and teachers see through examples what works and what doesn't work."

He calls these communication breakdowns "dances."

For instance, when a second-grade teacher sees Jimmy tilting back in his chair, she may say: "Jimmy, I'd feel much more comfortable if you sat the right way."

He may say, "OK," and he might lean forward a little, but he doesn't stop and the teacher's attention is diverted elsewhere.

The teacher thinks she has given Jimmy a clear message but Jimmy heard that he had a choice. She would prefer if he sit up correctly, but she wasn't going to take any action.

This leads to power struggles and testing and a lot of wasted time in the classroom.

"About 25 percent of a teacher's time goes to guidance and discipline," said MacKenzie. Of course, ineffective communicators may spend much more time engaged in the dance of discipline.

MacKenzie says clear signals with words followed by effective action goes a long way toward ending or preventing problems.

"This is what children are looking for - our rules in practice. They determine this by testing or research. They hear the words, they look for the action," he said.

Frequently rules in theory are quite different from rules in practice and kids figure this out.

He also says parents and teachers need to work off the same page to enforce consistent discipline and that's frequently difficult. Discipline needs to be clear, firm and respectful, he said.

The punitive or humiliating model of discipline is one extreme, while the permissive or cajoling model is the opposite extreme.

"I recommend something in between the two extremes, which kids typically respond to," he said.

For example, let's go back to Jimmy, the second-grader. His teacher sees that he is again tilting back in his chair. This time she says: "Jimmy, if you don't sit correctly we'll put your chair up for 15 minutes and you can sit on the floor."

That's a clear message, which spells out the consequences. It doesn't shame or humiliate Jimmy and it gives him the power to decide what to do.

MacKenzie has two sons, so he's learned from experience - and is still learning - all about the dance of discipline, communication and limit-setting.

Those who would like a copy of "Setting Limits" or "Setting Limits in the Classroom" ($15) may write to Prima Publishing, P.O. Box 1260BK, Rocklin, CA 95677.

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