And Why Discipline is All About Healthy Emotional Regulation and Brain Development

It may not be under a teacher’s job description but they influence the emotional development of the students they teach in their classroom.  Teachers not only specialize in a particular subject or grade but also impart social-emotional skills that help students of any age to develop into well-rounded adults.  In a classroom setting it can be difficult to allow time for corrective action that leads to healthy change.  

Teachers don’t always think about this but they play a huge role in the emotional development of children. It’s easy to want to just teach subject matter, but in the end, the goal of any teacher (and parent), is to help children develop into adults that not only function, but can also contribute to a healthy community. But when kids misbehave, many adults lean on obedience, rather than building healthy discipline in children. 

(I think it’s important not to devalue the importance of obedience.  There is a difference in the level of understanding a child and teacher possesses. Sometimes obedience is needed in a classroom as a matter to protect others around the student displaying difficult behaviors. The teacher is required to use discernment in each situation so I don’t think it’s helpful to pit the term obedience against healthy discipline. One may argue its two sides of the same coin.) 

The Brain Regulation Connection

Healthy brains and positive social-emotional regulation are a result of kids receiving co-regulation from another adult in their life. In order for children to develop healthier brains they need to receive and experience healthy self regulation skills from their caregiver and teachers.  Kids need external regulation from parents and teachers. This allows higher-level brain regions to develop. Ideally, children learn and internalize ways to self-regulate over time so that the upper regions of the brain can develop. These upper regions (the cortex) deal with complex relational interactions, while “threat” is handled by the quick-acting brainstem. When the cortex doesn’t develop properly, a person relies on the brainstem to make decisions about complex interactions, which can lead to responses that seem as an overreaction to us. 

Think of it this way: when a two-year-old is upset, they often need to be rocked to soothe them. But as a child ages, you may see a seven-year-old holding back tears while trying to express their feelings and manage the situation with words. 

Obedience vs. Discipline

When a child is “misbehaving,” it can be easy for adults to forget the role they play in helping to coach children in their emotional development. When kids talk when they shouldn’t, pick on each other, or act out, it feels easier to want consequences or obedience for these actions to soothe our own frustrations, rather than help guide children in learning self-regulation. 

Consider your child or student in which you find are often doing something frustrating. Think about the correction you are providing. What is it doing to your student or child? 

Let’s take a look at some ways you can provide better guidance toward emotional discipline.

  • External Regulation: Don’t use a loud voice to discipline the student, asking them, “How many times do I have to ask you to stop?” This can lead to a heightening of their current dysregulation. Instead, say, “Let’s stop and breathe with me like this.” Once the student has calmed down, you can ask them about what just happened.
  • Care and Connection: Instead of marginalizing or punishing a student by not letting them do what everyone else gets to do because of poor behavior, instead ask them what is happening for them and express understanding that you know this isn’t the way they want things to be going.
  • Building Skills: Don’t reject a child in front of others and create a fear-based community. This includes saying to a child in front of the class that they are “ruining the fun event for the whole class because you can’t behave.” Instead, show empathy by telling them that even you sometimes have a hard time sitting still during classes. Then help them build skills to be part of the community by telling them some tricks that have helped you learn and listen over the years. 

Building Relationships to Coach Emotional Development

Connecting with your students or child is the best way you can ensure you are coaching emotional development and building healthy discipline, not obedience through fear. Relationships build empathy and earn respect and trust. 

Here’s a few tips to help you build better relationships with the children in your care.


  • Find a moment to connect with a student and ask an open-ended question that allows for reflection and empathy.
  • Express clear and high expectations for what they can do and describe your belief in their ability to meet those expectations. 
  • Talk them up to another adult by telling parents or other professionals what they have accomplished so far and encourage them to repeat the feedback to the positive child.


  • Connect with students when you aren’t asking anything of them (e.g. “Did you see the game this weekend?” or “Love your shirt, is it new?”).
  • When you need to redirect, begin with empathy (e.g. “I know this is hard…”).

Restore: (This is for restoring a relationship you have previously had. If you read this and imagine them responding sarcastically, you need to establish a relationship first.)

  • Sometimes we as adults can have a difficult time of letting go of something that has embarrassed or frustrated us. So if you find yourself thinking something like, “If only they weren’t in my class…” then you need to try an empathy statement with them. One example is, “I know this isn’t how you want things to go, but let’s try to get on the same page.”
  • Identify what you want for yourself and what you want for the child.
  • Collaborate with the child on the problem. Ask things such as, “What do you need from me?” and “How can we change this situation for both of us?” 

Final Thoughts

When we build relationships on a foundation of discipline, and not obedience, we will find it much more rewarding as a teacher or parent. This also leads to healthy brain development for children. Creating safe places for them to learn allows their cortex to develop properly, rather than living in fear of punishment and consequences.