Meaningful Change: Transforming Education Mindset and Culture 


If you ask educators what they would most like to see improved in their school buildings and centers, climate and culture often come out on top. Savvy educators know it’s difficult to excel when the environment you work in or learn in is dysfunctional. Infighting, drama, lack of support, funding concerns, and conflicting directives on the adult side, and increases in outbursts, bullying, emotional dysregulation, developmental delays, and impulse control issues from the student side add up quickly. You want to experience a culture that feels welcoming, students who are ready to learn rather than distracted by a multitude of issues, team members you can trust to have your back, and a general sense of optimism and unity. Schools with these cultures don’t happen by accident; they are the result of individuals who summon the courage to bring calm to the chaos to the best of their ability every day. And that starts with a mindset shift. 

While many programs start with student behavior as the vector for change, Conscious Discipline knows that to truly make a difference, we must begin with an understanding of the relationship between brain state and behavior. In the simplest terms, a brain that feels threatened is unable to learn. Instead of “How can I get this child to change this behavior?” we ask, “Does this child feel safe?” and “Does this child feel connected?” These questions must be answered in the affirmative in order for children to learn a new skill, whether that skill is 2+2=4, summarizing the origins of the Cold War, asking for a turn instead of hitting, or choosing self-regulation over sniping.  

Conscious Discipline builds safety and connection into every facet of the day, so the culture of the school, classroom or center inherently meets the needs of students’ and teachers’ brains. Educational cultures that don’t address “Am I safe” and “Am I connected” leave us with classrooms full of dysregulated students whose ability to learn is impaired, and teachers who feel frustrated and overwhelmed.  


Traditional Models that focus on Behavior  

Traditional reward and punishment models, and even many behavior management models are built on extrinsic motivation and punitive systems, neither of which encourage long-term growth. The educator views disruptive behavior as “bad” and in need of correction, and their workplace success is largely determined by their ability to control the students in their care. A disruptive student is seen as bad or troublesome, bigger disruptions justify more punitive approaches, and the classroom is quickly divided into kids who are easy/worthy/willing and those who are difficult/unworthy/challenging. The same students earn stickers, and the same ones end up being removed, no matter how clearly the teacher sets the classroom expectations. This system, in which educators seek to control student behavior, puts tremendous pressure on educators, doesn’t develop intrinsic motivation or inspire cooperation in students, and impedes change and achievement because it wires students’ brains for protection (lower centers of the brain) rather than learning (higher centers of the brain). 

 Here’s why

  • Punishments and rewards are all about us and our judgment of the behavior, not about the child’s actions and their impact on others. 
  • Punishments and rewards don’t require a reflection on actions or the owning of personal responsibility. 
  • Punishments and rewards don’t ask children to recognize or manage their emotions. 
  • Punishments don’t identify or teach missing skills. 
  • Punishments and rewards systematically teach children to classify their world as “worthy” or “unworthy,” “good” or “bad.” 
  • Punishments don’t provide the intrinsic motivation needed to change behavior for the long term or to choose helpful behaviors when no one is looking.  
  • Rewards are simply the other side of the coin of punishments; they are built on the fear of missing something good rather than the fear of receiving something bad. 
  • Rewards train children to think “what do I get if I’m good” rather than developing an internal system that values contribution and achievement for its own sake. 


How is Conscious Discipline Different? 

Traditional approaches seek to stop disruptive and difficult behaviors without first addressing children’s most basic and pressing needs: a felt sense of safety and connection. Research indicates a more successful approach is to create a compassionate educational culture, actively teach skills like self-regulation, communicate expectations clearly and frequently, employ connection as a motivator for cooperation and behavior change, and focus on adult skillsets first so we can model the skills we want children to learn. Conscious Discipline achieves all of this and more. 

At Conscious Discipline, behavior isn’t seen as good or bad. Rather, we view all behavior as a form of communication. It’s then up to us—as parents, educators, administrators, social workers, mental health professionals, etc.—to decode what the behavior is trying to convey. We tend to our own self-regulatory practices first, so we are empowered to approach children’s upset from a regulated state and be curious about innovative, responsive solutions. We set clear routines and expectations to create safety, focus on rituals and attunement to cultivate connection, teach by example, and use consequences as a very specific response to behavior (and, no, “consequences” and “punishments” are not the same thing). 

As we undertake the mindset shift that distances us from rewards, punishments, and control, and focuses us instead on the brain’s core needs of safety and connection, the culture of the classroom and school shifts. Cooperation thrives in this safe, connected environment, educators can focus on teaching rather than controlling student behavior, behavior issues decline and are met with actionable steps that lead to lasting behavioral change, and greater achievement becomes a reality for all students. 

Small, steady changes can lead to big transformations. Begin within yourself, in your own classroom, school, office, or organization. Events like our upcoming 2-day workshops in Tallahassee, FL this February, Creating the School Family February 20-21 and From Chaos to Calm: Discipline for Your Most Difficult Moments, provide valuable practices for creating a healthy culture of learning, implementing the Five-Steps to Self-Regulation for adults and students, connecting with the most relationship-resistant students, and more. Join us in Tallahassee for one or both of these events or attend another Conscious Discipline event or eLearning experience to transform your educational mindset and culture and make 2024 a year in which both you and your students thrive.