When it comes to discipline, timing is everything

What do stand-up comedy and parenting have in common?

In both comedy and parenting, timing is everything.

We’re constantly reminded of different scripts and techniques to try when we need to discipline our child. But in focusing on the WHAT to say, the WHEN to say it is often overlooked.

Here’s the TL;DR version: In the heat of the moment is NOT the time to discipline.

In the heat of the moment is NOT the time to discipline

Want to know why? Read on.

But first, I’m going to share a story about a situation where my timing was waaaay off.

My Bad Timing Story

It was early on in my teaching career and I was still learning how to set clear and consistent boundaries with the preschoolers in my class. It was time to reset the room before snack. I asked K, a 5-year-old, to please tidy up the blocks he had been using.

K ignored me.

I asked again.

He continued to ignore me.

I was starting to get nervous, feeling all my authority slipping away. “It’s time to tidy up now, would you like me to help you?” I asked.

“I don’t want to tidy up” K replied, looking away. He then got up and started walking to get ready for snack time.

“K, I would like you to tidy up before snacks” I said, my voice rising.

This went on for a while, with K getting steadily more agitated.He started running around the room, hiding under tables, giggling maniacally. I finally cornered him and held him as gently as I could while he flailed and wailed and called for his mother.

The blocks eventually got tidied up after snack time was over and everyone else was at circle time, with both of us sweaty and exhausted. I had achieved my discipline goal of getting him to tidy up the blocks, but it left both of us feeling dysregulated and disconnected from one another.

I now know that when a child is exhibiting undesirable or challenging behaviour, they aren’t merely being defiant. They’re communicating a need. It could be in response to a physical need, like whining because of overtiredness. It could be an unmet emotional need. Like having a meltdown over getting served with the wrong plate at dinner when really, the child is feeling unsettled about something that happened at school. By the time we see the behaviour, we’re seeing a child who is exhibiting a stress response.

The Zones of Regulation

One way of understanding this is to think about their nervous system as being in one of three zones or pathways:

Red (Flight or fight)

You might see your child showing an angry or grimacing face. Her eyes are wide or squinting and darting quickly around the room. Her body is tense, maybe moving constantly and she may be biting, hitting or kicking. She might be yelling or crying in a high-pitched voice or speaking in overly loud tones.

Blue (Shutting down)

You might notice your child looking blank and speaking in a quiet, flat voice. Her movements have slowed down and she might be avoiding eye contact. Her body posture is slumped and resigned.

Green (Social Engagement)

Your child is bright and alert and maintaining eye contact. Her demeanour is alert and relaxed. Her voice is normal and she’s smiling and laughing. When children are in this zone, they feel safe and connected so we’re able to engage with them effectively.

These zones become a radar, alerting us when our child needs help and is unable to engage. For more on understanding the different zones/pathways and how we can use them to respond better, I highly recommend Dr. Mona Delahooke’s book ‘Beyond Behaviours’. The main thing to remember here is that we should only address the misbehaviour when the child is emotionally regulated and back in the green zone. Otherwise, they’re fully focused on basic survival and all of our well-intentioned lessons won’t go anywhere.


When I reflect on my showdown with K, I can now see that he was clearly tired and was probably quite hungry leading up to snack time. It was NOT the time for me to rigidly insist on the blocks being tidied up in my manner of choosing. In hindsight, I should have checked in with myself first as I was definitely getting into the red zone myself. Then I could have supported K in regulating his emotions which were starting to spiral.

I could have done this by really seeing and hearing him, getting attuned to his needs and what he was communicating through his behaviour. And then, when both of us were back in the green, I could have sat down to discuss the behaviour with him. Maybe we could have worked on the blocks after snack. Or I could have sat with him as he released all that frantic energy.

I should have prioritised the relationship, knowing that I could find a way to enforce the boundary when the time was right.

So, the next time you want to discipline your child, observe their cues and see whether they’re ready to engage or need your help getting back to a calm, receptive state. And remember, timing is everything.

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