Are discipline and punishment the same thing? People often use the terms to mean the same thing. But discipline and punishment are different. Both teach kids to follow rules, but only one teaches kids how to correct their misbehavior.
Punishment aims to stop the behavior
Punishment is a form of negative discipline. It’s often used to get rid of or end a behavior.
When kids push your buttons or disobey rules, you may be quick to give them a consequence that’s going to make them unhappy enough to stop what they’re doing. It’s a common response when you feel frustrated, angry, or just plain fed up. But it’s not likely to change kids’ behavior in the long term.
Positive discipline aims to correct the behavior
Positive discipline discourages misbehavior. But it also teaches kids expectations and accountability. It helps kids see that there’s a connection between what they do and what happens next — the natural and logical consequences.
These are sometimes called corrective consequences. They help kids learn to correct their behavior. This kind of positive guidance works just as quickly as punishment. And it can be more effective than punishment.
Punishment versus discipline
Consider this scenario: Sandra and Javier have been arguing over colored pencils all afternoon. One of them pushes the other, and they both start yelling. You might say, “Both of you, stop it! You’re not allowed to go outside today!”
That’s punishment. It may stop the behavior in the moment, but it’s not going to teach Sandra and Javier the skills they need the next time they argue.
When you use positive discipline, you might say, “Give me the colored pencils. Neither of you can use them right now. Sandra, take a deep breath. Now use the ‘I statements’ we practiced yesterday to tell Javier why you’re upset.” With positive discipline, you’ve taught Sandra and Javier how to respond next time — and any time a disagreement comes up.
Use this comparison chart to learn more about punishment versus discipline.
|Negative Discipline/Punishment||Positive Discipline/Corrective Consequence|
|What it is|
A penalty for doing something wrong. It tries to change kids’ future behavior by making them “pay for their mistakes”
A reactive approach that handles the situation in the moment
A logical or natural consequence for wrongdoing. It aims to change future behavior by helping kids learn from their mistakes
A proactive approach that handles the situation in the moment and teaches skills for the future
Puts adults in control of kids’ behavior and for deciding the outcome of their decisions
|Assumptions and guidance|
Assumes that behavior is only about doing something “bad” or “wrong”
Provides little help figuring out how to behave differently in the future
Assumes that behavior is a form of communication
Provides help in learning how to behave differently in the future
|Types of consequences|
Negative consequences aren’t directly tied to what happened, such as:
Corrective consequences meet the “three R’s”:
There are two types of corrective consequences:
|Examples of consequences|
|What kids learn from this|
The message is: “You need to stop doing that; it’s wrong.” Kids learn:
The message is: “Here’s what you can or should do instead.” Kids learn:
You may not always respond to behavior as well as you’d like to, especially in stressful moments. But you can always make changes. These resources can help:
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Kristin J. Carothers, PhD is a clinical child psychologist devoted to the destigmatization of mental health problems.