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U.S.-Japanese discipline differences delineated

George Bear, professor in UD’s School of Education: “We found that 90 percent of the children in the United States mention punishment or fear of punishment in regulating their behavior, and 90 percent of children in Japan did not mention that. Instead, in Japan there was a much greater focus on the impact of [students’] behavior on others, and not on themselves.”

3:52 p.m., June 20, 2006--George Bear, professor in UD's School of Education, recently published an article he coauthored with former UD doctoral student, Maureen A. Manning, and professional colleague, Kunio Shiomi, in the School Psychology Review, the leading journal in its field.

The article, which examined data collected from a yearlong study Bear spearheaded, compared the differences in reasoning about aggression between Japanese and American elementary schoolchildren, and looked at different models of school-discipline methods.

Recently, UDaily spoke with Bear to discuss the genesis and thinking behind this study.

What initially got you interested in conducting such a study?

Two years ago, UD hosted a delegation of 16 school psychologists and teachers from Japan for a week, and I was invited to come over there. With that invitation, I thought how interesting it would be to do a cross-cultural study, so I started researching everything I could get my hands on to put together a grant proposal.

Also, I was interested in research here in the United States on Asian kids that shows that their academic achievement is higher and that they have fewer behavior problems than Caucasian students. I thought this might be true in Japan, too, and I wondered what the underlying thoughts and emotions were that explained the differences in behavior. The differences always have been of interest to me, and I thought that a study might give some insight into those differences.

How long did the study last, and what did the research involve?

The study lasted for just over a year in both countries and involved two one-week visits to Japanese public elementary schools, where we interviewed more than 200 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, using psychological tests that probed underlying emotions and moral reasoning.

The Japanese schools we chose were comparable to schools in and around Smyrna, where we conducted similar interviews, except that the class sizes were larger in the Japanese schools, where there were anywhere from 35 to 46 students--the typical size of elementary classes in Japan.

We also interviewed teachers and principals in all the schools.

What were the greatest differences you saw?

The greatest difference was that in the United States, children focused primarily on the fear of punishment in regulating their behavior--whether or not they thought they would get caught--whereas in Japan very few children had that perspective in governing their own behavior. In fact, we found that 90 percent of the children in the United States mention punishment or fear of punishment in regulating their behavior, and 90 percent of children in Japan did not mention that. Instead, in Japan there was a much greater focus on the impact of [students'] behavior on others, and not on themselves.

Whether or not [students] hit somebody or teased somebody or aggressed against another child, either verbally or physically, they were more concerned about how the other child would feel, rather than if they would get caught.

Did you discover why that was?

Research shows that starting at an early age--even before Japanese children enter school--Japanese mothers, in particular, emphasize that you should not tease others or hit others, because it hurts them and not because you will get spanked or get a time-out. So, I think what motivated the Japanese children's behavior, to a large extent, would be the feelings of guilt and empathy--the feelings that “I've hurt somebody else, and I feel responsible for it,” as opposed to calculated decisions of whether or not I'll get caught, with the assumption that if I don't get caught, it's OK to do that.

One way of behavior seems to be intrinsically kinder than the other. Do you have any theories about how Americans can shift more toward the Japanese model for behavior?

I don't think it's realistic to eliminate consequences. It's clearly ingrained in our society. We have rules in our schools and codes of conduct. But, I think in addition to focusing on consequences, we have to place much greater emphasis on empathy and on the impact of our behavior on others, so that even if we don't have the rules, there are good reasons not to engage in aggressive behavior.

I think, to a large extent, we fail to do that. There are discipline techniques [in America] called induction, or inductive discipline, that emphasize the impact of behavior on others, but schools don't tend to use them to the same extent they use the fear of punishment or the distribution of concrete rewards for good behavior, which is a technique you don't see much of in Japanese schools, either. In Japanese schools you don't see systematic reward structures or systems based on consequences, as we have in American schools.

Do you think the difference has anything to do with the way Japanese society is structured?

We do have a stronger sense of entitlement. But, I don't want to incorrectly say that Japanese culture is much more collective, because research doesn't support that. The Japanese are quite individualistic, and we are quite individualistic--and, we are quite collective, as well. In the United States, we pay a lot of attention to group norms. So, you can't explain this simply by saying one country focuses more on the group and the other on the individual, because we both have both dimensions. So, I think the difference is reflected in the focus on the relationship between the parent and the child and also the teacher and the child. The focus is on maintaining that relationship and not on the consequence of behavior and reward.

One fascinating finding was that when we asked principals and teachers what the primary techniques of discipline were, they said over and over that the strongest and most effective technique was developing a relationship with students. In Japan, the understanding is that children who like their teachers and who feel that their teachers care about them are more likely to behave, and research shows that, too. You're more likely to disobey those that you don't trust or agree with. So, in the context of an authority situation where you're going to be punished if you disobey, you don't disobey, because somebody's going to be watching you and you'll be punished. But, remove that constant monitoring and there's not a good reason why not to disobey in many American schools.

When we interviewed the principals at the three Japanese schools we visited and asked them how many kids were sent to the office, all three principals said emphatically, “Teachers do not send kids to the office. It is not the responsibility of a principal to deal with discipline problems.” The thinking is, it would reflect incompetence on the part of the teacher and show they have not developed a good relationship with the child.

Another fascinating finding was that when we asked how many kids were suspended, principals said, “We do not understand that concept in American schools. Why would you send a kid home if your purpose is to educate?”

Again, it came back to the [students'] relationship with the teacher, but also with the class. You make your class look bad if you act out and misbehave, so that keeps behavior in check. In Japanese schools, too, they do a lot more cooperative learning activities and ask peers to monitor the behavior of other peers, in order for the class to be perceived positively. The same thinking occurs at home as well. Culturally, when you act out in Japanese society, you bring shame to your family, and that's more a cultural phenomenon than here in the United States.

Do you have any further plans to use your research?

Yes. I plan to write a book on discipline and parenting during my sabbatical in spring 2007, in which I will probably integrate some of the research. A lot of the data has yet to be analyzed, but I plan to look more specifically at some of the emotions that kids in America and Japan experience, particularly focusing on anger and shame and empathy. So far, we've found no difference in reported feelings of anger between American and Japanese children. So, what we tend to see is that Japanese children don't express their anger to the same extent that American children do. They're able to self-regulate more.

Article by Becca Hutchinson

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