Positive Discipline: How to Discipline Your Foster Child

The spectre of spanking looms over every parent.  Traditionally a method of discipline aimed at correcting a child’s behavior, spanking has become a rather controversial topic in parenting.  For foster parents, spanking is an even more grave concern; as state-sponsored caregivers, they represent the state and as such are held to much stricter standards than biological parents.  Foster parents need to navigate the strict lines between what is and is not acceptable discipline – you need consider very carefully how to discipline your foster child.

In New Jersey, resource parents receive a copy of the Resource Family Handbook upon completing their initial training.  This book goes a long way to explain state policies on a variety of topics, from bike safety to Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) policies to appropriate discipline.  According to the Handbook:

The child also should never be deprived of meals, mail or family contact as a method of discipline. Corporal punishment, including HITTING, STRIKING, WHIPPING, SLAPPING, BERATING or any other form of punishment causing physical or emotional harm or pain must never be used.

While it lays out pretty clearly that any physical discipline is prohibited, the Handbook stays completely within the lines of what’s legal.  This is where FAFS’ trainings come into play.  Each course provides a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide that helps familiarize resource parents with a variety of topics.  Pulling directly from our training, we’re providing you with basic legal information but also working to address foster parent questions like, “Why can’t I spank my foster child?”  The fact is, while spanking may be considered legally appropriate in many states, a foster parent absolutely cannot spank his child – DCP&P strictly forbids the use of corporal punishment and instead encourages a technique known as “positive discipline.”  The state draws a distinct line between discipline and punishment.

Discipline Vs. Punishment

Discipline and punishment are two different things.  Basically, punishment is a punitive measure intended to make the child suffer as a consequence for unwanted behavior, while discipline is a method of showing the child why his behavior was wrong and teaching him responsibility for his actions.  As an example, spanking is a punishment while putting a child in time-out is discipline.  Beyond this critical distinction there are important reasons why spanking doesn’t work; it may trigger memories of previous abuse or validate the use of violence.

Guide Him as You Discipline Your Foster Child

“House rules” are a natural part of parenting, and it’s important to establish some to give your foster children a clear idea of how to behave.  However, these rules should be adjusted as needed for each individual child in your home.  Children in foster care may have experienced trauma or have special needs, and often times, “traditional techniques” that foster parents might be acquainted with just don’t work as well as they might with their own biological children.  A child just entering care will likely have a mix of emotions and may behave in many different ways, whether through aggressive acting out or complete withdrawal and silence.  It’s important to make consequences clear, but always be sure that your foster child has the opportunity to learn from his mistake.

Methods to Positively Discipline Your Foster Child

The Resource Family Handbook describes appropriate discipline as:

…denying privileges, such as a special activity or a favorite television program, or time outs, where the child is separated from others for a short period of time.

The 28 words that make up this definition of “acceptable forms of discipline” certainly cover the basics of what a foster parent might do, but FAFS understands that more context is required if a caregiver is going to provide the best possible service to these children.  As the Handbook suggests, there are several different methods of discipline, but the most important thing to remember that the principles of positive discipline must be upheld.  As you discipline a child, you must also ensure he’s learning responsibility for negative behaviors while rewarding him for positive ones.  Positive reinforcement can range from verbal appreciation of a child’s accomplishment or behavior to a material reward like a toy or dinner at the child’s favorite restaurant.  It’s also important to keep discipline age-appropriate; after all, you can’t exactly deprive a toddler of his cell phone, and a five-minute time-out won’t mean much to a teenager.

Understanding Why You Discipline Your Foster Child

Foster parents need to acknowledge the difficulties children face in foster care.  Remember that children may have experienced a vast array of abuses and traumas that cause them to act out.  FAFS is always working with foster parents to ensure the best possible care is delivered, and to that end it’s important for everyone to remember that when we discipline, it is not retribution for wrongdoing but an attempt to help keep these kids on the right track so their lives can improve.  Finding the most appropriate form of discipline for each child will go a long way towards ensuring positive outcomes.


The information provided in this post came directly from the Positive Discipline resource parent training course available for free to any licensed New Jersey resource parents.  If you think the course would be of interest for you, feel free to follow this link to our course catalog, or sign up online at www.fafstrainonline.org.




Author: Frank Alvarez, Digital Content Creator

Frank Alvarez is the Digital Media Coordinator at Foster and Adoptive Family Services.

2 thoughts on “Positive Discipline: How to Discipline Your Foster Child

  1. CPS does not take reports of abuse seriously. It is reported, they do not do thourough investigations and ultimately sweep abuse cases under the rug. Often times abuse could be stopped, but does not until tragedy is the result. The state looks for the simple ways out. “Look the other way mentality”. Why?

    1. Because of a multitude of reasons. Lack of resources, not enough foster homes, lazy, red tape, burnout, over burdened, overwhelmed, over worked.

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