School “Discipline”?

(Coffee-spew warning;
swallow beverage before reading.)

I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, and then several things reached critical mass, including a comment by a tutee, the recent post on Alex Barton (“Mend the Link”), and some internet articles listing “common questions asked in teacher interviews”.

Oh, plus this wayfinding sign displayed on the end of a “stack” at a library. The numbers of course refer to the Dewey Decimal subject classification. I like to think that whomever printed up the sign appreciated the ten-tonne irony; I also wonder just how many people actually notice it.

(Post continues below picture)

Apparently one of those common teacher-interview questions runs along the lines of, “How do you maintain classroom discipline?”

Wow. That sort of phrasing gives me flashbacks of other people’s experiences with nuns holding rulers or head masters holding paddles. I must have lived a charmed life, because I was never in the sort of classroom where students got paddled; we merely got our self-esteem chewed down verbally, much like the rattly sharpeners chewed down our #2 pencils. This is more insidious because the black and blue marks don’t show, and because it’s dismissed as “merely” getting yelled at.

But that’s not what discipline is really about. It’s not about “making children do what you want” nor about “controlling behavior with punishments and bribes” (really two sides of the same coin).

When my tutee and I were discussing details for a paper on his personal values in dating, the student (who had other alarming qualities), could only define “discipline” as meaning spanking. Spanking, he said, was “okay to do to children, because adults should know better”. What he would feel appropriate for an adult who somehow didn’t know better, I didn’t dare to ask.

Corporal punishment as discipline — or the threat of such — does not work well. It can stop bad behavior, but doesn’t teach better behavior. Worse, it teaches the wrong things. Even bribes and gold stars don’t work well, because the focus is shifted from what is being done, to what the reward is. Psychologists have found that extrinsic rewards are actually dismotivating in the long run. (Hell, even when I was a kid I knew this — I decided that if I really wanted some gold stars, I’d go with my mom to the store, and buy myself a box of them. Miss Van House’s chart of gold stars did nothing to actually help me learn my multiplication tables better; it merely displayed my difficulties to everyone else for them to give me further ridicule.)

But what’s scary is how often we find so many mixed messages in the system that relies upon “beating others” by dominating them in hierarchies or in competitions:

You shouldn’t beat up your peers. It’s okay for adults to beat up on you.

We want you to resist peer pressure and think for yourself. We want you to believe everything we tell you about what are good values.*

We want you to be a good team member. Don’t even think of asking the student next to you how they solved the problem; you do your own work.

Be responsible. Only do what we tell you to.

We want you to be compassionate and look out for each other. We want you to turn in your peers to the authorities when they are troubled.

Cooperation is the key to success. There can only be one winner, so you have to beat everyone else.

Yeah, as if!

When people talk about classroom discipline, they tend to fall into assumptions that unless the teacher imposes their will over the students and threatens them from the beginning, then the students will automatically misbehave.

Having spent two years working in a self-contained setting with 30 students with emotional & behavioral problems, people will sometimes ask me if I think that kids are inherently bad. It’s an age-old question of philosophy and Western religion (original sin and all that). But it’s not really an issue of whether people are naturally good or naturally bad — that’s a false dichotomy. People are just one more animal species, with each individual trying to get what they need from the social interactions. Humans do horrible things and wonderful things, and mostly just do things that are varying levels and mixtures of good and bad. Any behavior that gets a person what they need is in some way adaptive, but it may also be maladaptive.

For example, when people lie, it is because they don’t feel safe telling the truth. In hostile environments, telling the truth is often demanded explicitly, but the implicit or covert message is that actually telling the real truth (as opposed to what those in charge want to hear) will likely get you in trouble too. What then? If you’re a socially naive and honest little child (autistic or otherwise), you’re likely to get in trouble, and then afterwards flounder in bewilderment as to why, and what you did wrong, and what really happened.

So what then, is “discipline”? The word means several things, as I reminded my tutee. It means self-control. Discipline also means training and practicing a skill, or a particular field of learning, such as science or mathematics or social studies. He made a little polite social noise of acknowledgment, but I don’t think the words got much past his auditory processing and working memory. In his world, discipline meant beating up on someone to force them to do what you wanted, and he had seen little to refute that, or to change his perception of either the appropriateness or the necessity of doing the same.

Then too, we have adults acting out when they get frustrated, and engaging in bullying behavior. In really rotten systems, the principal bullies the staff and the students, the staff bully each other and the students, and the students bully each other and sometimes the staff. Even worse, everyone pretends this is normal and “just the way things are” and sometimes tries to stop the worst of it by simply engaging in more of the same. (Cue Pink Floyd’s album, “The Wall”.) When students like Alex Barton do things they shouldn’t, everyone then feels entitled to gang up on them in order to “teach them a lesson”. Alas, it is the wrong, wrong lesson.

The best alternatives I have found to the forcible method of class discipline (whether physical or verbal), is a model built upon compassion, upon open-ended exploration with the students about what they need and how it can be achieved positively, and upon thoughtful consideration of what the evidence we have for making these decisions. It’s even a model built upon acknowledgment that secondary students have already heard (and recited) the official rules a gazillion times, and that it’s more useful to ask what problems might really happen in our science classroom and how we should prevent or handle them.

It’s all rather nicely summed up in this quote from a book that I really want to read soon, Democratic Schools, Second Edition: Lessons in Powerful Education, by Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane:

“The two qualities that seemed to define our ideal citizen were empathy and skepticism: the ability to see a situation from the eyes of another and the tendency to wonder about the validity of what we encountered.”

Empathy and skepticism; two great things that work great together!

__________ # ___________

* Some of these are mentioned in Alfie Kohn’s essay, “How Not to Teach Values”, as was mention of the quote from the first edition of the Apple & Beane book.


  1. Brian said,

    28 June 2008 at 15:06

    The disconnect between sexual abuse of children by teachers and other school personnel and the notion that it’s alright to paddle or spank schoolchildren is truly horrible. Even if you as a parent use spanking as a discipline tool, giving another adult permission to hit and injure your child is amazing to me. I did not ever attend a school that allowed corporal punishment but even a small amount of research into the current situation will reveal thousands of lawsuits and hundreds of children being injured by principals and teachers who seem to revel in the power trip of beating a child until they bruise. How is that not sexual assault and child abuse? The courts have consistently upheld the rights of schools to harm our children and hold educators unaccountable for their actions.

    I understand that teachers are under tremendous pressure and the the public schools have turned into standardized test factories rather than institutes of learning, but among the leading nations of the world, the United States is among the very few that allow corporal punishment and yet the problems of discipline keep getting worse.

  2. Corey said,

    17 June 2008 at 14:14

    I worked under an Asst. Principal one year who would assert her authority by loudly exclaiming “Did I tell you to ________?!” when a student would do something she didn’t like. While it was amazingly effective (in that the student would almost always immediately freeze), it always struck me as odd b/c it seemed to imply that students should never do anything unless they were told to — which would make it awfully hard to learn self-control or independent thinking.

  3. andrea said,

    13 June 2008 at 17:02


    I certainly don’t envy your position of having to go in after the situation has been messed up and escalated by several people. In classrooms (like workplaces and other organisations), it’s never just one person — a single person’s problems get socially magnified by poor handling. And of course, there are those people who thrive on being drama queens (gender inclusive), and those who are too willing to stir up the pot just to watch the show and avoid anything resembling school work. It’s really fun when you have several of those in one room, especially with one or more staff members as well. ( / sarcasm )

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the parenting end! We ran into the same issues at our school with the EBD students — we try to run things with consistency in the procedures and the consequences, with foci on personal responsibility for ones own actions, on planning ahead and learning to anticipate problems and developing contingency plans (all those “executive function” issues that our students were so particularly poor at), on treating others politely (we modeled a LOT of calm, polite, empthetic, reasonable behavior because it was so lacking).

    But a good number of these students (in addition to various learning difficulties and/or psychiatric issues) also had very unstable home environments, where there was little consistency between parents, between days, and between school and home. Several of them had been in and out of the juvenile detention center. Things were always worse after holidays, on Mondays (after spending the weekends with various parents or the lack thereof), and on Fridays (when they were anticipating spending the weekends with various parents).

    You just did what you could, and hoped to provide an alternative example of how people could think and behave. Most of them did slowly improved socially, if for no other reason than children do get older.


  4. Q6 said,

    13 June 2008 at 5:48

    See, now it’s not just educators that should be reading this. I can think of three or four thousand parents that should read this post as well.

    One of the problems I have (I’m the Assistant Principal who is asked to step in when the teacher’s had enough) is that we’re somwhow in the position not to augment the things taught at home, but to guide these thing in opposition to what is taught at home (or, at the very least, to teach what isn’t even touched in the home). It’s almost the same dilemma that divorced parents have when the rules are radically different in the households. No continuity.

  5. 4 June 2008 at 23:30

    Oh, good grief! That sign made me chuckle, but I wonder how many people noticed the pun in its original setting. Librarian humor is sadly doomed to obscurity :(

    I was fortunate enough to go to an alternative school from seventh through twelfth grade. The school, like the one you mentioned, focused on rewarding good citizenship and productive behavior, rather than punishing misbehavior. Badly behaving students were told that they did not have to be in school and that they could leave if they liked, but were offered the option of seeing a counselor at any time, proposing an alternative learning method if an instructor’s teaching style didn’t work, and incorporating short or long breaks into the schoolday in order to relax and destress.

    Unfortunately, hiring of staff that didn’t understand the school’s mission very well made these measures less effective, but it was still a valuable experience and showed that you don’t need to confine or force students into anything in order to produce learning.

  6. Naomi said,

    3 June 2008 at 22:53

    I just finished reading The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, by Vivian Gussin Paley. Mrs. Paley is an amazing preschool/kindergarten teacher and in this book she explains why she did away with the time out chair and how she manages behavior without punishment of any kind. Instead of time-out, she helps the misbehaving child to find an appropriate role in fantasy play. The idea of doing away with having consequences for breaking the rules is pretty radical to me, and I’m not sure how well it would work with the older kids I am currently teaching, (they are past the stage where fantasy play is central to everything) but I sure am thinking about it. It’s an apealling idea – I hate punishing kids, but I’m just afraid the class would run completely amok if there were no consequences for not following the class rules.

  7. diddums said,

    3 June 2008 at 10:01

    I had two teachers just like Norah’s… and my Biology teacher was one of the nicest ones too. :-) She had to leave because her husband got a job somewhere else; I wasn’t best pleased with the guy…

  8. Norah said,

    3 June 2008 at 8:09

    I recall two teachers during highschool (like extreme examples). In the classroom of one, everyone was silent because of the sheer force of verbal abuse that would follow if you so much as squeeked. Everyone sat in fear of being given a ‘turn’, because the same would happen if you got the answer wrong. Not only was his volume high, he knew just what to say to make someone want to sit in a corner and die.

    Then there was the biology teacher. When she walked into the room, silence followed. Not because of her volume or cruelty, but because people wanted to hear what she was going to say. She was never cruel, never loud. She didn’t only talk to the people who were good at her subject, and she didn’t only talk to the popular kids. She was (or faked very convincingly otherwise) genuinely interested in everyone, both personally and for what they had to say on her subject. No one was afraid to get something wrong or receive a bad mark, but not many people did, and not very often.

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