Most of the time when we think of discipline in the classroom, we think of punishment. Maybe the image of a frowning young boy facing the corner and wearing a dunce cap passes through our minds, or the rapping of knuckles with a ruler. Education has thankfully evolved beyond such punitive measures, and so too has the way educators think about classroom discipline.
Discipline does sometimes entail negative consequences, of course. But there’s also that other way the word is used, which suggests that discipline is the active practice of a certain code of conduct. A disciplined classroom runs like a well-oiled machine, where both students and teachers feel as though they’re moving toward the same destination. Even the best of machines breaks down on occasion, however—and when that happens, teachers need to reach for their toolbox.
What follows are some ways to achieve good classroom discipline, as well as how to deal with some inevitable behavioral challenges.
Levels of discipline
In the same way that students learn at different levels, they behave at different levels as well. The Department of Education put together a resource called Discipline by Design: The Honor Level System, which describes four distinct stages of discipline that teachers can recognize and account for in managing their classrooms:
The first is “Recalcitrant Behavior,” where might makes right. Students at this level are constantly challenging authority in an attempt to defy the imbalance of power between teacher and student. They may only follow the rules when the imbalance tilts against them, so assertiveness and a watchful eye can keep them in line.
Students who practice “Self-Serving Behavior” are motivated more by threats of punishment and promises of reward than by an intrinsic desire to comply. Assertiveness is also a great way to handle these types of students, as is consistency. They require rigid guidelines, but also need to know that those guidelines will be enforced one way or another. If a self-serving student sees that a promised piece of candy was not awarded after hard work, he will be less motivated in the future. Most students grow out of the power stage and the reward-and-punishment stage early in their education, giving way to a more considerate approach to their role in the classroom.
“Interpersonal Discipline” is the next level up, where students will behave because you’ve asked them to. They want the teacher and their peers to like them, and they do not want to be known as disruptive forces in the classroom. While assertiveness can be effective, too much can cause these students to regress. They generally only require a little bit of guidance, like bumpers on a bowling lane, to make sure they stay on task. Their interpersonal awareness can be nurtured so they can develop even better classroom habits.
The final stage is the stuff of teachers’ dreams: “Self-Discipline” means that students are intrinsically motivated to do what is asked of them. They understand what’s expected, and they have no problem rising to the academic occasion. Students at this stage naturally require a different disciplinary strategy. According to Discipline by Design, “Even though they may never tell you, students who function at this level do not appreciate assertive discipline. They are bothered by the fact that other students force teachers to use so much class time dealing with discipline problems.” It’s more effective to assign these students cooperative learning activities.
Effective techniques for teachers
Once teachers understand that behavior varies between students and that different students require different disciplinary approaches, they can apply appropriate techniques to their classroom challenges. Scholastic has published a guide called 25 Sure-Fire Strategies for Handling Difficult Students, which details a range of responses to any given problem with a student.
Many strategies begin with modeling. Teachers have a powerful role in shaping the tone of the room, so they should be aware of the characteristics they’re broadcasting. Students are likely to emulate the teacher’s example, and when breakdowns in behavior occur, it is sometimes a result of mixed messages.
The adage “Do as I say and not as I do” comes to mind. When students see a disconnect between the teacher’s expectations of them and the teacher’s own behavior, they become confused about which codes of conduct they should follow. Furthermore, if the teacher is on task and organized, that will be reflected in the focus of the students.
The natural follow-up to good modeling is to set clear and consistent rules. It’s hard to reprimand students when they don’t know what’s expected of them in the first place. With transparent expectations and an immediate response to infractions, students will quickly understand what kinds of behaviors are appropriate in class.
Teachers must also take care to enforce rules consistently for all students. This can be challenging—a fact of human nature is that we like some people more than others, and sometimes personalities clash. But if a student sees that rules are unequally enforced, he or she will take that injustice to heart, which can lead to further disruptiveness down the line.
Modeling, clarity, and consistency are fundamental to establishing a positive learning environment, but when students act out, teachers need to turn to more specific techniques.
One strategy is to maintain composure—if calm is contagious, then agitation is an epidemic! If teachers lose their composure when dealing with a disruptive student, the conflict is likely to escalate. Emotionally driven incidents tend to be high on passion and low on rationale. They also risk introducing blame, ridicule, win-lose conditions, and other hostile characteristics into the classroom, so it’s wise to take a moment to regain composure.
In general, it’s best when teachers don’t draw attention to the disruption or conflict. A private discussion—either during a group activity when the student can be pulled aside, or before or after class—can go a long way toward correcting the issue. Scholastic says that “this is especially true of adolescents who must ‘perform’ for their peers. Public reprimands or lectures often trigger exaggerated, face-saving performances.”
Private discussions also allow teachers to be more specific about the student’s behavior, and provide an opportunity for the two to have closer and more meaningful interaction. Using specific, positive language to correct behavior fosters trust and respect, which in turn improves the overall learning environment.
Disciplined classroom discipline
Earning students’ respect is in many ways no different from earning the respect of anyone else. At the root of it all is empathy. We all want to be rewarded when we do good things, and when we do bad things, we expect the consequences to be proportional and fitting for the transgression. So when teachers show their students that they understand them and care about their growth and maturation, the students will be inclined to show their teacher the same respect.
Unfortunately, not everyone will behave as they’re supposed to, and when that happens, it’s helpful to utilize some time-tested classroom techniques. The discipline of discipline doesn’t have to sting like the knuckles of the students of yore. With a little bit of compassion—and a whole lot of patience—teachers can handle all of their classroom challenges.