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3 Ways to Promote Self-Discipline Rather Than Punishment


classroom managementWhether you’re a first-year or veteran teacher, you’ve probably said—or at least thought—“What in the world do I do with this student?” It’s a common rhetorical question, but one worth taking a closer look at.

Traditional approaches of discipline usually place an emphasis on “doing”—that is imposing punishments for undesired behavior and handing out rewards for the kinds of behavior we want. While these approaches may make us feel better and “work” in the short term, Marvin Marshall, author of Discipline Without Stress, argues that they fail to instill self-discipline in the long term. Why? According to Marshall, 

  1. If you focus on obedience (traditional discipline techniques) you may engender resistance and even defiance—whereas focusing on responsibility (teaching youth to do things for themselves) brings obedience as a natural by-product.

  2. Using rules places you in the position of a cop, rather than a coach.

  3. Although you can control a person, you cannot change another person. People change themselves, and coercion is the least effective approach for influencing another person to change.

So how do we promote self-discipline rather than punishment?

Communicate in Positive Terms
Don’t think of the color red.

What happened when you read the sentence above? Most likely, you conjured up a mental picture of the color red. Similarly, when we tell our students what not to do, often the opposite results.

As Marshall suggests, “the brain does not envision ‘don’t’ or similar word choices. The brain envisions pictures, illusions, visions, and images.” We may have good intentions when we say “Don’t look at your neighbor’s test” or “Don’t run in the hallway,” but by saying these things, we’ve in fact created images of our students looking at each other’s tests and running through the hallway!

To avoid this, Marshall suggests that we communicate using positive language: Do keep your eyes on your own paper; do be sure to walk in the hallway.

Rather than aiming at obedience, promote responsibility
Making others obedient usually means that we are using coercion, the least effective approach for changing behavior.

It should not be our goal to change students; instead, we should aim to promote self-responsibility so that students can change themselves.

One way to do this is by asking students reflective questions:

  • "Are you willing to try something different if it would help you?"
  • "What would an extraordinary person do in this situation?"

Rather than impose, elicit

When teachers impose consequences, they also take away the opportunity for students to own the behavior and its consequence.

To promote self-discipline, try eliciting a consequence or a procedure that will help redirect students’ impulses. Use questions such as, “What do you think is a fair consequence for doing X?”  and "What procedure can we develop so that in the future you will not be a victim of your impulses?"

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