Classroom Discipline Best Practices

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Discipline is one of the most pressing issues in our schools today, and in order for learning to take place, teachers must control and minimize time off task due to discipline problems.  Choosing an effective approach and using it correctly can make a big difference in whether a child feels safe or threatened and whether a child learns more appropriate behaviors or not once the discipline has been administered. 

Instead of waiting until bad behavior rears its ugly head, it is best practice for teachers to proactively teach discipline just like any other subject.  Lessons should include teaching positive behavior skills and how to achieve them during various situations.   As students’ knowledge, skill, and practice of good behavior grows, so does the chance of them having a lasting impact.  The goal is to help students develop self-control and begin to understand socially responsible behavior.

Usually, teachers discuss classroom rules on the first day of school and post them in the room as a visual reminder.  While this approach to rule setting can be quite effective in establishing a sense of order in a classroom (which we very much need), it does little to help children develop self-discipline, ethical thinking, or an understanding of how to be contributing members of a democratic community.  At its worst, it invites tension, blind obedience, or a constant battle of wills between adults and children in school. (Thorton, Mary Beth. Rules in School. Center for Responsive Schools, Inc. 2011)

Research suggests that when students and teachers work collaboratively during the early weeks of school to develop classroom rules, students generally view the rules in a more positive light.  They must understand that the rules are there to keep them safe and help them achieve their goals in school.  As a suggestion, you might start with a list of basic rules and then collaboratively work with students to rewrite and/or add to them.

When it comes to discipline, a teacher’s approach is extremely important.   Since all discipline problems are not alike, an effective teacher learns to match different approaches to different problems.  The key is to be aware of the various discipline approaches that have been developed, so here are some that you might want to use from Inspiring Discipline by Merrill Harmin (NEA Professional Library 1995). 

The Simple Authority Statement: With a simple authority statement, teachers can exercise authority with minimum distress and emotion. By employing this strategy, you also show students how a person can use authority respectfully and reasonably. The strategy calls for the teacher to voice disapproval authoritatively, promptly, and as unemotionally as possible.

Redirect Student Energy: By redirecting student energy, a teacher can end misbehavior without creating negative feelings. Instead of focusing on the misbehavior, this strategy calls on the teacher to turn student attention to something else, preferably something worth attending to. This is a useful approach when direct confrontation is either unnecessary or imprudent.

The Calm Reminder: A calm reminder can help students understand what they are supposed to do, in a way that does not communicate negative emotions.

The Next-Time Message: A next-time message can correct students' behavior without making them feel discouraged. The strategy calls for the teacher to tell students what to do next time, without focusing on what was done this time.

The Check-Yourself Message: A check-yourself message can remind students to manage themselves responsibly. The strategy involves the teacher telling students to check what they have done, implying that when they do so, they will see what corrections are necessary. This strategy can be used whenever students become careless.

The Silent Response: A silent response strategy gives students room to solve their own problems. This strategy also provides a way of avoiding hasty, inappropriate responses. A teacher using this strategy reacts to an act of misbehavior by making a mental note only and considering later what, if any, action is appropriate.

Clock Focus: A clock focus strategy can settle student restlessness and increase student powers of concentration. The strategy calls for the teacher to announce "clock focus," a cue to students to stand and watch the second hand of a clock make full circles, as many rotations as they choose, and then to sit and resume their individual work. The strategy can be used whenever students need to be settled down, particularly young students working at individual tasks.

The Visitor's Chair: By using the visitor's chair strategy, a teacher can position a student close-by without communicating disapproval. The teacher using this strategy asks a student to sit in a "visitor's chair" close to where the teacher is sitting or standing. Students know they can return to their own seats whenever they feel ready for responsible self-management.

Honest "I" Statements: "I" statements can help teachers communicate honestly without generating defensiveness or guilt. Honest "I" statements also help teachers model a valuable interpersonal skill. The strategy calls for the teacher to talk honestly about personal needs and feelings, making "I" statements, avoiding comments about what "you" did or "you" said. This approach is especially useful when upsetting feelings emerge.

The Undone-Work Response: An undone-work response is a useful approach when students fail to do required work. A teacher using this strategy avoids a blaming response and instead aims to create a growth-producing response. This approach can be used whenever a student has not completed work on time. 

In conclusion, teachers must always be mindful of their own role when it comes to disciplining a child. They must:  

  1. establish clear expectations,

  2. teach students how their actions can bring positive or negative consequences to themselves and others,

  3. use respectful strategies to stop misbehavior and restore positive behavior as quickly as possible,

  4. be kind, fair, and consistent,

  5. aim to create a calm, safe, and orderly classroom while preserving the dignity of each child.

When bad behavior occurs, teachers should take the necessary steps to get students back on track.  If the behavior is new, stop and talk to the student about it, using the list above to address the behavior.  If it happens again, chances are that the student has developed a pattern of this misbehavior.  The teacher should address the behavior problem as a pattern and use the list above to deal with the pattern of misbehavior.  Now, if the behavior happens again, it’s time for the teacher to involve the parent(s) and possibly the principal. 

Students will have many opportunities at school to learn from their mistakes, and the teacher plays a huge role in guiding them toward success both academically and socially.  Haim Ginnot, a school teacher, child psychologist, psychotherapist, and parent educator, wrote one of the best quotes I’ve ever read, and I think it makes a great conclusion to this topic.  He wrote:


“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”