Broken Records, Broken Spirits

A Parent’s View of Assertive Discipline

By Paul Bietila and Sue Bietila

After moving to Milwaukee during the summer of 1986, we enrolled our two sons in the city’s public schools, where we soon had our first exposure to Assertive Discipline. Assertive Discipline is the now widespread method of classroom control developed by Lee and Marlene Canter. They first published their manual in 1976.

Our son in fifth grade began bringing home small cards every week with spaces for each day. In each space there would be a happy face sticker or an NFL football sticker or an American flag sticker. Occasionally a space would be blank, indicating that he had talked out of turn or otherwise “misbehaved” in some way that day. As time went on he spoke of the class having to earn points for parties on Holidays; his class didn’t earn enough for a Halloween party. Those children who did something wrong had their names written on the board for the whole class to see, with checks placed after it for further wrongdoing. Two checks meant detention, three that the student must write a letter explaining his offense, and so on. Our younger son, who was in second grade, had a teacher who didn’t use this method. For a couple months, however, he had a student teacher from Marquette University who did. Nearly every day he would bring home a small hoard of junk candy.

Our older son’s teacher, a very tense woman, seemed to have an attitude that (he children were wild animals who needed to be tamed and caged. Throughout the year our son reported that she would spend half of each hour lecturing on discipline and only half on the actual lesson.

This son had instrumental music with a different teacher during the hour after recess several times a week. His homeroom teacher insisted he take his clarinet and case with him to recess. After some of the other students played keep-away with the instrument a couple of times, he was reluctant to bring it to the playground and wanted to leave it in the classroom. Twice he did so. After recess the teacher had to interrupt her break in order to unlock the door for him and would then write his name on the board as punishment.

Preventing Communication Between Student and Teacher

Although that was not a major incident—at least not in adult eyes—we believe it illustrates one of the ways in which Assertive Discipline breaks down, and prevents real communication between student and teacher. Yes, the teacher has a right to an undisturbed break. However, the child faces a dilemma, getting “punished” no matter what he does. Why can’t the teacher sit down for two minutes, explore the problem with him, and see if there might not be another solution, such as leaving the clarinet with the school secretary during recess? Instead of showing him that he should look on teachers as supportive and concerned, though with needs of their own, she has made them look arbitrary, distant and punitive in his eyes. He still insists she gloated over the chance to write his name on the board.

There is a need for some type of order, rules, and a method of discipline in the classroom. The question is, discipline based on what philosophy, discipline serving whose goals, for what purpose? Going deeply into alternative philosophies of discipline is beyond the scope of our article. Yet, we believe discipline must grow out of a humanistic philosophy: it must be centered in the needs of child and teacher, parents and community. Rather than being used to force a boring or irrelevant curriculum on students, discipline must grow out of relevant, interesting curricula which take into account children’s needs and abilities. The Canter philosophy, though not often stated openly, is to defend the status quo. Their approach serves well the interests of those who need a passive labor force, and it serves the needs of the administrative bureaucracy of our schools. But it serves neither students nor teachers.

Assertive Discipline does have some positive aspects. The teacher is encouraged – to make clear the rules and limits. He or she is encouraged not to respond to misbehavior with wildly unrealistic threats but to consistently follow through with appropriate punishments. Yet, at the core of the Assertive Discipline is something arbitrary, something which discourages teachers from real dialogue with their students, something which tends to demand respect for the status quo whether that status quo deserves respect or not. It also tends to produce surface obedience which in many cases may cover up underlying problems in students or in the school system itself.

The Broken Record

One of the methods the Canters propose using, which the teacher used on our son in the clarinet incident, is called the Broken Record. When a student objects, argues, or questions a teacher, the teacher is to keep repeating, “That’s not the point; I want you to do (whatever behavior the teacher is demanding).” As the Canters put it, “When you learn to speak as if you were a broken record, you will be capable of expressing your wants and needs, and ignore all sidetracking manipulations of the students.” {Assertive Discipline, p.79) There seems to be a real anti-student prejudice inherent in the Canter’s approach. What happened to real dialogue between human beings? Isn’t it possible that occasionally the student might have a valid argument or problem?

The teachers are told by the Canters to use this same approach on parents. Because of music, which was an approved school activity, our son missed art period regularly. The art teacher failed him.

Eventually, by going to the principal, we had the problem resolved by having our son go to art with another class. The teacher was so bureaucratically set on using her assertive technique that she couldn’t conceive of a solution.

Behaviorism and “Positive” Reinforcement 

The Canters draw a lot on Behaviorism in their method, using positive and negative reinforcement. One positive reinforcement we particularly agree with is headed “You” in the book. As the Canters say,“Many children would do just about anything to be able to spend time alone with the teacher, work together on a special project, or just stay after school to help out.” (p124) In fact, if there were more such attention, it might go a long way toward eliminating many of the discipline problems in the classroom. The point the Canters ignore here is that most classrooms are too overcrowded to enable teachers to give much one-to-one attention. Perhaps teachers should be using Assertive Discipline techniques more on administrators, school boards, and politicians in order to get class sizes reduced.

Among other rewards listed are positive notes to parents, awards, specid privileges, and material consequences, such as “raisins, cookies, candy, extra lunch, McDonald’s hamburgers, ice cream, small pets, and toys.” (pp. 125-126) From what we have observed and heard, candy seems to be the reward used most commonly, especially with younger children. We were alarmed by the great quantities of candy our younger son was bringing home. Most of it we threw away. There are real problems with food rewards and with candy in particular — tooth decay, weight problems, the overexcitement sugar causes in many children, and the undermining of heath and diet practices parents may be trying to establish. In addition it conditions children to feel that something sweet to eat is the proper recognition of effort.

Children do need certain kinds of positive rewards — especially genuine praise and attention from the teacher. But by taking such a negative — or perhaps cynical — approach, the Canters ignore that learning for many people is rewarding

for its own sake. It can bring a sense of accomplishment, excitement at discovery or increased skill, or the joy of finding answers to (the student’s) real questions which open the door to further questions. They also ignore that many of this nation’s schools have boring curricula, use watered-down, dreary textbooks, and don’t address students’ genuine interests or concerns.

Upholding the Status Quo

With such a heavy emphasis on material rewards all gratification comes from the outside. Are self motivation and feelings of self worth being fostered if the students only work to please others and then consume the rewards? The changes which come about through such a blatant use of Behaviorism tend to be only surface changes, leaving us with the danger of producing more adults who are either cynical or unquestioningly obedient and obsessed with material gratification. 

On page 3 of Assertive Discipline the Canters state that, “The role status of the contemporary teacher, as with any authority figure in society, be it law officer, doctor even President, has declined in recent years.” One of the primary purposes of Assertive Discipline is to re-empower the teacher as the traditional authority figure he or she was before the upheavals of the 1960’s. The role of such an authority figure is to uphold the status quo.

There is no democracy in the Canters’ method of discipline. What it often comes down to is the teacher using power and authority to face down students. The Canters encourage teachers to make full use of the administrator’s power to back them up. Why, however, can’t the children propose and decide on rules together with the teacher, voting on the best way to insure order in the classroom? Perhaps the teacher does “know best,” but what about teaching the children how democracy works in action and not just through the lifeless rhetoric in some civics text? What about the possibility the children may feel they have a stake in living up to rules they helped formulate?

“No Real “Choices”

In Chapter Six, Assertive Discipline says that the teacher should give the student “choices” — either the student does what the teacher demands or takes the consequences. While the term sounds liberal and democratic, real choices indicate one has the power to choose what is most correct, what serves one’s real interests most effectively. Consequences in such case will flow, but the person can weigh them. In the classroom the choice most often comes down to following a boring routine or receiving punishment Assertive Discipline uses the rhetoric of freedom to cover the real power relationship: The school has all the power, the student has  none. lt is the choice of the young man in the 1960’s opposed to the Vietnam War — be drafted or go to jail. Self discipline can only grow out of being allowed to make real choices, not out of being “allowed” to go along with arbitrary authority or being punished.

The Canters speak a great deal about teachers’ rights. They list these on page 2:

(1) The right to establish a classroom structure and routine that provides the optimal learning environment in light of your own strengths and weaknesses.

(2) The right to determine and request appropriate behavior from the students which meet your needs and encourage the positive social and educational development of the child.

(3) The right to ask for help from parents, the principal, etc. when you need assistance with a child.

Certain educational problems are masked here by posing them as conflicts between students and teachers. The Canters, in a manipulative way, continually oppose the lowest group in the educational hierarchy — the students — against the next lowest — the teachers. What about the teacher’s right to a classroom which isn’t overcrowded? What about the teacher’s right to be treated as an intelligent professional rather than as a jailer or technician by the administration and those who run this society? What about the teacher’s right to take part in developing an interesting, meaningful curriculum?

What Are the Alternatives?

The Canters never talk about content—they do not address the question of relevancy of curriculum and they do not talk about the ethical or philosophical background of their own method. They do not talk about the possibility of genuine dialogue between student and teacher or how to develop the skill of nurturing such dialogue. They do not talk about the development of self-discipline in the student and they do not examine their own method to see whether it produces self-discipline or only surface obedience and conformity. They do talk about naked power confrontations and they talk about narrow Behaviorist reinforcement. They do tell the teacher to use the administrator’s power and how to act like a broken record in order not to hear the student — in other words how-to act like a faceless bureaucrat in fulfilling the objectives someone else has determined and which ‘may not be in the student’s fundamental interest.

Discipline is necessary in any classroom. Children act up, have fights, act thoughtlessly or disruptively. But there are often factors involved to which the teacher should be sensitive—overcrowding, cultural differences, home problems, boredom on the part of the advanced student, frustration on the part of the troubled student, and an irrelevant, make work curriculum geared to standardized tests. There are more humanistic, more empowering ways to run a classroom than the way recommended by the Canters. William Glasser, for one, has written extensively about this.

There are those in positions of power in this society who don’t want the real concerns of students addressed in the classroom, who don’t want students thinking about war and peace, or students who can analyze social relations or question arbitrary authority. There are such people in positions of power who want students who can just read-an instruction manual or program a computer but not think deeply or make decisions about how to run their lives or society. The Canters’ approach well fits such a concept of education.

Paul Bietila is an instructor of composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Sue Bietila is a free-lance artist and a registered nurse who has worked extensively with pregnant teenagers.