Democratic Discipline The Class Council

By ​Ken Wald and Carol Hicks

It’s easy for us as teachers in the elementary school to say to our students, “You need to cooperate. You need to be responsible. You need to accomplish that yourself!” What’s not easy and usually not thought out, is how to help children to acquire the skills of cooperation, responsibility and independence.

In this article, we would like to describe the class council, which could become the cornerstone in your classroom for achieving these goals. This technique is rooted in the philosophy of Alfred Adler, and is simply a method for developing a democratic, student-managed classroom.

A classroom is a community that functions through rules. Even though rules generally are seen as necessary to protect students, and ensure classroom order, these rules are usually teacher contrived. Students do not participate in the logic and process of formulating them. In the past, we have had to be the complete authority in order to survive or to maintain minimum expectations, but the indirect result was that we were creating the “good” student – the student who aimed to please his or her teacher or parents. Good students don’t really think for themselves. When the teacher or the parent is not around to be the enforcer, these same “good” students grope with the “unofficial” rules, the code that their peers have set without the acknowledgement of the teacher.

More recently, however, we have come to see rules as ethics. They become what all the students believe is right or wrong. We also see “rules” as an agreement. Something becomes a rule when two or more people agree on a proper way of acting or proceeding. The main objective of the class council is to involve the students in the process of establishing these rules.

In establishing these classroom rules, students become conscious of the meaning behind them. They begin to share an approval of their intent. Alfred Adler’s follower, Rudolf Dreikurs summarized that the human is a social being. “His basic desire is to belong. Only if one feels one belongs can one function, participate, contribute.” In establishing the class council, we are respecting the student’s primary motivation which is to feel important and have a sense of place.

The class council allows students to voice their opinions about problems or activities. Belongingness creates the sense of having a place and being accepted. But it also creates a sense of group. It “allows the responsibility for solving problems to rest with the group.” (Martin, 1980) Students begin to resolve problems among themselves not only because they feel responsible for the group, but also because they receive support from the group for their actions. They might discuss the problems of fighting on the playground, sharing playground equipment, or stealing personal pencils and paper. For example, in a classroom of fourth and fifth graders, the students brought up the daily problem of some children pushing to be first in line. The group was almost evenly divided over leaving it to a “first come” basis or assigning places. Both solutions were tested for a week. In the end the entire group voted to rotate the first three places in line on a daily basis. All students thus got a turn.

The class council is a group meeting with a leader directing discussion. The students and teacher sit in a circle, a grouping that diminishes hierarchy. The leader encourages the others to participate, to listen, and to focus on a solution or a group goal. The teacher is originally the leader who is modeling this practice, but the teacher should transfer this role eventually to all the students in turn. The leader should summarize and paraphrase opinions or individuals’ statements without judging or evaluating. A leader’s evaluation could make others reluctant to participate.

It’s important for the leader to facilitate the process of agreeing upon a solution. In this process, 1) someone states the problem, 2) suggestions are elicited for possible solutions, 3) possible solutions are evaluated, 4) agreement is reached. A student might bring up the problem of a few students hoarding the balls on the playground. Other children will add their own stories of not getting to use the balls at recess. The leader then asks for solutions. Children might suggest putting one student in charge of balls, assigning balls to certain games, a rotation plan (Joe uses it today, Monique uses it tomorrow), or not allowing those who don’t share to use the balls. Each suggestion is talked about briefly. We usually ask for pros and cons for each suggestion. The leader then calls for a vote. If it is a clear majority the issue is settled. If there is a split further discussion is needed, since disaffected members of the class might obstruct change.

Once the group has coalesced, students will help enforce the rules, and the entire group may at times bring pressure on an individual student who is frequently disruptive. For instance, we had a student who talked out during lessons, interrupted students who were working, and generally tried to be the center of attention at all times. He also interrupted class council. At one meeting the leader asked this student to leave the room and sit in the hall. The student refused. At the leader’s suggestion the entire class got up and moved into the hall leaving the disrupter behind. This was the last time the child disrupted class council.

The class council should meet at least once a week or more depending on the severity of the situation. Besides problem solving, the class council can meet to discuss class projects. For instance, if several students want to practice the staging of a play, how could they do this without interrupting the regular classroom practices? This subject would then be discussed and hopefully solved.

The class council develops a group ethic for students that guides their decisions about activities. It offers them a chance to develop valuable social skills. Most importantly, it gives them the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. The skills they learn from class council have long-term benefits and are well worth the effort made.

For further reading:

Discipline Without Tears, by Rudolf Dreikurs and Pearl Cassel

A New Approach to Discipline: Logical Consequences, by Rudolf Dreikurs and Loren Grey

Fundamentals of Adlerian Psychology, by Rudolf Dreikurs

Teaching Through Encouragement, by Robert J. Martin

Ken Wald and Carol Hicks teach at MacDowell-Elementary School, Milwaukee.