Fostering Self-Discipline

By Tim Duax

I can still remember Sammy from my first year of teaching. He was the willowy kid who bugged the day-lights out of me, as well as the kids in the class. Adrenaline would flow as I watched him grab the red class ball from another child on the playground and run across the blacktop, laughing all the way. I would go storming across the playground after him, clear of purpose and resolute in my action….It would all make a good story back in the teacher’s lunchroom later that day.

Throughout my teaching career, stories like this were a favorite subject of formal and informal teacher discussion in staffrooms and lunchrooms. Teachers around me and I exchanged “war stories” and the corresponding survival skills which we found would work in day-to-day school life situations. Accepted “truisms” (“Don’t smile before Christmas”, and “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”) were blended with taxonomies of behavior shaping coding systems (checkmarks and children’s initials on the blackboard) to create an atmosphere of “effective” or “assertive” discipline. But however “effective” I may have been, I still felt inwardly a gnawing dissatisfaction. I didn’t want to be a policeman, I wanted to be a teacher.

I wanted to do more than discipline children through fear of punishment, more than react to situation after situation with responses which were geared toward getting over an immediate crisis. I wanted to do more than merely apply consequences which only temporarily stopped specific behaviors. I know these can be important survival techniques for teachers, just as is the ability to adjudicate problem situations for children when they arise; however, I wanted to somehow give the children themselves insight into self-discipline. I realized that my earlier university training gave me little direction for doing this.

University training and experience do produce teachers who are often expert in applied learning theory. We approach a given curriculum in an orderly way with a practiced style that is calculated to produce learning in the child. Children don’t just parrot lists of facts or follow rote methods, but gain insights into the subject matter. However, I was working differently when maintaining discipline in the classroom or preventing violence on the playground than when I worked in the classroom to increase the understanding of a curriculum subject.

I draw a parallel between common ways of disciplining a child for an aggressive act and trying to teach a child math by rote. Saying “Don’t push that other child again, or I’ll put a checkmark by your name and seat you in the hallway” is similar to saying “Keep your columns of numbers straight when you add them or I’ll keep you in for recess!” In neither instance does the child gain an understanding of the situation.

Changing the Focus of “Classroom Management”

I have found that behavior would gradually improve if I taught for an understanding of inappropriate behavior just as I taught for understanding in the academic curriculum areas, and then gave children the opportunity to practice. Children learned to understand how a situation came to be unruly or violent and how it could be different in the future.

The benefit of such techniques is that the locus of control moves from the teacher to the children. The children begin to comprehend and then to assume responsibility for their actions. As a result, the amount of discipline the teacher must deal with begins to diminish. This, I believe, is the way discipline leads to freedom. It is when teachers create external conditions in the classroom which result in an internal condition in children from which self-management springs. To do this is a challenge, but necessary if I, as well as the children in my class, desire to state about school, “on the whole, I really like being here!”

This doesn’t mean that problems don’t arise, but now I feel the children and I are all on the same side trying to solve them.

Here are the techniques which have worked best for me. I’ve collected them over the years from various sources (see bibliography) and found that these have blended nicely to help create a harmonious class.

Teach That Behavior Can Have Goals

One way which has worked to decrease aggression among children I work with has been to increase their understanding of why aggression occurs. I teach what I know about children’s relations to each other and talk with the children about it. I discuss the goals we have as social beings and find that even young children can appreciate the need in all of us to “belong,” to be part of a social group. It is a small step to see that we need to have attention from others and that we need to have a sense of power in order to feel like part of a group. These two means of belonging—gaining attention and getting power can take a positive or negative form.

It is amazing how aware children are of the ways to get negative attention from other children, or the teacher, and how limited they are in their ideas about how to get positive attention. Similarly, the need to feel power within the group, that is, to feel that one can contribute to the group in a way that has impact, is often acted out negatively.

I direct children’s awareness towards those actions which give attention and power in positive ways. The children build a repertoire of ways which reinforce positive behaviors and avoid negative ones.

Here is an example. On a class trip last year on a bus, David, a ten year old, came up to me from his seat in the back. He stated, “Chris is behind me and keeps pulling my hat off and bugging me!”

“What,” I responded, “could you do?”

“Well, I want to avoid him and sit up here. He’s always doing that negative stuff for my attention.”

I slid out of my seat. “Is this alright?” I asked. “I’ll go back and ask your other seatmate if he would like to come and join you here.” It was.

David was acting out one of the options discussed earlier in class about how to respond to negative attention. All year in class we held short weekly discussions on ways to give each other positive attention and power, and what to do in specific situations.

David could have easily said, “I know what I’m going to do. If he reaches for my hat again, I’m going to pound him!” My response perhaps would have been, “Are you really going to let him trick you into giving him the attention he seems to want? It seems like you’re ready to give him the power to control you.” I would have suggested that there must be a positive way to alter the situation, for instance to change seats, and asked if David would be happy with that.

Notice there was no need for me to go storming through the bus stating: “Listen! Any more of this foolishness and ….”

Children, of course, don’t change their response patterns instantly, and that held true for me also, but I gave myself and the children new options for action to consider — options which had been explored by us earlier.

Seek Consensus to Rules

In my classroom I have found that simple “majority rule” does not always create an atmosphere of cooperation. Too often the minority faction of children feel that their position is still justified and that they have been robbed of power by the majority.

In consensus seeking, all of the children must come to agreement. The minority opinion must be respected and their cooperation must be asked for, not demanded of them. Only after there is complete agreement is it my responsibility to firmly see that we all live up to it.

We recently had a suggestion to get an animal for our class: snakes! Needless to say, a few children were apprehensive. After some discussion, there remained one child who would not consent. I asked the class to support the right of that child to object and pointed out that perhaps each of us in the class had different apprehensions that we would want honored.

Once it became clear that no one would be forced to accept snakes into the class, the child’s attitude softened and changed. The child suggested locating the snakes at the opposite end of the classroom. When the snakes arrived the children took turns petting them. The once apprehensive child actually petted one snake after observing the others do it. There was a spontaneous applause in the class.

Give an Opportunity for Power Sharing

I believe that children actually have the same goals as teachers for their physical security and a calm, orderly environment. Given the opportunity, children strive to make their world a better place. They need to be shown positive ways to contribute to doing this. Here are two ways I have used.

I use a suggestion box in which children place written ideas related to the functioning of the class. It creates a concrete focus for scheduled discussion groups. Writing out a suggestion for the class gives a child the opportunity to call attention to a problem situation, to suggest a project, or to plan a class trip. This gives a format for addressing problem situations in a nonthreatening way. The focus of the discussion is how to make a situation better in the future, not to place blame for past happenings.

The class also has a rotating schedule of responsibilities which gives each child the power of leadership functions. Some of these are: dismissing class at the appropriate time, collecting and recording school trip money, leading a group discussion, getting notes from the office, acting as a tour guide for class visitors, and directing clean up chores.

These ideas are not new; many teachers have made use of similar strategies. This is simply a reminder to consciously and to continuously stress the discussion of problems as an important way to give children power, and to put children in positions of leadership with guidance on how to lead.

Practice Problem Solving Techniques

Children around me repeatedly attempt the same small repertoire of ineffective solutions in relationship problems which can lead to confrontational situations. However, solving problems in ways which allow everyone to feel they are part of the solution and giving children the opportunity to practice in order to internalize concepts presented to them works well in my class to offset this. Children are presented techniques which allow them to stand up for their own rights while avoiding physical violence and verbal conflict. They practice specific techniques to deal with confrontive situations.

Teachers can lead discussions in which children role play and learn: how to choose who goes first in games; how to choose fair teams; how to clarify rules before a game begins; how to borrow from another child; how to share or not share in certain situations.

For example, on the playground a nine year old had finished turning a jump rope. Two classmates immediately begged for it, then each angrily declared a right to the rope. They were one step away from a fight. The rope holder loudly stated, “Wait, listen! I have the rope and that means I decide who gets it. You know that’s a rule we agreed on. Pick a number between 1 and 5. If you guess it, you get it.” Selecting a random number was one of the common solutions used by children during group meetings.

Empower the Victim of Aggression

Children who have been picked on often act as if they have no power. To counteract this, I make use of the fact that a teacher has tremendous power to direct the attention of a group of children. When teachers model concern for the victim of teasing and aggression, observant children develop the same supportive actions. Additionally and importantly, the aggressor is denied the attention or power which might have been gained at the expense of the victim.

Teachers who seek out an injured or wronged child a day or two later to inquire into the well-being, both emotionally and physically, of the child create an atmosphere of caring which leads to increased self-respect. Later asking the child and other children how an unpleasant situation could have been avoided, how future, similar situations could be handled and how atonement should be made by an aggressor puts the power into the children’s hands to help themselves. Acting on these ideas develops in all children the sense that they have the power to change their social interactions and to decrease violence in their lives.

Final Note: How a Principal Could Help

There are a number of ways the principal can facilitate this process. Each principal has a special style in dealing with, and following up on, children’s misbehavior. I ask that this style be effectively communicated to me. I would like to know the manner in which the principal approaches fact finding, active listening, adjudication, consequences, and parent involvement.

I need to be kept informed of situations which have occurred involving children in my class. If the principal informs me of a situation when children are present, I want to be informed in a manner which preserves the positive self image of each involved child—both victim and aggressor.

If there is a confrontational situation between children in a hallway or playground and the principal is called in, I would want the principal to first pay attention to any wronged child, to care for that child emotionally. The aggressive child is put “on hold” initially and dealt with secondarily through school policy already established.

I would like the administrator to facilitate lines of communication between myself and other teachers and provide a forum for discussion of ideas dealing with misbehavior and ways which reduce giving attention and power to aggressive children. I would like the opportunity to hear the success stories of other teachers.

Forums may prove to be a challenge to organize in a constructive and positive way. Children are a strong force in shaping a teacher’s behavior. I remember how I was caught up in a downward spiral of checkmarks, reprimands, and punishments dealing with children’s power struggles and needs for attention. Finally, I took an active role in developing in children a positive approach to discipline by giving them skills they need.

Now I believe that teachers can learn to work toward a child’s understanding of inappropriate behavior. Each child, with help, can develop the skills necessary to become empathetic. Children can develop an understanding of personal relations which extends beyond the school situation and which leads beyond the dependence on external guides for positive behavior.


Alternatives to Violence. Bickmore, K., Cleveland Friends Meeting, 10916 Magnlia Drive, Cleveland, Ohio 44106. 1984.

Discipline without Tears. Dreikurs, R., Dutton, 1974.

Games Children Should Play: Sequential Lessons for Teaching Communication Skills in Grades K-6. Goodyear Publishing Company, 1980.

Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom, 2nd ed. Dreikurs, R., Harper and Row, 1982.

Peacemaking. Standford, B. editor. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Schools without Failure. Glasser, W., New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Teacher Effectiveness Training. Gordon, T., New York: Wyden, 1974.

100 Ways to Enhance Self-Concept in the Classroom. Canfield, J. & Wells, H., Prentice Hall, 1976.

Tim Duax has taught for fifteen years in alternative private schools and in Milwaukee Public Schools. He is currently an instructional generalist in Service Delivery Area IV in Milwaukee. This article was previously printed in a slightly different form in Primary Education (U.K.).