Practice Character-Based DisciplineTHOMAS LICKONA
To discipline is to teach. Properly understood, discipline is not crowd control but character education, with self-discipline as its ultimate aim. No aspect of character education is more basic to creating a school of character.
For a great many schools, discipline is the entry point for character education. If there is not respect for rules, authority, and the rights of others, there is not a good environment for teaching and learning. Many schools turn to character education because they are distressed by the decline they see in student respect and responsibility and hope that character education can reverse that trend.
Character education asserts this: Discipline, if it's going to work, has to change kids on the inside. It has to change their attitude – the way they think and feel. It has to lead them to want to behave differently. It has to help them develop the virtues – such as respect, empathy, good judgment, and self-control – whose absence led to the discipline problem in the first place. If those absent virtues aren't developed, the behavior problem will occur again. In short, effective discipline must be character-based; it must strengthen students' character, not simply control their behavior.
Discipline falls into two categories: prevention and correction. Good prevention strategies will greatly reduce the frequency of behavior problems. But even with the best prevention, some problems will still occur, and character-building strategies will be needed to correct them.
Let's look at 18 discipline strategies, starting with prevention. What these strategies have in common is faith in every student's capacity for goodness, however deeply it may be buried, if we can find a way to tap into that potential.
1. Share the agenda
Many classrooms are plagued by the "double agenda problem." The teachers' agenda is to teach the material, but the students' agenda is not to learn it. The challenge is to get students on board with the instructional agenda.
One way to do that is to explain to students the objectives of a given lesson, their rationale, and the learning patterns the teacher will use to accomplish those objectives. Preparing this explanation also helps the teacher step back and ask: "Are my curriculum content and instructional methods as effective as they might be?" Many discipline problems stem from weak content or poor pedagogy.
Ann Jackewenko, who teaches 11th-grade English in central New York, seeks to engage her students at the beginning of class by addressing three things she has written on the board:
She comments: "Students like having the big picture. If you don't take the time to explain to them why it's important to learn a particular point or skill, they'll often fight you with the attitude, 'Why do we have to know this?'"
2. Hold students accountable
Teachers who are effective disciplinarians set high expectations for both academics and behavior, and then hold students accountable. They're often known for being "strict."
Deb Halliday, who teaches 4th-grade in central New York, is that kind of a teacher. She says, "I have a strict homework policy. My students are expected to do their homework each night and hand it in each morning. If homework isn't done, the student must do it during recess. There's no way around it, and the class knows it."
3. Teach principles of responsibility
When Natalie Douglas was called in to consult with an Indiana alternative school for 150 difficult adolescents, she began by training the faculty to teach students "The Five Principles of Responsibility." These principles were displayed on large-print posters in every classroom:
During the first two weeks of school, all teachers spent time teaching and illustrating these five principles. Thereafter, whenever students acted inappropriately, the Principles of Responsibility provided a framework for a productive conversation. The teacher would go over to the student and quietly ask, "Which principle of responsibility do you think is involved here?"
Students became more reflective about their behavior. When teachers handled disruptions in this way, discipline referrals to the principal's office dropped from an average of 12-15 a day during the previous school year to only 2-3 a day.
4. Involve students in generating the rules
When he was an award-winning high school history and psychology teacher, Hal Urban put students in groups of 5-6 and gave them the following work sheet to complete:
If we made the rules
Students would be encouraged to:
The groups then reported out – first, the things students would not be allowed to do, then the things they would be encouraged to do. Mr. Urban kept a running list on the board. He proposed a few additions of his own (noted by an asterisk in the final list).
"I did this with each of my classes," he says. "Then I took all the lists home, made a composite list, and brought that in the next day and gave every student a copy. I said, 'You own them, you honor them.'" Here is a typical list produced by this process:
Class Rules: Do's and Don'ts in Mr. Urban's Class
"People always ask me how I handled consequences," Urban says. "I had a number of signs in the room:
Compliments Spoken Here
No Discounts/Everybody Counts
A Positive Attitude
If a student forgot a rule, I would just knock on one of my signs or go over to that student's desk. I had very few problems."
5. Teach the golden rule
Classroom discipline is a golden opportunity to teach the Golden Rule.
Gary Robinson taught 4th- and 6th-graders in Skaneateles, New York. On the first day of school, he would ask his students: "How would you like to be treated in this class – by me, the teacher, and by everybody else in the room? Write down two or three ways you'd like to be treated."
Students wrote that they wanted to be treated fairly, with respect, not made fun of or embarrassed, not left out, and so on. Mr. Robinson had them share their lists with a partner and discuss them as a class.
He then asked a second question: "How should you treat everyone else in the room?" Students could see it logically followed that if they wanted to be treated with respect and fairness, then that's exactly how they should treat everyone else. Mr. Robinson enlarged upon this point:
He summarized: "We're saying you should treat others as you wish to be treated. Does anybody know what that's called?" Somebody in the class usually knew: "The Golden Rule."
"That's my main classroom rule," Mr. Robinson said. Then he unfurled a large banner with these words writ large:
TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WISH TO BE TREATED
He hung the banner above the blackboard, where it remained for the rest of the year.
Next he asked: "What happens if someone breaks the Golden Rule?" He explained his system of consequences:
By asking, "How would you like to be treated?" and "How should you treat everyone else?" Mr. Robinson guided his students to the Golden Rule and helped them see its moral logic. His system of consequences held them accountable to the Golden Rule and gave them continuing practice in using that standard to evaluate their behavior.
6. Share the plan with parents
At the elementary and middle school levels, a copy of the teacher's discipline plan should go home to parents at the beginning of the year. It should let them know the classroom rules and consequences, and at what point parents will be asked to help solve a problem. All this can be communicated in a positive way. Here, for example, is the letter sent home by Amy Conley, a 3rd-grade teacher at Burton Street Elementary School (Cazenovia, New York):
7. Practice procedures
Many discipline problems occur because teachers and schools don't take the time to teach procedures for how to act in the classroom and other parts of the school building.
Says high school history teacher Charlie Abourjilie: "Because I want my students to know my procedures for handing in papers, coming into class and getting to work, giving me admit slips when they've been absent, and so on, I take about 15 minutes each period during the first week of school to practice these procedures. I demonstrate the procedures I want them to follow when they come into class each day. Then I take them out in the hallway, bookbags and all, and have them go into class following those procedures. We'll do this three or four times until everybody gets it right. This saves a lot of time down the road."
The schools in Florence, South Carolina, teach procedures for proper behavior outside the classroom. Southside Middle School principal Patricia Slice explains:
8. Use the language of virtue
"Language shapes character," writes Linda Popov in The Virtues Project Educator's Guide (www.jalmarpress.com). The language of virtue can create a culture of character.
Deb Halliday uses the language of virtue to compliment her 4th-graders. Instead of giving general praise such as "Good job" or "Nice work," she'll say things such as:
Similarly, the language of virtue can be used to correct or re-direct behavior:
Ray Tufts uses the language of virtue in his work as assistant principal at an alternative school in Renton, Washington. Many of his students have been previously expelled from other schools, and some have criminal records.
When they're sent to his office for a behavior problem, he begins by saying, "Tell me what happened from your point of view" and listens respectfully to the student's side of the story. Then he points to his Virtues Poster (listing 52 virtues from Linda Popov's book) and asks: "Which of these virtues might you have forgotten? Which ones might have helped you avoid the problem you had?" Sometimes he'll give students a story or article to read that deals with a virtue they need to develop.
9. Help students learn from mistakes
Says a middle school principal: "Our philosophy is that kids will make mistakes. We teach them that it's how they respond to their mistakes, in school and in life, that makes all the difference."
At this school when students do something wrong, they are usually asked to respond, sometimes in writing, to four questions:
10. Have students make a Behavior Improvement Plan
When a behavior problem persists, students need to make a written plan to improve their behavior. Every school should have a procedure for doing that and a process whereby students evaluate how they're doing with their plan. This procedure shifts responsibility for managing behavior from the adults to the students.
At Gracemor Elementary School in Minneapolis, students who have recurring discipline problems go to the P/T (Planning Time) room. There they write out a "Plan for Success" that addresses these questions:
When students present their completed plan to their teacher, they agree on a time (e.g., two days later, a week later) for the student to self-assess by answering the following questions about progress in following through with their plan:
11. Discuss why a behavior was wrong
Says Emily, an 8th-grader: "When a kid does something wrong, don't just punish them – talk to them. Explain why what they did was wrong. That's what my mother does with me. If you don't explain why it's wrong, they'll just do it again."
All too often, teachers don't take a student aside and explain why a particular behavior was wrong. An important teachable moment is thereby lost. The reasoned moral explanations we give our children are essential for developing their conscience: the inner voice by which they give themselves reasons why something is right or wrong.
Kindergarten teacher Helen Jackson got a call from the mother of Jonathan, a boy from Jamaica. He told his mother that Brian, a classmate, was calling him "tan man." This upset Jonathan so much that he didn't want to go back to school.
Mrs. Jackson took Brian aside, sat down with him, and spoke to him in a gentle but serious tone. She said:
Psychologists call this method of reasoning "induction." It induces children to appreciate, at an intellectual and emotional level, the effects of their actions on others.
12. Use time out effectively
At the early childhood and elementary levels, one of the most common disciplinary consequences is time-out. Most teachers, however, have had the unhappy experience of sending students to time-out and having them come back no better, and often worse, than when they left.
Whether time-out works depends very much on how students perceive the meaning of time-out. We should help them understand: "The purpose of time-out is to help you gain control of your behavior – so that you can come back and contribute to our classroom community in a positive way."
A sports analogy can help students understand this. The teacher can explain:
Some children will need this concept explained to them more than once. Even with such explanations, a particular child may still sometimes resist going to time out. A hierarchy of consequences should be in place, so that the teacher can matter-of-factly give the student a choice: "Jeff, you can go to time out, calm down, and make a plan – or you can go to the principal's office and call your parents. You decide."
13. Design detention that builds character
Said a boy in a North Carolina middle school: "Detention is one of the dumbest ideas I've ever seen. You just sit there. It doesn't help."
How can detention be turned into an experience that has the potential to improve a student's attitude and behavior? Buck Lodge Middle School (Adelphi, Maryland) is a highly diverse urban school and a 1998 National School Character. A few years ago, it redesigned detention to make it a time for meaningful student reflection. Now, when students go to detention, they're asked to take out three sheets of notebook paper and:
14. Teach restitution
One of the most important moral lessons for young people to learn is, "When you do something wrong, you should do something right to make up for it." Bad behavior usually creates some kind of damage – to property, feelings, relationships, or the peace and order of a classroom or family. If you've done damage, you have an obligation to try to fix it.
Apologizing is therefore only the first thing a child should do when he's done something wrong. The second thing is to ask, "What can I do to make up for it?"
Teachers and schools sometimes use restitution as a disciplinary consequence but make the mistake of dictating the form the restitution will take ("You wrote on the wall, now clean it off") rather than asking the student, with adult help if needed, to come up with an appropriate way to make amends. There are two problems with the "Here's your restitution" approach: (1) The student may very well resent the imposed restitution and do it grudgingly without feeling any remorse for the offense; and (2) The student is not required to think about his misdeed, the problem it caused for someone else, and what would help to fix the problem and make the victim feel better.
The goal of restitution should be to stimulate students' thinking and maximize the character development that occurs as a result of the disciplinary experience. That's why it's better to ask the student, "What do you think would be a good way to make up for what you did?"
15. Have kids help each other
Cheryl Watson, a 3rd-grade teacher in San Ramon, California, devised a way to involve children in helping classmates behave well and do their work well. She puts students in groups of four she calls "Peer Pods."
Peer Pods typically meet once a week. If someone in a particular pod is getting in trouble with the teacher that week because of a certain behavior, podmates make suggestions for how to avoid that problem in the future ("If you're always getting yelled at for talking to Mike, maybe you shouldn't sit next to him"). If a group member is having trouble in a particular academic subject, podmates might suggest things that have worked for them ("Here's how I study for the spelling test").
Says Watson: "The kids come up with things I would not have thought of."
16. Prepare for a "guest teacher"
Even classes that are fairly well-behaved for their regular teacher often act up for a substitute. Teachers are embarrassed when they return and get the report on how badly their kids behaved.
To avoid that scenario, Hal Urban, when he knows he'll be having a "guest teacher" (a more respectful term than "sub"), asks his students to think about, and sometimes write about, two questions:
Reflecting on these questions makes a difference in students' behavior. Urban comments: "I've had substitutes leave me notes such as, 'These were the most polite kids I've ever had.' I always read the note to the class. They like hearing that their efforts were appreciated."
17. Give a difficult child responsibility
On a Tuesday morning in October, 1999, at Buell Elementary School in Michigan, a 1st-grade boy came to school carrying a concealed handgun and a knife. At 10:00 a.m., as students were changing classes, he shot and killed 6-year-old Kayla Rolland.
The boy and his brother lived in a crackhouse where guns were traded for drugs. He was kept after school nearly every day for pinching, hitting, fighting, and saying the f-word. Once asked, "Why do you fight with other kids?" he answered, "Because I hate them."
Here was a child crying out for help. Disciplining him by keeping him after school clearly was doing nothing to assuage the anger that led him to lash out.
What might have helped to change the tragic trajectory of this boy's life? We can find clues in the story of Billy, described by Richard Curwin in his book Rediscovering Hope: Our Greatest Teaching Strategy.2
Billy was a 4th-grader in a rural community. He was surly with his teacher, fought constantly, and did little schoolwork. His father was in jail. His mother was an alcoholic. Billy himself had already started to use alcohol in times of stress.
In workshops I ask teachers, "What could you do to try to get Billy to stop fighting and at the same time build his character – when you're probably not going to be able to change the character of the world he comes from?"
Some teachers suggest that Billy needs a mentor: an adult or older student who would work with him and give him the love and attention that he appears to be lacking at home. What Billy's school did, however, was even more effective: It put Billy in the role of mentor. His teacher, the principal, and the counselor got together and presented him with the following plan:
By the last stipulation, the school was in effect saying, "If you want to have this special responsibility, you have to control your fighting. We're confident you can do that." Often teachers or schools try to boost the self-esteem of a problem child by giving him a special role such as classroom helper but neglect to make having that role contingent on improved behavior ("If you hit somebody, you lose the privilege of that job for a day"). A lever is thereby lost that could have been used to motivate behavioral change.
Billy quickly came to treasure his time with the 1st-grade boy. The two children became friends. His fighting became only an occasional occurrence. Though Billy still struggled academically, his attitude toward himself and toward school was much more positive.
Why did this intervention work? Billy had a new social role and responsibility. Somebody was counting on him. He felt needed, valued, and significant. He was making a difference in somebody's life.
With students labeled "at risk," Curwin says, we typically do more for them. That doesn't change their feelings of inadequacy or failure. What they really need is an opportunity to do something for someone else. Once they feel competent and helpful, their self-worth goes up. The character education principle: If we want kids to develop responsibility, we should give them responsibility.
18. Design a "tough love" program for difficult students
High school teachers often ask, "Isn't the character of kids pretty much formed by the time they get to us?"
Fortunately, human nature has a remarkable plasticity, a capacity for growth if we can find the right intervention. This remains true of teens.
In our own small city of Cortland, New York (population 18,000), a new program called S.T.A.R. (Student Transition and Recovery Program) – for kids with chronic school behavior problems – is causing people to sit up and take notice.
Breck Aspinwall, a 20-year veteran Cortland junior high school science teacher, says: "The difference this program has made in three of my 8th-graders has been nothing short of miraculous. Their grades have shot up. The discipline issues have dropped to near zero. Most important, they are beginning to understand that self-discipline and structure are positive forces."
Jointly operated and funded by the school district and the county's Social Services department, S.T.A.R. works with problem students ages 10 to 16 – the sort of kids who exhaust teachers and are constantly being given in-school suspension and out-of-school suspension or eventually placed in alternative schools. Students may be referred to S.T.A.R. by a teacher or required to participate by Family Court. They stay in the program for one day, 30 days, or 6 months, depending on the severity of their situation and the nature of their referral.
Parents are responsible for getting their child to the National Guard Armory by 5:30 a.m. every school morning. There Stacy Sawyer and another drill instructor lead students in rigorous physical exercises. Says 15-year-old Kristy Gower: "I hated the calisthenics at first, but now I love running. It puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day." At the end of the school day, the students are bused back to the Armory, where they do their academic homework together.
Captain Terry Vandenberg, a former marine, coordinates the program, which also employs two drill instructors, a psychologist, and two tutors. Many students say they consider the personal tutoring the best part of the program.
On day one, S.T.A.R students pledge to obey nine basic rules:
S.T.A.R. also includes home visits. Someone on the S.T.A.R. staff is on call, 24 hours a day, if a student needs help for any reason. "This program really adopts these kids in a very personal way," says the Social Service Commissioner. "They can't help feeling cared about."
On Fridays there are guest speakers. Every Saturday morning, S.T.A.R. students do some kind of community service. One Saturday, they all gave blood.
Andrea Dowd, a 9th-grader, said she is participating in the 6-month, court-ordered version of the program. She had gotten suspended from the junior high school for skipping classes and getting into lots of fights. Before S.T.A.R., things had gotten so bad she was placed in a foster home. Since joining S.T.A.R. she has brought her grades up to passing and has been able to live at home. She says:
S.T.A.R. succeeds through a combination of high demand and high support. Any committed school could reproduce the essence of STAR: character building through tough and creative love.3
When surveys ask teens about discipline, they often say they wish their parents and teachers had disciplined them more and demanded more of them. Kids want the structure that firm, fair, and reasoned discipline provides. They thrive on it.
To discipline is to teach. Properly understood, discipline is not crowd control but character education, with self-discipline as its ultimate aim. No aspect of character education is more basic to creating a school of character.
Thomas Lickona "Practice Character-Based Discipline." Chapter 7 in Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues (New York: Touchstone, 2004): 144-164.
Reprinted with permission of Thomas Lickona.
Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author of Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Thomas Lickona is the founder and director of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect & Responsibility). He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2004 Thomas Lickona
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.