How is it that some teachers attract more than their share of discipline problems while others always seem
to be blessed with well behaved students? Is it fate, karma or the “power of attraction” at work?
Or is it that most classroom discipline problems are actually caused by teachers who unwittingly fall into
discipline traps by the way they treat students? In actuality, most discipline problems are traceable to the unintentional
application of one or more ineffective strategies that have been around since formal schooling began. Here are the 10 most
common, self-defeating discipline pitfalls:
- EXPECTING THE WORST FROM STUDENTS. This will keep us on guard at all times.
- NEVER TELLING STUDENTS WHAT IS EXPECTED OF THEM. Kids need to learn to figure things out for themselves.
- PUNISHING AND CRITICIZING STUDENTS OFTEN. This better prepares them for real life.
- PUNISHING THE WHOLE CLASS WHEN ONE STUDENT MISBEHAVES. All the other students were probably doing the same thing or at
least thinking about doing it.
- NEVER GIVING STUDENTS PRIVILEGES. It makes students soft and they will just abuse privileges anyway.
- PUNISHING EVERY MISBEHAVIOR YOU SEE. If we don’t, the students will take over.
- THREATENING AND WARNING KIDS OFTEN. “If you aren’t good, I’ll keep you after school for the rest of
- USING THE SAME PUNISHMENT FOR EVERY STUDENT. If it works for one it will work for all.
- USING SCHOOL WORK AS PUNISHMENT. “Okay, smarty, answer all the questions in the book for homework!”
- MAINTAINING PERSONAL DISTANCE FROM STUDENTS. Familiarity breeds contempt, you know.
Most classroom discipline problems can be significantly reduced or eliminated by avoiding these pitfalls
and applying sound discipline principles. Here are ten simple strategies that can have a major impact on classroom behavior.
EXPECT THE BEST FROM KIDS
It has long been known that teachers’ expectations play an important role in determining student behavior.
I remember two teachers who, at first glance, appeared similar; both were very strict, gave mountains of homework, and kept
students busy from the first moment they entered the classroom. However, they differed in their expectations for students.
Through her actions and attitudes, one teacher seemed to say, “I know I am hard on you, but it is because I know you
can do quality work and it will pay off in the long run.” She was loved by her students and they learned a lot. The
other teacher conveyed her negative expectations, “If I don’t keep you busy, you will just get into trouble and
stab me in the back.” In both cases students did everything they could to live up to the expectations of each teacher
and, in the case of the latter, conveying negative attitudes toward students led to increased discipline problems.
Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest hockey players in history, said that any hockey player can skate to
where the puck was, most can skate to where the puck is, but he had a gift for being able to skate to where the puck is going
to be. Great teachers, who have the fewest discipline problems, have the ability to see where students can be and set their
expectation levels accordingly. This is relatively easy to do for “good” students but probably more necessary
for the others. So the first step in reducing discipline problems is to show positive expectations toward students. Assume
that EVERY student will, if given a chance, act appropriately and, if students don’t rise to meet your expectations,
DON’T GIVE UP! Some students will require many treatments before they will begin to respond.
MAKE THE IMPLICIT EXPLICIT
Many teachers increase the likelihood of creating discipline problems by not making their expectations about
proper behavior clear and explicit. For example, how many times have you heard yourself or others saying, “Now class,
BE-HAVE!”? You assume everyone knows what you mean by “behave.” This may not be a reasonable assumption.
On the playground for example, proper behavior means running, jumping, throwing things (preferably balls, not rocks) and teaming-up
with other students. In the classroom teachers probably have different notions about good behavior but in few cases do teachers
spell out their expectations carefully. Sad to say, most students must learn the meaning of “behave” by the process
of elimination – “Don’t look out the window… Don’t put hands on fellow students… Don’t
put feet on the desk… don’t… don’t…”
The preferred approach would be to present rules for proper conduct on the front end (and try to phrase them
positively – “Students should…”). The teacher (or the class) could prepare a poster on which rules
are listed. In that way, rules are clear, explicit, and ever present. If you want to increase the likelihood that rules will
be followed, have students help make the rules. The vast majority of students want to follow the rules and research indicates
that when students feel ownership for rules, they will make greater effort to live by them.
REWARDS, YES! PUNISHMENTS, NO!
A major ingredient in the creation of classroom discipline problems is the overuse of punishments. Research
consistently shows that punishments outweigh rewards by at least 10 to 1 in typical classrooms. Punishments include such old
favorites as THE TRIP TO THE OFFICE, and “WRITE A HUNDRED TIMES, ‘I will not…’” But they also
include the almost unconscious (but frequent) responses made for minor infractions: the “evil eye” stare of disapproval
and the countless pleas to “face front,” “stop talking,” “sit down!” and so on.
Punishments (of both the major and minor varieties) have at least four consequences that frequently lead
to increased disruptiveness in the classroom: 1) The squeaky wheel gets greased. Punishment can bring attention to those who
misbehave. Good behavior may leave a student nameless or unnoticed but bad behavior can bring the undivided attention of the
teacher in front of an audience of classmates. 2) Punishment has negative side effects such as aggression, depression, anxiety,
or embarrassment. At the very least, when children are punished they can feel worse about themselves, you, the subject, or
about school in general. They may try to reduce the negative side effects by bullying, destruction of property or self-defeating
behaviors. 3) Punishment only temporarily suppresses misbehavior. The teacher who rules with an iron ruler can have students
who never misbehave in her presence, but the moment she leaves the room or turns her back, misbehaviors quickly return. 4)
Punishment disrupts the continuity of your lessons and reduces the time spent on productive learning. These, taken with the
fact that punishments are usually not premeditated and frequently do not address the real problems of misbehavior such as
boredom, frustration, or physical discomfort, usually work to increase classroom discipline problems rather than to reduce
In view of the negative consequences of punishments, the preferred approach is to use rewards. Rewards bring
attention to good behaviors: “Thank you for being prepared.” “Good answer! Thanks for taking turns.”
Rewards such as acknowledging students good behaviors provide an appropriate model for other students, and makes them feel
positive about themselves and about your class. Also, reinforcing positive behavior reduces the inclination towards misbehavior
and enhances the flow of your lesson – you stay on task, get more student participation, and accentuate the correct
responses. Not surprisingly, students report liking teachers more who use rewards rather than relying solely on punishments.
LET THE PUNISHMENT FIT THE CRIME
When rewards are inappropriate, many teachers create discipline problems by using short sighted or ineffective
punishments. The classic example is the ‘whole class punishment’ – “Okay, I said if anyone talked
there would be no recess, so we stay inside today!” This frustrates students (especially the ones who were behaving
properly), causes resentments toward the student who caused the punishment, and usually spawns more misbehavior.
Punishments are most effective when they are the natural consequences of the behavior. For example, if a
child breaks a window, it makes sense to punish him with clean-up responsibilities and the expense involved with replacing
it. Having him write 1000 times, “I will not break windows” or doing extra school work does little to help him
see the relationship between actions and consequences.
In reality, this is one of the hardest suggestions to follow. In many cases, the “natural consequences”
are obscure. So, it is often difficult to find appropriate punishment. If you cannot come up with a natural consequence try
asking the offenders that they think should be the punishment. They may be able to come up with a consequence that at least
appears to them to be a fit punishment.
IF YOU MUST PUNISH, REMOVE PRIVILEGES
In the event that there are no natural consequences that can serve as punishments, the next best approach
is to withdraw privileges. In “real life” privileges and responsibilities are supposed to go hand in hand. People
who do not act responsibly lose freedoms and privileges. Classrooms provide a great opportunity to teach this lesson but there
is a catch: THERE MUST BE PRIVILEGES TO WITHDRAW. Many privileges already exist in classrooms and many more should be created.
For example, students who finish their work neatly and on time can play an educational game, do an extra credit assignment,
work on homework, or earn points toward fun activities and free time. The possibilities are limitless. The important point,
however, is that those who break the rules lose out on the privileges.
“IGNORANCE IS BLISS”
One of the most effective ways to create trouble is to reward the very behaviors you want to eliminate. Many
teachers do this inadvertently by giving attention to misbehaviors. For example, while observing a kindergarten class, a child
uttered a four letter expletive after dropping a box of toys. The teachers quickly surrounded her and excitedly exclaimed,
“That’s nasty! Shame! Shame! Don’t ever say that nasty word again!” All the while the other kids looked
on with studied interest. By lunch time, many of the other students were chanting, “…(expletive deleted)…”
and the teachers were in a frenzy! Teachers create similar problems by bringing attention to note passing, gum chewing, and
countless other minor transgressions.
Such problems can usually be avoided by making mental note of the minor misbehaviors and, at a later time,
talking to the student individually. Some minor misbehavior is probably being committed by at least one student during every
second you teach. Your choice is to spend your time trying to correct (and bring attention to) each one OR go about the business
CONSISTENCY IS THE BEST POLICY
Another good way to create discipline problems is to be inconsistent with rules, assignments, and punishments.
For example, our 2nd grade daughter was given 750 math problems to solve over the holiday break. We said she could do them
whenever she chose but if they weren’t completed by the weekend before she returned to school, she would stay in until
they were all finished. She ended up spending most of the weekend at the kitchen table with her math problems. When classes
resumed, only a few classmates had completed all the problems, so the teacher extended the deadline by another week. In this
case, our daughter learned not to believe the teacher pronouncements and that it is alright to skip assignments (let alone
that she had the meanest parents in the neighborhood). When events like this recur, the teacher loses credibility and students
are taught that procrastination can pay off, a habit that will probably haunt them throughout their lives.
Inconsistency with punishment has a similar effect. By warning and re-warning students, teachers actually
promote misbehavior. “The next time you do that, you’re going to the office!” Five minutes pass and then,
“I’m warning you, one more time and you are gone!” Later, “This is your last warning!” And finally,
“Okay, I have had it with you, go stand in the hall!” In this instance, a student has learned that a threatened
punishment can buy a number of chances to misbehave (might as well use them all), and that the actual punishment will be less
severe than the promised one (not a bad deal). To avoid the pitfalls of inconsistency, mean what you say and when you say
it, follow through the very first time.
KNOW EACH STUDENT WELL
Discipline problems can frequently be caused by punishing students we intended to reward and vice versa.
When a student is told she can to clean up the classroom after school, is that a reward or punishment? It depends. As we all
know, “One person’s pleasure is another’s poison.” I was a very poor reader while in the fourth grade.
I was so anxious about it that I would try to become sick just before reading in the hope that I would be sent to the clinic,
home, or anywhere other than to “THE CIRCLE.” One morning, after helping the teacher straighten up the room before
school, the teacher decided to thank me. “Mark, you’ve been so helpful, you can be the first to read today.”
I made sure I was never “helpful” enough to be so severely punished again.
The opposite happens just as often. For example, there are many class clowns who delight in such “punishments”
as standing in the corner, leaving the room, or being called to the blackboard. I recall having to stand in the school courtyard
for punishment. I missed math, social studies, and English and entertained many classmates with gestures and faces as they
walked by and applauded. The key for reducing discipline problems is to know your students well; know what is rewarding and
what is punishing for each.
USE SCHOOL WORK AS REWARDS
One of the worst sins an educator can commit is to use school work as punishments. There is something tragically
ironic about the language arts teacher who punishes students with, “Write 1000 times, I will not…” or the
physical education teacher who punishes with laps, sprints or crunches. In cases like these we are actually punishing students
with that which we want them to use and enjoy for the rest of their lives!
Teachers can actually reduce discipline problems (and increase learning) by using their subjects as rewards.
This is done in subtle and sometimes indirect ways, through making lessons meaningful, practical, and fun. If you are teaching
about fractions, bring in pies and cakes and see how fast those kids can learn the difference between ½ and 1/8. Reading teachers
should allow free reading as a reward for good behavior. Math teachers can give extra credit math sheets (points to be added
to the next test) when regular assignments are completed. And, at the end of class, PE teachers should invite the best students
to take a VICTORY LAP WITH THE TEACHER! The possibilities are endless and the results will be less misbehavior and a greater
appreciation for both teacher and subject.
TREAT STUDENTS WITH LOVE AND RESPECT
The final suggestion for reducing discipline problems is to treat students kindly. It is no secret that people
tend to respond with the same treatment that they are given. If students are treated in a cold or impersonal manner, they
are less likely to care if they cause you grief. If they are treated with warmth and respect they will treat you well in return.
One of the best ways to show you care (and thus reduce discipline problems in the long run) is to surprise
kids. After they have worked particularly hard, give them a treat, “You kids have worked so hard you may have 30 minutes
free reading time.” Or have a Jeopardy Review Party on the day before a test complete with prizes. Kids will come to
think, “This school stuff isn’t so bad after all!” Be careful to keep the surprises unexpected. If kids
come to expect them, surprises lose their effectiveness.
Recently, I overheard a student pay a teacher the highest tribute. He said, “She is more than just
a teacher; she is our friend.” Not surprisingly, this teacher is known for having few major discipline problems.
When attempting to reduce discipline problems, we need to be careful not to assume that they can or should
be totally eliminated. When children are enthusiastic about learning, involved in what they are doing and allowed to express
themselves creatively, “discipline problems” are apt to occur. For dictators and tyrants, robot-like obedience
is a major goal. For teachers, however, a much more critical objective is to help a classroom full of students reach their
maximum potential as individuals so as to live happy and successful lives.
Just as we tend to teach the way we were taught, we are inclined to discipline with the same ineffectual
methods that were used on us. Hopefully, by becoming aware of this and by following the simple suggestions presented above,
learning and teaching can become more “rewarding” for students and teachers alike.
Mark Wasicsko holds the Bank of Kentucky Chair in Educational Leadership at Northern Kentucky University.
He has spent over 25 years studying the dispositions of effective educators with particular emphasis on teacher selection
and teacher preparation.