When I talk with teachers or students about discipline, the focus inevitably shifts to consequences and punishment. By nature, teachers want well behaved students and a smoothly run classroom. However, when striving for that perfect classroom, a teacher may only approach discipline as the responsibility to strictly enforce rules and dole out consequences for the kids who won’t behave. As for students, the idea of discipline tends to make them anxious about unwanted consequences and “getting in trouble.” However, at its core, discipline is an act of training. Sure, if you look up the definition of discipline you will find the words disobedience and punishment. More importantly, you will notice that discipline is an act of training people. As educators, this is often where we fail to successfully realize our ideal vision for student behavior…in the training.
When you think of training, what comes to mind? Is it a boxer training for a fight? Maybe it’s a marathon runner building up the stamina to finish the brutally long race. When I think of training, I see sweat and hard work. I get a sense of pain, fatigue, and soreness because training is a grind. Training takes time, effort, and diligence. It is a long-term process filled with struggles, disappointments, and a bunch of re-do’s. But if you want it badly enough, you will do what it takes to make it happen. Just like any worthwhile goal for which we may train, discipline in the classroom requires unwavering perseverance and enough patience to realize that the desired results might take longer than expected. Like the marathon runner or the boxer, teachers must have a well-designed plan and a dedicated commitment to being intentional with every aspect of the training.
This sounds like a simple plan, but clichés and slogans don’t make our students behave. Effective discipline must include training and it must be intentional. If a teacher is not diligent with the training or intentional about appropriate feedback, even the best behavior management plans can quickly go astray. As the teacher, you must possess a great deal of grit and determination with and understanding that your actions matter as much as the students’ behaviors. You will face obstacles, difficult decisions, and setbacks. In these moments, it is your responsibility to carry your students through it, and your actions will be the difference. When faced with a defiant student, resist the temptation to stew over why he was put in your class. Instead, dig in and train hard, knowing that it will be harder to train him than the rest of the class. When that talkative class has touched your last nerve, remember that your actions determine what happens next. Teachers have told me that they tried to get their class to behave, but the kids just won’t listen. When I hear this, I know I am talking to a teacher who must dig deeper into the training. There is often a misconception that we are going to train students to fall in line, obey us, and fear our consequences. We go over rules and they follow them. The end. This, however, is not discipline. Discipline is not a matter of yelling at students until they start behaving. Instead, it is the intentional steps we take in order to provide effective training for each student.
Throughout my 18 years in education, I’ve borrowed and adapted a simple phrase about behavior that epitomizes an unfortunate misconception. When children do not know how to read, we teach them to read. When children do not know how to behave, we yell at them. Obviously, this expression sarcastically points out how the implementation of discipline can often be completely misguided. Behavior is a skill and it needs to be taught. When teaching a child to read, teachers take intentional steps with appropriate materials. Learning and practice are very specific to the needs of the reader and constant feedback is provided. Students come to school expecting to read and practice reading. A good teacher realizes the needs of his readers, pays close attention to progress, and continually adjusts the lesson plans to maximize results. A great teacher does the same thing, but also goes to great lengths to create a reading environment in which all students are engaged. If a student continually struggles with reading, one-on-one attention is given and parents are notified. Learning to read is quite a detailed and dedicated process! Just like reading, discipline is more effective when we look at it with a growth mindset. We must have the diligence and perseverance to continue teaching behaviors with appropriate feedback even when students disappoint us or fail to meet our expectations.
Let’s face it. The most important part of the equation is the teacher’s response to behaviors. The teacher is ultimately the one who shapes behaviors, dictates the tone, and creates the environment. Quite simply, the way a teacher responds to a behavior determines the behavior that follows. The discipline battle is often won or lost in these simple, but pivotal moments. So, how do you respond? What would your students say about your discipline skills? The words you choose, the volume of your voice, the posture you maintain, and the look on your face all matter. In these moments, as the trainer, your actions are powerful and influential. These moments happen continuously throughout each day and you must be prepared. Not planning for these moments could lead to missteps, causing a chain reaction of bigger behavior problems down the road. Every classroom has rules and expectations which must be upheld and enforced. It takes a good bit of people skills for a teacher to accomplish this smoothly, but there are a few simple things that make a big difference.
First and foremost, leave the sass at home. Discipline does not require sarcastic redirection or demeaning language from the teacher…ever. This reveals more about the teacher than the student and it creates unnecessary tension. It models inappropriate behavior, belittles students, and creates an environment in which an adult bully is in charge. And nobody likes a bully. Point out the misbehavior, state the consequence, and reteach the desired behavior if appropriate. But remember, it is never a good idea to engage in sarcasm at a student’s expense.
Second, there is no need to yell. Don’t get me wrong, being stern and direct when correcting behavior is often necessary. But that is not the same thing as yelling. When you yell at a student, it makes a spectacle of two people and one of them is YOU. It could also lead to resentment from the student which damages the relationship necessary for effective training. When yelled at, a student usually becomes disengaged which means you have lost them for a period of time. When it comes down to it, it is harder to get them back than it is to keep them involved. Even when a student’s behavior angers you or completely lets you down, it is important to foster the relationship because you need to continue training with them.
Third, remember that it takes time. Discipline is a process and baby steps are okay. But you must be intentional and you must keep taking those steps. The famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Start with a vision for your classroom and be the strong leader who guides those intentional steps that are necessary to make it happen.
Finally, stay positive and don’t give up. Keep training even when you’re tired and you think the students should know better. In a class full of energetic students, it is too easy to blame the chaos on them. But don’t forget at look at yourself as well. A wise teacher once told me that our anger towards students usually stems from something we are angry about with ourselves. Your class is a reflection of YOU so what have YOU not tried yet? Why are you not getting through to your students? Teachers are leaders and leaders must find a way to lead. On the flip side, be sure that your good kids know it. Find the positive things and point them out…a lot! Don’t let a student’s disappointing decision or ugly behavior get in the way of your positivity because that adversely affects the training for everyone. I have found that the more I focus on facts, the more positive my culture remains. The way you deal with a behavior issue should clearly let the student know that you dislike the behavior, not them. Yes, grace is appropriate even when you think they should know better.
In the end, students learn quickly which behaviors are important to us because they watch our every move. We set the expectations and lay out the consequences, but they mean very little if we fail to follow through. If we do not effectively execute the agreed upon consequences for unwanted behaviors like blurting out, we not only shape the behavior of the offender, but everyone else as well. On the other hand, rewarding a student for desired behaviors will not only lead to repeated behaviors from that student, but it simultaneously trains the others. Keep in mind that students also learn quickly from the moves we do NOT make. Failing to recognize desired behaviors advertises to your students that these behaviors are not important which trains them to stop performing them. Failing to model the desired behaviors can be equally detrimental. For example, not showing respect to your students provides them with a powerful example which they are likely to follow. Yes, I know…being a role model is hard work! The most effective discipline is a purposeful, positive element of the classroom environment. In other words, discipline is not just what happens when kids get in trouble. Discipline should be happening constantly because it needs to be woven into the fabric of your culture. Students should come to school with an expectation that there will be some discipline training going on today because it’s what we do. As the leader and motivator in your classroom, you have the ultimate influence and responsibility to effectively train your students to create that ideal vision of classroom culture. Training doesn’t require sarcasm or angry yelling. All it takes is discipline…from everyone.