Our goals when disciplining students are simple. We want the steps we take to result in improved behavior now and increased ability of our students to manage their behavior in the future. Unfortunately, the popularity of discipline approaches does not necessarily mean that they are aligned with these goals. In fact, one set of popular classroom discipline practices can generate unhelpful and even negative outcomes, including outcomes that work against our goals to modify behavior and prepare students for their futures. Such practices, often referred to as progressive consequences, behavior charts, or behavior management systems, risk teaching students unintended lessons and undermining development of self-regulation. They can even increase the misbehavior of some young people.
These disciplinary systems typically include a process in which students begin the day at a desired or highest level of behavior on a publicly displayed chart. As the day unfolds, students progressively lose points, or move to a lower level (often designated by a color) each time they exhibit undesirable or unacceptable behavior, as determined by the teacher or another adult. The bet is that public shaming and increasing threats of consequences will encourage behavior compliance and discourage students from engaging in off-task and unacceptable behaviors.
Ironically, this system works best for students who seek to please the teacher anyway; the students least likely to misbehave. For students who do not feel a strong connection with the classroom community, such shaming and threats hold little significance. For students who seek attention, this system offers a convenient and effective way to satisfy their need, even if it is in a negative context. For students who struggle to learn, the behavior charting system provides a roadmap for behavior that will distract attention away from their learning challenges and reduce the pain and embarrassment of having their struggles revealed.
Meanwhile, these approaches teach students to comply with the expectations of others, not build an internal system of self-regulation. While compliance will continue to play a role in life success, learning to manage one’s behavior without constant reliance on the wishes, expectations, and consequential threats of those in authority is at least of equal importance.
We can and should replace these practices with others that have shown more impact and effectiveness in changing behavior and building self-management skills. Here are ten actions to consider:
- Get to know students and what motivates them.
- Develop strong, caring relationships with students.
- Build a strong, positive, inclusive classroom culture.
- Provide timely, positive feedback and reinforcement for positive behavior.
- Teach good decision-making skills and provide opportunities to practice them.
- Coach students to develop and practice self-regulation.
- Monitor student learning trajectories and intervene early when performance begins to slip.
- Monitor stress levels in the classroom and provide opportunities to “de-stress” and help students to manage stress in their lives.
- Give students meaningful input and choices about their learning and classroom operations.
- Keep discipline discussions and actions private and out of public view.
We might find it convenient to present rules and behavior expectations and demand compliance. While in the short term we might be able to control student behavior, in the long term we risk missing an opportunity to build the capacity of our students to monitor and manage their own behavior, a skill closely associated with life success.