Classroom Management for Middle and Secondary Schools

THE CLEARING HOUSE –  Volume 79 Number 1 (Pages 51 – 54)

In an attempt to provide ideas and ways to make middle and secondary schools physically and psychologically safe, we asked a number of experts to write articles for this special symposium edition of The Clearing House. Rather than prescribing specific writing topics, we asked the authors to share their beliefs on what contributes to classroom management and to making middle and secondary schools safe.

—M. Lee Manning, Professor and Eminent Scholar and Katherine T Bucher, Professor—both with the Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia – Guest Editors, page 5

Discipline without Stress®
Punishments or Rewards

 by Marvin Marshall

This article may be reproduced in whole or in part as long as reference is made to

The subject of discipline is often confused with classroom management.

“I appreciated your differentiation between classroom management and discipline. After 35 years in the classroom, I can see how so many times discipline problems are exacerbated by poor management.” (Baiotto 2003).

Although related, classroom management and discipline are distinctly different topics.

Classroom Management

Classroom management deals with how things are done. It entails structure, procedures, and routines, to the point of becoming rituals. When procedures are explained to and practiced by students, and, when necessary, periodically reinforced by practicing again, classroom management is enhanced. When procedures are learned, practiced, and reinforced, instruction becomes efficient. This is the foundation of classroom management and is a prime responsibility of the teacher.

Chances are that when you walk into a room, you do not pay much attention to the floor, but if it were missing, that would be obvious. This analogy describes the difference between effective and ineffective classroom management. You do not notice it when it is good, but without it, it’s lack is readily apparent.


In contrast to classroom management, discipline is the responsibility of the student. Discipline has to do with appropriate behavior. Although it is incumbent upon the teacher to maintain a classroom conducive to learning, a person is responsible for his or her behavior.

When teachers take on the role of disciplining students, they deprive young people of the opportunity to become more responsible. A far more effective approach is for students to develop procedures to help redirect irresponsible impulses. In addition, the usual approach is for the adult to impose some form of consequence or punishment. When this occurs, students have no ownership in the decisions, take on a victimhood mentality, and have negative feelings toward the imposers. Since the use of coercion engenders negative feelings, such external approaches are counterproductive to good relationships and are effective only temporarily.

Three Principles to Practice

Superior teachers are aware of three practices that enhance classroom management and promote responsible behavior. Following is a brief description of each.


The first principle to practice is to be positive. People do better when they feel better, and that which people perceive affects the way they feel. For example, if you receive a compliment, then a positive feeling emerges. On the other hand, if you are criticized, a negative feeling erupts. Effective teachers communicate in a way that promotes what is desired, rather than what is not desired. For example, Stop talking becomes This is quiet time and No running becomes We walk in our hallways. The first practice to promote appropriate behavior is to be proactive by presenting expectations that are positive.


The second principle to practice is to offer choices in any situation or activity. Choice empowers. Since people do not argue with their own choices, this approach engenders ownership (a necessary requirement for lasting changes) while, simultaneously, reducing resistance. Many behavior problems erupt when the student perceives especially in front of peers that no option is available. The student feels cornered. The lack of options often prompts feelings that lead to resistance and even defiance. Having options reduces these negative feelings that coercion fosters.

Living three options reduces any sense of coercion. When options are presented, a student feels empowered as opposed to overpowered. Offering choices diffuses the emotional charge of a tense situation prompted by feelings of coercion. The misbehaving student is prompted to think, rather than impulsively react, because the student is required to make a choice. For example, if, after continual disruptions, a student were given a form that asked, Would you rather complete the form (1) in your seat, (2) in the back of the room, or (3) in the office? resistance to the task would diminish.


The third principle superior teachers practice has to do with understanding the differences between controlling someone else and attempting to change someone else. Although we can control a person, the control is only physical. No one can control how another person thinks or what the other person wants to do. In addition, control is only temporary.

Answering the following question explains a fundamental concept of the approach: Think of one person in your life and ask yourself whether you have ever changed that person. You will quickly conclude that you might have influenced the person to change, but in the final analysis the person did the actual changing. As mentioned, we can control another person temporarily, but no one can actually change another person. People change themselves, and the least effective approach to actuate another person to change is through the use of coercion, be it telling or through imposed punishments, or manipulation by bribery.(

Reflect for a moment: Do you enjoy being told what to do? Telling is coercive because the inference is that what you are doing is not good enough and that you need to change. No one likes to hear this message.

Asking reflective questions is significantly more effective and longer lasting than telling someone what to do. Learning to ask reflective questions is a skill that anyone can learn. What would an extraordinary person do in this situation? and If you could not fail, what would you do? are reflective and empowering communications. Here is a reflective and powerful one I use in my seminars: If I were a student, would I want me as a teacher?

The Raise Responsibility System

Communicating in positive terms, offering choices, and honing the skill of asking reflective questions are three principles to practice. They provide a foundation for the Raise Responsibility System, which is a discipline and learning system composed of three parts: (1) teaching a hierarchy of social development (teaching), (2) checking for understanding (asking), and (3) guided choices (eliciting).

(1) Teaching the hierarchy (Teaching)

Promoting responsible behavior starts with teaching a hierarchy of four developmental levels. As with Jean Piaget’s hierarchy of cognitive development, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Lawrence Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral development, the nature of a hierarchical structure positions the highest level as the most desirable one. Exposure to the levels encourages responsible behavior if for no other reason than the motivating principle of challenge.

The approach is proactive in that concepts are taught at the outset. It is also positive, offers choices, and prompts reflection. This is in contrast to the more traditional approach of reacting after irresponsible behavior with a negative approach that is usually coercive and adversarial.

The concepts comprise four levels of social development that are made meaningful by the examples students create for their own classroom. The levels are:

(D) Democracy (Highest level)
  Develops self-discipline
Demonstrates initiative
Displays responsibility
Democracy and responsibility are inseparable
Internal motivation
(C) Cooperation/Conformity
Conforms to peer pressure
External motivation
(B) Bossing/Bullying
  Bothers others
Bullies others
Breaks laws and standards
Must be bossed to behave
(A) Anarchy (Lowest level)
  Absence of order
Aimless and chaotic

Levels A and B are not acceptable levels of behavior. Because schools are organized institutions, level A is introduced only to understand the hierarchy of social development. Notice that only level B uses a verbal or gerund form. This prevents referring to anyone as a bully. The verbal form also emphasizes that an irresponsible behavioral level is chosen. People at this level make their own rules and standards, rather than following appropriate expectations. Level B behavior naturally prompts the use of authority. However, authority can be used without punishment or coercion, as will be seen in the third phase of the system.

Level C refers to expected behaviors, a requirement for a civil society. It includes following the procedures that the teacher establishes for classroom management. Cooperation is emphasized at the elementary levels, but in middle and high schools this level takes on an additional dimension. Discussions include the powerful influence of peer pressure and situations where such conformity would not be in the best interests of either the individual or society. Motivation at this level is external; its intent is to please or influence someone else.

Level D is the goal. It represents the ideal of taking the initiative to act responsibly because it is the right thing to do. A hierarchy is also used to promote effort in learning(

Both levels C and D are acceptable. The difference is in the motivation. Level C aims at obedience, but obedience does not create desire. Ask a student to pick up a chair that is on its side and the student will do so. However, if the student picks up the chair without being asked, a positive feeling is engendered. Taking the initiative to do the right thing feels good. Obeying a directive simply lacks this positive emotional component.

The usual terms employed when discussing motivation are extrinsic and intrinsic. When referring to motivation with the Raise Responsibility System, the terms external and internal are used because responsibility is not a characteristic that we associate with intrinsic motivation. The motivation to be responsible is more cognitive and rooted in ethics and values, in contrast to the emotion or feeling that is associated with the word intrinsic. (Technically, however, whether any motivation can be extrinsic or external is another subject beyond the discussion of this article.)

The levels can be illustrated by using a traffic signal. Levels A and B have a very clear meaning: stop. These are unacceptable levels of behavior. The yellow refers to level C and indicates caution. This signal communicates a situation that can go in one of two directions: up to level D (doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do) or down to level B (doing something inappropriate or unacceptable). At level C, it is important to think carefully and cautiously about the results of one’s choices. It engenders reflecting on questions such as, Is this really where I want to go? and Will it bring results that are going to be positive for me and others? The green of the signal at level D indicates that it is safe to go with the responsible choice.

(2) Checking for Understanding (Asking)

Disruptions are handled by Checking for Understanding. The purpose is for the disrupting student to acknowledge the chosen behavioral level. Acknowledging the level is necessary in order to accept responsibility. The vast majority of situations are handled by simply using this basic learning theory of teaching (the concepts) and then checking for understanding (asking to recognize the level chosen). The self-evaluating questioning strategy encourages students to reflect on their level of self-chosen behavior. The effect of this procedure is, to quote one teacher,

“They (students) know almost instantly when they need to make a better choice. This takes less time away from instruction and keeps the classroom climate stress-free and positive.” (Capell 1999)


This very important part of the system involves asking young people to reflect on their own chosen level of behavior. This simple prompt to reflect immediately stops the vast majority of inappropriate behaviors. In contrast to asking the student, if the adult identifies the level of behavior, the student has been deprived of the opportunity to reflect and become more responsible.

A number of factors are engaged using these two foundational steps of teaching and then asking. Perhaps the most important is that the approach separates the person from the behavior, the act from the actor, the deed from the doer. This is a critical concept to understand. Everyone has a natural tendency to defend one’s own actions. Oftentimes, this leads to a confrontation between teacher and student. By referring to a level outside of oneself, the tendency for defensiveness is eliminated. Other beneficial factors include an understanding between internal and external motivation; empowerment to address Level B, bully-type behavior; and the fostering of character education.

(3) Guided Choices (Eliciting)

Continued or repeated disruptions are handled by Guided Choices. Authority is used but without being punitive. The purpose is to stop the disruption and give the student a responsibility-producing activity and/or to develop a procedure to redirect future impulses.

As with Checking for Understanding, in Guided Choices the teacher asks rather then tells. Asking bypasses emotions prompted by the brain’s amygdala and prompts the brain to reflect. Since the student is making a decision and is not being coerced, dignity is preserved and confrontation is avoided.

A major reason for the effectiveness of the system is that students know and feel that they will not be harmed. Students understand that the teacher’s intention is for student growth, not punishment. Students clearly understand that the teacher wants to help students to help themselves, rather than being victims of their inappropriate behavioral impulses.

Suppose that Michael sticks his foot out into the aisle in an attempt to trip Jimmy. The teacher’s conversation to Michael sounds like the following: Michael, every time you stick your foot out to trip Jimmy you are a victim of your impulses. Do you want to go through life being a victim? If not, let’s think of some procedure you can rely on so that when you get that impulse you will be able to redirect it. Without your having some procedure, you will continue to be a victim of your impulses.

Although essays and self-diagnostic referrals are available for future disruptions, the most effective approach is to elicit a consequence or procedure to redirect future inappropriate behaviors. Since people generally do not argue with their own decisions, an elicited decision does not engender the usual negative, adversarial, and victimhood reaction aroused when a decision is imposed. Incidentally, because the decision is the student’s, rather than the teacher’s, this approach gains parental support.


The key to effective classroom management is teaching and practicing procedures. This is the teacher’s responsibility. Discipline, on the other hand, has to do with behavior and is the student’s responsibility. Superior teachers practice the three principles of being positive with students, offering choices, and prompting reflection. The Raise Responsibility System employs a proactive approach that establishes expectations by first teaching a hierarchy of social development. During inappropriate behavior, the teacher asks or suggests that the disruptive student reflect on the level of chosen behavior. If disruptions continue, a consequence or procedure is elicited in contrast to the usual approach of being imposed to redirect inappropriate impulses. Employing the three principles to practice and the Raise Responsibility System is a significantly more effective approach to promoting responsible behavior than are traditional adversarial and negative approaches.

Suggested Readings

Marshall, M. 1998. Fostering Social Responsibility. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
______. 2001. Discipline without Stress® Punishments or Rewards – How Teachers and Parents Promote Responsibility and Learning. Los Alamitos, CA: Piper Press.
______. 2005. Promoting Positivity, Choice, and Reflection, Leadership (Association of California School Administrators), 34 (5): 28-30.
Marshall, M., and K. Weisner. 2004. Using a Discipline System to Promote Learning. Phi Delta Kappan 85 (7): 498-507.

Key words: discipline, positivity, choice, reflection


Baiotto, K. March 23, 2003. Personal communication.
Capell, D. January 7, 1999. Personal communication.
Marshall, M.
Marshall, M.