Do all discipline conversations need to be private?


If 95% of the kids are attentively listening, but two boys are making faces to each other and laughing, clearly not paying attention, how do you refocus them without calling them out in front of the class?  I get that it’s more effective to ask them about their behavior, but I wonder if I can I do that in front of everyone? And can I do the follow-up questioning in front of the whole class as well? I can’t really pull them aside when I’m the one teaching! Help, please!


When you follow the DWS approach, you are asking the student to assess a level of behavior.  This has a different feel to it than “calling a student out.”

As Dr. Marshall explains in his book:

The Hierarchy focuses on labeling behavior, not people.  Labeling people often has negative overtones and is not conducive to building relationships.  In contrast, labeling a description is far less antagonizing.  A fundamental advantage of the Hierarchy is that it naturally accomplishes what adults talk about but have a most difficult time in accomplishing, namely, separating a person’s behavior from the person himself.  Even though we try desperately to make it clear to a young person that we are not criticizing the student as a person––that we are just not approving of inappropriate behavior––it is extremely difficult for a young person to perceive the difference.  Teaching the Hierarchy makes this challenging task quite easy. (p. 86)

You’re absolutely right that it’s not practical to have a private conversation when you’re actually teaching the whole class, although on occasion––with some more serious behavior––I have had to ask a student (or two) to come out into the hall to have a private conversation in the middle of a lesson.  Although not perfect, it certainly does convey the understanding that your expectations are important––so important that you can’t carry on teaching if basic expectations are not met.  As I’m exiting with the two, I might simply say to the class,  “Kids, I’m needing to have a discussion with Brett and Aaron. (And of course, the kids all know why, so no explanation is necessary.)  Here is a time when I am going to ask you to operate on a very high level because I won’t be in the room for a minute.  How many people think that they can quietly read a book or draw in their doodle book while I’m out in the hall?  Thank you.  I know I can count on you to show self-discipline.

Sometimes just moving closer to the misbehaving students––while still teaching––is enough of a hint, or putting a hand gently on a shoulder while you continue your teaching, will bring awareness to at least one of them about the need to re-focus.

Since reflection is one of the principles of DWS and just as you suggested, it’s always the goal to ask rather than tell, you could try:

“Brett and Aaron…

  • is having a private conversation at this time, appropriate?”
  • I’m finding it difficult to give a lesson when two people are having a conversation. Can you help me with this?”
  • I notice lots of people really trying to understand this lesson but some are having trouble thinking.  I’m actually having some trouble keeping myself.  Can you think why that might be?”
  • I can see you have something you really want to talk about, but when would be a better time for conversation?”
  • when we’re having a lesson, what are kids expected to do?  Why is this important?  or  How could this lesson benefit you?”

Many times I find, a question or two is enough to get kids back on track––especially when I take care to ask my questions respectfully, kindly, patiently, even with a smile. In a case like this I wouldn’t mention levels at all, unless the two boys continued to be disruptive after I’d asked them a few questions.  Then I would go to a more serious discussion, asking them to use the Hierarchy as an assessment tool.

In my experience, if you develop the habit of finding ways to discuss Levels C and Dmore often than you focus on Level B, when you do find it necessary to talk about Level B, it has a strong effect on students.  Over-asking about the lower levels on a regular basis (for every little problem,) can actually make your teaching less effective.  If a discussion of the lower levels happens only infrequently in your class, students will understand that Level B conversations are more serious and they will naturally pay attention to something out of the ordinary.