Moving from Punishments to Discipline

A teacher recently contacted me and explained that the school she worked in was very entrenched in the idea that discipline = punishment. The students buy into this idea in that they seem to depend on punitive reactions from their teachers and parents. She wanted to know how to help the children move from being punishment-minded to being self-disciplined.

Here is how I replied:

Punishment, which is very often confused with discipline, operates on the theory that young people must be hurt to learn—that they must be harmed to instruct.

Can you recall the last time you felt bad and did something good? People do not think positively with negative feelings.

Punishments kill the very thing we are attempting to do—change behavior into something that is positive and socially appropriate.

If your school believes that YOUNG people ARE NOT YET ADULTS, then their use of IMPOSED PUNISHMENTS (a concept applied to adult behavior) should be re-examined. Share with the faculty the National Parent Teachers Association’s definition of discipline, which states: “To many people, discipline means punishment. But, actually, to discipline means to teach.
Rather than punishment, discipline should be a positive way of helping and guiding children to achieve self-control.” (Discipline: A Parent’s Guide, Copyright 1993, The National PTA)

To help children move from being punishment-minded to being self-motivated and self-disciplined, teach your students the four levels of social development described at and at

We have an obligation to help the teaching profession understand that—although imposed punishments are necessary for adults who act in socially unacceptable ways—IMPOSING THE SAME APPROACHES ON YOUNG PEOPLE is not only counterproductive but also feeds the common misconception that schools are like prisons in that use of external authoritarianism is the only way to promote leaning.