The Truth About Discipline

In her book The Caring Teacher’s Guide to Discipline: Helping Young Students Learn Self-Control, Responsibility, and Respect, Marilyn Gootman writes that discipline is teaching self-control, not controlling or managing students. 

And as Richard Sagor notes in his book At-Risk Students: Reaching and Teaching Them, an effective discipline program requires three particular, vital educational functions:

  • The maintenance of order
  • The development of internal locus of control
  • The promotion of prosocial behavior

All three are accomplished in an approach where the student acknowledges ownership of behavior, where the student self-evaluates, and where the student develops a plan. In the process, the student grows by becoming more self-regulated. As Sagor notes, the locus of control is internal.

This is in contrast to an external control approach where the teacher takes possession of the problem, where the teacher presents the student with a plan, and where there is overpowerment of some kind—usually in the form of imposed punishment—which often results in enmity against the adult.

Teachers who largely rely on external methods of control may succeed in getting students to toe the line under their supervision, but what happens when the teacher is not around? As one teacher who uses external controls said, “My children are very good for me, but they can be holy terrors when I’m not around.” Research points to the same conclusion: Children subjected extensively to discipline based on external controls develop low internal commitment to good behavior. The real power, the real influence of teachers, is not what students do when the teacher is with them; it’s what students do when the teacher is not.

Self-development is most effective if the person is committed, rather than just complying to someone else’s desires. Commitment comes through internal motivation. Internal motivation is fostered in a positive learning environment where people feel they will not be harmed; where they are given choices that encourage ownership and empowerment; where reflection and self-correction are the dominant avenues to growth; and where people learn that appropriate, responsible behavior is in their own best interests. The Raise Responsibility System makes full use of these approaches.