Clear, Consistent Discipline - The Key to the Happy Classroom

Trust me, the kids are okay with it

One of the things that comes up frequently in teaching is the concept of discipline. How do you discipline the kids? How do you get them to do what you want? How do you handle X and Y?

I was told that men often struggle with discipline in the classroom, especially with smaller children, but I got over it very quickly. The thing that got me through my reluctance to discipline kids was my kindergarten placement as a student teacher. I had a boy do something wrong, and I corrected him with a few stern words and redirection. The boy cried for a minute or two, then was back to work. Not five minutes later I sat down to work with him on a problem, certain he wouldn't want to talk to me because of the discipline, but he was just fine.

When I worked as a mental health technician for a children's psych hospital, I had a boy literally toeing a line he was not supposed to cross. I gave him a clear choice: comply or punishment, he chose not to comply, and he received the promised punishment swiftly. (It was just a time out, I'm not a monster, y'all.) The rest of the morning he was perfect for me until I left.

Kids crave rules and order in their lives. They do NOT want the responsibility of managing their lives. They thrive in situations where they know what is expected of them and that the boundaries are real.

How would you feel about going to a scenic overlook and being told to lean on the railing, only to discover that the railing wasn't real? The sick feeling of suddenly falling would be upsetting. For sure.

So, what makes a classroom run?

The answer, as always, is deeply complicated. However, there are some things that make it easy in theory. There are three "Cs" I associate with good discipline. Clear expectations, Clear discipline and feedback, and Consistency. You'll notice clear shows up twice.

Clear Expectations

Students needs to know what is expected of them. You cannot assume they know what you want, because they don't. Unless you're teaching Kindergarten, your students have had similar but very different sets of expectations from every teacher they've ever had. And in Kindergarten, you have students with brand new expectations (how to act in school) on top of managing new expectations from a new adult in their life. It's a lot to manage.

So, it is your job to be clear in your expectations. Students have to be told they're to come in and work on the writing prompt. They need to know that you expect them to have pencils, or paper, or whatever it is they need for your class. If you want them to raise their hands before speaking, they need to know. Can they go to the bathroom without permission, or do they need to ask you? What's the procedure for leaving the room? Entering the room? Getting out or putting up supplies?

They need to know these things because kids desperately want there to be order in the world. Imagine being a young child in a world where there are no expectations, no rules, no authority. They need to know that there is an order to things and how to act. They want to know how to do these things because it relieves them of the burden of making up their own rules. Kids should not be in charge of their own lives at this age. It's very stressful and teaches them that the world does not have rules. We are very much a society of laws and rules, and the kids want and expect those rules. 

But, they also have to know what the rules are. Clarity in rules also gives you a guide to refer to when something comes up. It creates structure for you so you can clearly explain the expectation "Raise your hand before you speak." and how the student made a mistake. "You didn't raise your hand to be called on."

Clear rules and expectations are the first step in good discipline in the classroom. Rules give everyone a role to play, and they know how to play it. Students thrive on structure. 

Clear Discipline/Feedback

Students need discipline to be clear, and they need clear feedback. Discipline isn't only about punishment, it's also about letting students know the consequences of their actions (and consequences can be good or bad) and how to manage the expectations of the adults in their lives. They need feedback just as anyone trying to master a skill needs feedback.

Clear discipline is easiest when you present options. Options can be more complicated as children get older, but giving them a choice makes them feel that they have an appropriate amount of control in a situation. Younger kids won't quite realize they haven't been given a real option, but it's still a choice for them to make. You can be more blunt with older kids.

The key is that option I mentioned. Give them an option, and there should only ever be two options. Option 1 is The Choice. 

"You can choose to....You can have either....If you don't do X..."

Option 2 is the consequence.

"You can choose to come to class prepared in the future, or you'll get in trouble.

"You can have either the spot you want to sit and be quiet, or I'll pick a spot for you."

"If you don't stop yelling out, I'm going to write you a detention."

The options are clear, the student understands the consequences, and gets to make a choice. You're not mean, you're not angry, and you're not taking out your frustrations. You're presenting options. The world has structure and clear expectations, but also clear consequences for actions. 

STUDENTS THRIVE ON KNOWING THERE ARE RULES AND THAT THE RULES WILL BE ENFORCED.

NEVER, NEVER EVER, NEVER THREATEN A CONSEQUENCE YOU ARE UNABLE OR UNWILLING TO FOLLOW UP ON

Discipline CAN be a power struggle between you and a student. Hopefully it is not, but it can be. If you don't follow up on a consequence, you've given power to the student. As a teacher, I am a force of nature. Just as gravity pulls you down when you fall, consequences will be forthcoming if you don't do what I say. Never give up your teeth when you're after someone, never give ground. Even if you regret the punishment immediately and swear to never do it again, you still HAVE TO DO IT THAT TIME.

You must be firm. You must be resolute. You must be a rock upon which all discipline can rest. Without that steadiness, the rest falls apart, and your student no longer trusts you.

Feedback is the second part of the rock. Students need to be told explicitly what they did wrong, and what's expected to make it right. Imagine trying to draw a specific picture, but the person who told you to draw it won't tell you is wrong with each version, so all you can do is guess.

That ain't gonna work, Pumpkin. 

Kids need clear feedback on what they're doing wrong, so they can address it for the future.

At the same time, feedback can and SHOULD be given when students are doing the RIGHT thing. "Good job" also doesn't cut it here. Be specific. "I like that you included a quote from the text," is much better, because now the kid knows what they're doing right. Even when I have a student with difficult behavior I try to make sure that student knows what they're doing right.

It's a matter of self-esteem as much as it is discipline. Kids need to know what they're doing right so they can build up a sense of self-worth. Specific feedback does that.

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

In the end, the most important aspect of any of this discipline, (though I would say that none of it works without all three legs, like a stool,) is consistency. Your students cannot navigate a world in which the rules are always changing. It's much better to have an unfair teacher who is unfair in a consistent way than a teacher who is all over the place entirely. Think about it: consistent unfairness can be addressed or navigated, but when there are no rules, that's where real trouble lies.

It's consistency of thought, speech, and action. It's consistency of follow through and feedback. It's doing the things you said you're going to do every time, and applying consequences, good and bad, in a consistent way. I know I have a reputation as a strict teacher, but I am very popular with my students (I am given to understand.) I attribute this to two things: being funny, and being consistent.

Case in point, I recently had a student complain because I had punished him. 

"You're unfair, Mr. Hewitt," he said. I turned to another student.

"Why did student X get in trouble?" I said.

"He did something wrong," she replied, very matter of fact. 

The student in question muttered, but seemed to accept it. The other student supported me because she knows me to be a fair person, even if I'm not always fun.

Consistency is your number one method for building trust with your students. If they know you will act a certain way that leads them to trust you, one way or the other. You must be consistent, especially because many of your students likely come from homes that are not consistent, and that level playing field at school, a predictable place of consistent rules, is what helps them function.

Clear expectations, clear discipline and feedback, and consistency. These three Cs will lead you to a successful classroom. Discipline is only difficult for ourselves because we expect it to be unpleasant, and we imagine a world in which the participants don't want there to be rules. The opposite is true: kids WANT rules, they WANT someone to be in charge, and they WANT to know what they should be doing. Meet those needs, and you'll have far fewer discipline problems.