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Is Not a
Dirty Word

Once in a while, I walk into a room filled with teachers who are expecting me to provide a workshop on classroom management. I stride into the room late and take my place at the podium. I glare at the teachers and gesture toward a couple of people in the back. You two back there, stop talking, I say. I nod at another pair and say, Id like you two to move over here. I point to some other location. Then I say, No, wait. I think Id like everybody to move. Pick up your belongings, please. And hurry. We dont have time to waste. Lets get moving.

I clap my hands, then stand with my hands on my hips looking expectant. A few cooperative souls always stand up and gather their briefcases, binders, book bags, and backpacks; but most of the teachers sit and glare back at me. Clearly, this wasnt what they expected. Seeing how disappointed they are, I am tempted to give up the game, but to make sure Ive made my point, I press on.

These materials cost a lot of money to reproduce, so we arent going to have any food or drinks in this room because we dont want to risk any spills or messes. If you brought coffee or soda in here with you, drink up or ditch it.

At the mention of discarding their precious caffeine-laden drinks, the group prepares to revolt. Before they begin throwing things, I raise both my hands and say, Dont shoot. I was just kidding. Please, sit down. Relax.

Reluctantly, people take their seats, but clearly they would rather leave. Many sit with their arms crossed over their chests, using body language to send the signal that they have tuned me out. They have closed their minds and their notebooks, and they have put away their pens. They are no longer interested in taking notes from somebody who treats them the way I just did. They dont believe I have anything useful to teach them.

So how do you feel right now? I ask. Feeling cooperative? Cant wait to hear what I have to say? Or are you checking your watch to see how long you have to put up with me? Some of you probably already sent yourself messages on your cell phones so that you could pretend somebody called you and you have to leave immediately.

People start to relax. A few even smile tentatively.

It doesnt feel very nice, does it, when somebody treats you that way? I ask. They shake their heads. It certainly doesnt. But how many times have we seen teachers treat students that way? In fact, most of us have been guilty of that kind of dictatorial behavior ourselves (once in a great, great while, of course). And then we wonder why students rebel against our rules or refuse to cooperate with us.

If you mention the word discipline to most children, they immediately think of punishment, because they have been taught only one facet of that multidimensional word. In the military services, however, discipline has a more positive connotation, because military personnel understand that discipline allows them to function as an efficient team. They know that discipline will help them develop self-control and strength of character.

Classroom teachers can use the principles of military discipline to teach their students how to develop self-discipline and respect for others. Of course, Im not suggesting that you conduct your classes like a military boot camp, ordering kids to hit the deck and give you fifty push-ups when they step out of line, but I do believe that children need and want strong adult guidance and leadership. The world can be a scary place for children, and they want adults to establish boundaries for behavior and set limits for them, so that they can relax and learn without having to be responsible for more than they can handle.

Adults dont want to live in a chaotic world either. We want reasonable laws that allow us the maximum amount of freedom and the minimum amount of danger. Children are no different from us. In spite of the books and newspaper articles and TV programs that tell us that todays children are apathetic, learning impaired, developmentally delayed, unwilling or unable to pay attention, impossible to discipline or teach, I dont believe those things for a minute because I have taught too many of those unteachable children. Children are naturally curious and eager to learn, but when they go to school, unfortunately, their natural curiosity and enthusiasm are replaced by fears: that they will fail their classes, they will be unpopular and lonely, they will be assaulted by bullies, they wont be able to get good jobs even if they go to college, their parents will get divorced, they will die from AIDS or a random drive-by shooting or a drug-crazed mugger on the streets outside their school.

We cant address all of childrens fears, but if we can create an oasis of calm and order in our classrooms, where students feel safe and protected, where they know what we expect of them and know that we will not permit other students to hurt or torment them, their curiosity and enthusiasm for learning will resurface; and they will apply themselves to the lessons we offer. Positive discipline is the key to creating that classroom oasis.


Perhaps you have observed those lucky teachers who dont seem to have the discipline problems. Luck does play a part, but preparation has a lot more to do with classroom management. You can prevent many discipline problems if you lay the groundwork. I like to think of classroom rules as scaffolding for children. Our rules provide support and keep children from falling and seriously injuring themselves. As children grow older, we can relax or remove the rules one at a time until the children stand alone, making their own decisions, taking as much risk as their confidence and abilities allow. If we make reasonable rules, enforce them fairly, and adjust them to meet childrens changing needs, we teach children that, instead of restrictions designed to spoil all their fun, rules actually can create more freedom for them.

As you design your discipline policy, keep in mind your purpose. Do you want to punish students who misbehave? Do you want to scare students and teach them a lesson? Do you want to help students learn to accept responsibility for their behavior and make better choices in the future?

Punitive discipline techniques are designed to punish, embarrass, frighten, or pay back a student for some transgression. Punitive methods may temporarily change student behavior, but they do not encourage students to take responsibility for their actions or motivate them to cooperate with adults. Far too often punitive disciplines such as spanking, making a student stand in the corner, sending a student to detention or suspension result in a cycle of misbehavior and punishment that escalates, causing more classroom disruptions and declining grades. Look at the high number of high school students who are repeatedly sent to detention. Many of these students end up in dropout prevention programs because they miss too many critical classroom lessons. They blame their teachers or parents or schools for their problems, and become less and less motivated to achieve with each punishment.

Positive discipline techniques, on the other hand, are designed to make students think about their behavior, accept responsibility for their actions, make amends when possible, understand the effects of their behavior on others, solve problems, and learn how to make better choices. Instead of relying on humiliation or threats, positive discipline provides an opportunity for students to discuss the reasons for their behavior and helps them learn new ways to behave. Instead of blaming teachers or parents for their own misbehavior, students realize that they can control their behavior and affect the way they are treated in school and in the world.

We tend to teach the way we were taught, unless we make a conscious effort to do otherwise. If you can recall your own childhood, perhaps you will remember that standing in the corner or sitting in detention did not inspire you to turn over a new leaf but rather to be sneakier in the futureand perhaps you spent the time plotting revenge against the teacher who doled out the punishment. Perhaps you can also recall a teacher who insisted that you accept responsibility for your own behavior and who rewarded your sincere efforts with a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug, a complimentary note in the margin of a paper, a note or phone call to your parents. And you may recall wanting that teacher to like and respect you, so you cooperated even when you didnt necessarily agree with all of his or her rules. On the other hand, perhaps you made a serious error and received serious punishment and stern lectures that actually caused you to change your attitude.

Your own experiences have shaped your attitude toward discipline, and you already have some basic beliefs about behavior, consequences, punishments, and rewards. Your classroom management techniques will be much more effective if you can distill your philosophy of discipline into one or two sentences. For example: My goal in disciplining any student is to help that student be more successful in school, which will help him or her be successful in life. All consequences should address the specific behavior, with the goal of helping the student learn to make better choices in the future. Heres another example: My goal is to make sure students take responsibility for their behavior and understand that they can choose to follow rules or break them. When they break rules, they will face consequences.


If you use humiliation as a tool for embarrassing students, dont be surprised if they follow your example and try to humiliate each other. In my opinion, humiliation is not only unprofessional, unethical, and unfair; I believe it is psychologically abusive for adults to use humiliation to control children. Perhaps you cant remember how you felt as a child when an adult intentionally embarrassed you. Or perhaps you are one of the fortunate few who were never subjected to humiliation. You may be better able to empathize with your students if you imagine yourself in the following scenario.

Your principal has forwarded an important fifty-page report to all teachers. You find a copy in your mailbox on Friday with a note from the secretary saying that the principal expects all teachers to read the report before the staff meeting on Monday. You put the report in your bag and take it home, but between chaperoning your sons birthday party, doing the laundry, driving your daughter to a soccer match, visiting your mother in the hospital, and trying to squeeze in a few minutes for your spouse, you dont get a chance to read the report. You do glance through it, though.

At the staff meeting on Monday morning, the principal asks how many people read the report. You raise your hand because, technically, you did read a bit of it. Imagine that the principal then looks directly at you and asks you to stand. She says, Please summarize the main points from the report. Clearly, she thinks you are lying. She senses that you havent read the report, and she is going to make you do one of two things: try to fake your way through this experience or admit in public that you lied when you said that you had read the report. You now have the choice of discussing details of your home life in front of your peers or looking like a liar. The principals only point in asking you to summarize the report is to embarrass and humiliate you. Perhaps she believes this tactic will make you want to read her next report in order to avoid being embarrassed, but its far more likely that you will skip the next staff meeting or call in sick that day. There are better ways to supervise and motivate peopleand far better ways to teach.


One year, at the Southwestern New Mexico State Fair, I had the unforgettable experience of watching Craig Cameron, the cowboy professor, in action. I was struck by the similarity between breaking wild horses and taming wild students. Cameron worked with two wild horses that afternoonone that had never been ridden at all and one that had resisted being forcibly saddle broken. In both instances Cameron was able to mount and ride the horses within an hour, without raising his voice or using any force whatsoever. As I watched Cameron tame those horses and listened to him explain his actions, I realized that I was in the presence of a master teacher. I took copious notes.

Many people set out to break the spirit of a horse, Cameron told the crowd who had gathered outside the round pen where he worked the horses. The last thing I want to do is break down the spirit of any horse: Im out to build it up so that I can utilize it. I want to relate to the horse on his own level and on his time schedule. If you want a horse to have a good attitude, you cant force things on him. You have to give him time to decipher what it is you want him to do.

As he spoke, Cameron picked up a saddle blanket and took a step toward the horse he was breaking. The horse took one look at the blanket and started running in the opposite direction (just as our students try to escape from difficult lessons). Instead of chasing the horse or trying to corner it so that he could place the blanket on its back, Cameron stood still and waited until the horse stopped running and, overcome by curiosity, approached the unfamiliar blanket to investigate. Cameron allowed the horse to sniff and nibble the blanket, then he brushed it gently over the horses legs and belly before placing it on the horses back. Immediately the horse bucked the blanket off and ran away. Cameron picked up the blanket and waited until the horse returned to inspect it again. Satisfied that it posed no danger, the horse finally stood still and accepted the blanket. Cameron could have saved time by hobbling the horse and tying the blanket to its back, as many people do, but he would have faced the same struggle every time he wanted to saddle the horse.

People bring me all sorts of problem horses, Cameron said, as he placed a saddle on top of the blanket and let the horse run off until it realized that the saddle wasnt going to hurt it.

Usually the problem is the way the horse was taught in the beginning, Cameron explained. Somebody tried to force a lesson on him, or he was punished harshly for not doing right. If he doesnt do the right thing, he knows youre going to jerk harder or spur harder or get a bigger mouth bit. So now hes nervous, scared, and defensive. He is just flat-out turned off to learning.

Again, the horse circled the pen several times, then slowed down and walked to Cameron and allowed him to tighten the cinch on the saddle.

Students, like horses, resist having their spirits broken or being forced into performing uncomfortable or unfamiliar actions. If we give them time to get used to us and time to understand what we want from them, they are much more apt to cooperate. We can beat children, scare, or bore them with endless repetitions when they dont cooperate. Children, like horses, may cooperate temporarily out of fear, pain, or exhaustion; but unless we gain their trust, were going to have to fight the same battles over and over again.

One comment that Cameron made during his training session struck me as particularly applicable to classroom teachers who must deal with students who resist accepting authority. Horses naturally understand a pecking order, Cameron explained. Your horse can accept the fact that you are the leader of the herd and he is the follower. That doesnt mean that a horse wont test you from time to time. Hes going to test you. But you can establish that you are the leader, number one in the pecking order, without causing your horse pain or fear. The way you do that is to control your horses mind instead of his body.

If you back a student against the wall and demand respect or obedience, you are not apt to receive either one. Childrens natural instinct is to escape when they feel frightened or threatened or to fight if escape is impossible. If you make clear from the start that you are the leader in your classroom and that your leadership is necessary in order for you to teach and for your students to learn, you allow students to accept your authority without feeling any loss of dignity. Instead of demanding cooperation, effective teachers make it a choice.

After seeing him work, I bought Camerons videos, Gentle Horse-Breaking and Training, and Dark into Light, to watch at home. The longer I watched, the more I became convinced that teacher-training programs should assign his videos as required curriculum. If youd like to read about Craig Cameron, you can find articles about him in many equestrian magazines such as Western Horseman or the Quarter Horse Journal. For information about his videos, contact

Craig Cameron Horsemanship
P.O. Box 50
Bluff Dale, TX 76433-0050
1-800-274-0077 or 1-817-728-3082 RULES VS. PROCEDURES

Rules and procedures are two very different things. Rules are rigid and inflexible; procedures can be adapted as needed. Rules are not made to be broken. Like laws, rules make no allowance for individual differences or circumstances. If you establish a list of rigid rules for your classroom, you may regret it later. For example, you may make a rule that you will not accept late work or that one missing homework assignment will preclude a student from earning an A in your class. What if a student cannot complete an assignment because of a true emergency, such as a serious illness, accident, or death in the family? You have two choices: stick to your rule or bend it. Either option has disadvantages.

If you adamantly stick to your rule, innocent students will suffer and you may earn a reputation as a harsh and heartless person. If you bend your rules for one student, other students will quickly line up to ask for special consideration because they too have emergencies (some of which may seem trivial to you but very important to someone young). No matter where you draw the line, some students will feel that you have wronged them, that you dislike them, that you play favorites. Thats why I suggest making rules only about things that you will never tolerate, things that cannot happen by accidentswearing, hitting, racial insults, sexual harassment, for example.

Procedures, on the other hand, dont legislate behavior; they provide guidelines for completing specific activities, such as using the restroom, completing makeup work, requesting permission to miss class, requesting admittance to your class when tardy. Establishing procedures for your classroom provides clear guidelines for student behavior while leaving you more options. If special circumstances arise, you will be able to make changes without causing a lot of complaints or confusion. You will be able to make decisions based on individual circumstances. If students complain that you treat them differently from each other, respond by pointing out that you treat them individually because they are individuals. One size fits all does not apply to education because each student has unique talents, abilities, goals, challenges, and circumstances.

You can reduce the amount of disorder in your classroom if, early on, you establish a procedure for distributing and collecting papers, grading papers in class, turning in homework, collecting makeup work, dismissing class, issuing hall and library passes, allowing visits to other teachers, and so on. Instead of reviewing all your procedures during the first few days of class, when students are often too excited or overwhelmed to remember, review each procedure as it arises. Remember that many students learn by seeing or doing, so dont just talk. Show them what you want them to do, then practice each procedure until your students know the routine, especially with young children. You may opt to give students a copy in writing. You may feel like you are wasting time at first if you spend five minutes at the end of each class for two weeks discussing the procedure for leaving the room after the dismissal bell, but you will save yourself a lot of time and heartache later. Kids know that if they can get you to ignore their behavior once or twice, they can ignore your procedure.

Dont create procedures unless you think they are important; and if you make them, make sure your students understand and follow them. For example, high school students love to jump up during the last minutes of class and huddle near the door, waiting for the bell. If you allow that to happen once, it is much more likely to become an ongoing battle. So, before the bell rings, explain that jumping out of seats and huddling near the door will result in additional homework, having to sit and wait for thirty seconds after the bell rings before leaving the room, or some other unsavory activity.


You may have to experiment to find the best discipline methods to fit your unique personality and your students, but you are much more likely to succeed if you focus on three key concepts as you create your classroom rules:

  • Limit the number of rules.
  • State rules positively.
  • Consider the consequences.
Be wary of making too many rules. The more you create, the more time you must spend enforcing them, the more complicated your list of consequences, and the more likely students are to misbehave out of defiance. Long lists of rules box in everyone, stifling creativity and hindering your efforts to develop a strong rapport and an environment of mutual respect.

My preference, after testing many methods, is to create one overarching rule for my classroom: Respect yourself and everybody in this room.

This simple rule covers any situation that may occur. For example, it is not respectful to chomp loudly on gum, stick chewed gum or candy on desks or books, hit or insult people, carve obscene words onto a desktop, arrive late to class, throw litter on the floor, interrupt other students who are trying to work, disrupt the teachers efforts to teach a lesson, and so on. When a student acts disrespectfully, you may ask, Do you believe your present behavior shows self-respect and respect for others? At this point a student who persists in misbehaving is fully aware that any negative consequences will be self-inflicted. The student will be more inclined to choose a different behavior in the future and will not feel a need to exact revenge on you, the innocent teacher, for meting out punishment.

State your rules positively whenever possible. Remember that old joke that instructs, Dont think of an elephant? The same idea applies to rules. Dont give kids more ideas than they already have. Negatively stated rules (no gum chewing, no shouting, no running with scissors) provide a list of suggested misbehaviors for students who crave your attention, any attention, negative or positive. Negative rules also provide a challenge for students who want to distract you from teaching a boring or difficult lesson or who simply want to push your buttons. And finally, negative rules can inspire further negative behaviors. For example, if you make a rule that no gum chewing is permitted in your classroom, then some students are going to forget they have gum in their mouths or they may risk breaking your rule because they really like gum. When those students believe they are in danger of getting caught breaking your no-gum rule, they may hide their sticky wads under their desks, on your bookshelves, or in their textbooks. If, on the other hand, you have a positive rule in your classroom, Dispose of all gum properly, then you leave it up to the students to choose their own behavior; and they are far more likely to cooperate.

Sometimes you wont be able to state a rule positively. Or you may have to add an addendum using negative words in order to avoid creating a mouthful of gobbledygook. My own one-rule policy, for example, includes a list of prohibitions for those students who require specific information. The addendum specifies: no put-downs of other people based on their race, religion, ethnic background, skin color, native language, gender, sexual preference, intelligence, body shape, or body size. But because I state the main rule positively, the overall rule doesnt have a negative connotation and students dont feel compelled to break the rule just to show that they can.

Consider the consequences of your rules on everybody, including you. Doling out demerits, for example, requires that you keep records of student offenses and spend time assigning punishments and consequences. Assigning lunch or after-school detention may seem like a good idea, but it punishes you as well as the student because you have to spend your time supervising your detainees unless you want their detention time to become a social hour. Making students write essays or reports is a popular punishment, but using writing as a punitive tool may backfire on everybodyyou, the student, and the other teachers at your schoolby teaching students to hate writing. Sending students to the principal, another popular tactic, may remove the student from your room but sends a clear message to students that you feel incapable of handling the situation alone.


You can find any number of training courses, books, workshops, and journal articles that offer keys to effective classroom management. Much of that advice may be contradictory and confusing. Experts disagree vehemently about whether rewards have positive or negative effects on long-term behavior and motivation, for example. Some experts insist that assigning consequences is the key to molding behavior; others believe that consequences equal punishment and that we should view misbehavior as a problem for which we must brainstorm solutions. Every classroom-management program offers examples and testimonials to its effectiveness, and so many different approaches exist that you may be tempted to throw up your hands and wing it or just pick a policy and hope it works. I would like to suggest that you select or create a program that incorporates the following common characteristics of effective, successful discipline techniques:

Model the Behavior You Expect from Students
No matter how brilliant your plan, it wont work if you dont set the example. You cannot mandate respect, for example. If you want students to treat each other with respect, you must show them how its done (and in some cases, show them and show them and show them, because this will be a new experience for them). If you want students to use a logical approach to solving problems, you must demonstrate the techniques for them by modeling the behavior when you encounter problems during the school day and explaining how you work through each step. Yes, modeling behaviors takes time, but spending that time at the start of the school year will save you hours of time later: your students will cooperate with you, and you wont have to waste so much time on discipline.

Note: Do not let other adult staff members disrespect your students. Often adults will insist that they are just kidding when they insult or intentionally embarrass students, but because teachers hold a position of power, students may be afraid to protest that the teasing is offensive or insulting. Even when students do protest, some adults persist. Of course, you cant dictate adults behavior, and its hard to criticize them without stepping on their toes in front of students. You cant say, Please stop abusing your authority, but you can call the adult aside and say, Please help me out here. We have had a problem with teasing in my classroom, so we dont engage in that behavior at all. Sometimes students dont understand when teasing crosses the line, so we just dont do it. And its important for us adults to set the example.

Separate the Child from the Behavior
Sometimes a child will intentionally misbehave just to irritate a teacher, but most misbehavior is a result of immaturity, impatience, frustration, or the desire to fulfill some imagined or real need. Children act like children because they are children; as human beings, albeit small ones, they are prone to making mistakes. Dont take your students behavior personally unless it is clearly a personal attack on youand even then you may simply represent authority. When teachers take childrens behavior personally, we limit our ability to assess a situation objectively and choose the best response; but if we can separate the child from the behavior, we can follow the excellent advice, Hate the behavior, love the child. This attitude helps us focus on solving problems and helping students learn to make better choices, instead of simply punishing the student or assigning meaningless consequences.

Make the Student Accept Responsibility
When teachers assign consequences and dictate behavior, we take control of and responsibility for a given situation. If we place the responsibility squarely on the students shoulders, where it belongs, we experience a completely different response. For example, if a student disrupts your class and you immediately reprimand him or her and assign a consequence, you focus everybodys attention on you; and some people will automatically sympathize with the culprit just because he is in the less powerful position. If you ask the student to stop and think about his behavior and decide whether he wants to continue or make a change, the focus shifts to the student, who now controls the outcome of the conflict. He cannot blame you for his behavior or for any resulting consequences. Many teachers find that asking a student to step outside for a chat, fill out a form describing the unacceptable behavior, or sign a contract in which the student agrees not to repeat the behavior are more effective than assigning punishments.

Allow the Student to Back Down Gracefully
When students have the opportunity to back down gracefully, many of them will decide to cooperate with you. But when you back them up against the wall, most students will become stubborn and defiant; and many will lash out. This holds true even for very young children, who often have a stronger sense of dignity than many adults give them credit for having. When we allow a student to back down the first time he or she engages in a specific inappropriate behavior, we teach that student and any observers several lessons: we are responsible for choosing our own behavior; everybody makes mistakes; mistakes are not permanent; and a good leader exhibits compassion and respect. Our students imitate our behavior, whether or not they like us, so it behooves us to set a high standard and a good example.

Seek Solutions Instead of Merely Assigning Consequences
Sending a tardy student to detention does not address the problem of tardiness and will most likely result in a worse student-teacher relationship and possibly in academic problems. Assigning a student to spend ten minutes helping you clean your classroom would reduce the amount of effort and paperwork involved. Better yet, require the student to complete an exercise using a problem-solving model to brainstorm possible actions and implement a solution to his problem.

Assign Consequences That Address Specific Behaviors
Using detention or demerits to address every behavior is like using one kind of medicine to cure symptoms of a variety of diseases. This hit-or-miss approach often misses in a school setting. If you assign consequences, try to assign consequences that actually address the misbehavior you want to discourage. If a student draws a heart with black marker or scrawls obscenities on her desk, sending her to detention leaves you with a dirty desk. Making the student clean her deskor all the desks in your classroomwould be more appropriate for a first offense. Likewise, sending a disrupter to detention doesnt teach him to be quiet and respectful. Asking him to stand outside your door until he feels able to control his behavior will give him an opportunity to practice self-control; if he makes an effort but fails, he may succeed if you provide a few more chances to practice. If he refuses to make the effort, then you may opt to assign consequences that directly apply to defiance and disrespect.

Clearly State Your Expectations for Future Behavior One year I had a student who repeatedly interrupted my lessons by standing up, loudly clearing his sinus cavities, and walking across the room to spit in the trash can. Because he was a well-behaved student otherwise, I opted to warn him to be more polite instead of assigning punishments. Finally, I called the student aside and asked him why he continued to act so disrespectfully.

He said, Im not being disrespectful.

I asked, Do you think walking across the room and spitting in the trash is respectful when I am trying to talk to the class?

Yeah, he said, earnestly because Im not spitting on the floor.

That conversation taught me to be more specific in my instructions to students. My warnings no longer leave any room for misunderstanding:

Keep your hands on your own desk. Throw things only in appropriate places, such as the gym. Sleepy students may stand in the back of the room if they cant stay awake, but sleeping is never permitted.

Provide Positive Feedback When Behavior Improves
Everybody responds to positive feedback, and students are especially responsive. They are also especially sensitive to teachers attitudes toward them. Often a child believes that the teacher no longer likes him or her after a confrontation, even a minor incident. After any incident that results in a private conference, consequences, or punishment, watch for an opportunity to praise the student who misbehaved. When she behaves appropriately, let her know you noticed and appreciate the improvement. Some children would prefer not to be recognized publicly, but they will not object to a phone call to say thanks, a quick note, a handshake, or a comment on the margin of a paper.

Wipe the Students Slate Clean
In addition to providing positive feedback, make sure your students understand that a mistake is not a permanent condition. Just as we release criminals who have served their time, we must allow students a second chance. Of course, the more serious the offense, the longer it will take for a student to regain your complete trust; but if you make clear that you dont hold any grudges, the student will be much more likely to cooperate in the future.

Identify the Reason for Repeated Misbehavior
If you keep assigning the same consequences for the same misbehavior, nobody is gaining anything from the experience and everybody is losing valuable time. When a problem recurs repeatedly in your classroom, the student is sending a clear signal that he or she needs help in some specific area. Identifying the reason for a behavior may take some time and effort, but the time will be well spent if a casual conversation, a brief nonpunitive conference, an exchange of comments in a journal, a phone call, a confidential chat with close friends, or some other method can help you figure out why a student is behaving in a certain way. Often students misbehave repeatedly because they want the teacher to send them to talk to a counselor or psychologist or they want you to inquire about their home situation. If you cant communicate with the student, ask other staff members if they have any suggestions. Most students have one favorite teacher, coach, secretary, bus driver, security guard, school police officer, custodian, or counselor.

Focus on Rewarding Good Behavior
When you focus on rewarding good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior, you create a different dynamic in your classroom. Rewarding students is not the same as bribing them. A bribe is intended to entice somebody to do something for the sole purpose of earning a reward. Of course, we dont want to teach children that they will receive a reward every time they cooperate or workbecause they wont. Thats not the way the world operates. But they certainly will be rewarded for behaving responsibly as citizens and workers. We all respond to positive feedback, which may come in the form of verbal praise, high marks on our assignments, promotions, monetary raises, certificates, or other acknowledgment.

Send Students to the Principal as a Last Resort
A hundred years ago when I was young, being sent to the principals office was a very big deal. The principal would paddle you; your parents would paddle you; and your siblings would shun your for embarrassing the family. If you send a student to the principals office today, there is a good chance that the student will refuse to leave your room or that he will leave campus entirely. Even if he cooperates, he may spend an amusing hour trading jokes with other students in a waiting area or sit in a detention room reading comic books, doing word search puzzles, or staring at the walls.

When your wayward student arrives at the principals office, the result may be very different from what you intended. Principals dont always support their teachers. Students dont always care whether they pass your class or graduate. Parents dont always accept reality or the responsibility for raising their children. And in the worst cases, students or their families may raise legal issuesvalid or notto avoid the real issues of personal responsibility.

In addition to the obvious reasons, my primary reason for not sending students to the office is that I dont like the cycle of behavior that usually results. What we hope will happen rarely does: the student accepts responsibility for his or her actions, learns from this mistake, and resolves to cooperate with the teacher in the future. What usually happens is more like this: the student misbehaves; you send the student to the office; the student becomes angry or embarrassed and blames you for causing those feelings; the student also blames you for whatever punishment the principal metes out; the student misses hours or days of valuable lessons in your class and other subjects; the student returns to your class still angry or ashamed or eager for revenge; and youre back to the beginning of the cycle, ready for another round.

With compassion and creativity, you can break this destructive cycle and offer alternative solutions. Being kind and compassionate doesnt necessarily equal being weak. Students understand this, but some adults have trouble accepting it. Again Id suggest sitting for a moment in your students seats. Imagine how you would feel if your supervisor at work objected to your behavior and, instead of explaining the objection, discussing the problem, and giving you a chance to change your behavior, the supervisor marched you past your coworkers to the company presidents office for a reprimand? That may sound silly, but an office isnt so different from a classroom. Youre the company president, and your students are your employees, whose job is to learn their lessons and complete their assignments in exchange for credits toward an academic promotion or a diploma. When they make mistakes or become ineffective workers, your task is to correct them quickly and without damaging their dignity any more than is necessary. (Of course, you will deal with serious offenses differently than everyday problems such as tardiness, inefficiency, forgetfulness, and general bad attitudes.)


Theories are great, but I need practical advice, one young teacher told me during a workshop. Could you tell me exactly what to do and say to my students? Here is my ten-step response to her question. I have experienced good success using these techniques with a wide array of students, from troublesome teens to overachieving college-bound scholars. These steps are listed in order of power beginning with the most subtle and least forceful responses from you. After you gain some experience, you may want to add your own variations, but this list is a good starting point. It will give you a solid basis and will provide opportunities for you to practice and evaluate different techniques.

1. Ignore the Offender
Often students act out just to gauge the teachers response. If you are easily upset, flustered, or angered, they will take advantage of your short fuse. On the other hand, if you ignore mild misbehavior, it will often go away.

A student may whisper the F-word under her breath, for example, just to see if she can make you blush or yell. If you pointedly ignore the behavior, the student may get the message. If she does not, then you have many options, depending on the student. This approach sends a new, stronger message: this is my classroom, and I will decide when and how I respond to student behavior.

2. Send Nonverbal Messages
We all respond to body language. In fact, most students of human behavior agree that 80 percent of our communications are nonverbal. Take advantage of this powerful tool by using eye contact, changes in your voice and posture, and gestures and movements to alert students that they are approaching a danger zone. Above all, keep moving. Teachers who rove around their rooms experience far fewer behavior problems because students automatically react to the distance between them and the teacher. If this distance changes at random, students are much more likely to monitor their own behavior.

3. Drop a Behavior Card
Because so many students are visual or kinesthetic learners, they may not respond to verbal requests. Or they may forget a few seconds after you have reminded them to be quiet or sit down. Using colorful index cards that you can easily locate and retrieve in class, create some behavior cards.

For young students, write this message:

Stop and think.
You need to be more polite.
I will talk to you about this later.

For older students, write this message:

Your present behavior is not acceptable.
Please be more polite.
Return this card to mein personafter class.

When a student begins to disrupt your class, walk past and drop a card on his or her desk. In most cases the student will stop the current behavior. Leaving the card on the desk serves as a visual reminder for students who tend to forget. Collect the cards after class if you teach multiple subjects or at the end of an activity with younger children. When you collect the cards, thank the students for choosing to behave and cooperate. (If you drop a card and the student ignores it or throws it on the floor, see the next step.)

4. Have a Quick Chat
If nonverbal signals and behavior cards fail to motivate your student, ask him or her to step outside the room. Dont worry about the other students. They will be interested in seeing what happens, and although they may make a little noise while you are in the hallway, they will be quiet when you return. (If a student becomes nosey and asks questions, invite that student to step outside. He may decline the invitation, but if he does step outside, out of curiosity or belligerence, treat him the same as your original disrupter.)

Ask your student if there is a reason for his or her disruptive, defiant, or disrespectful behavior. If there is and its reasonable, figure out a way to address it. If the student cant offer a reason, ask the student if you have somehow offended or insulted him or her. If you have, apologize and offer to shake hands. If you havent, tell the student that it is time to think. Heres the warning speech I make (you may choose to change the wording for younger students, but the gist of the message should be the same):

You have the right to fail my class. If you truly want to fail, then I would like you to put that desire into writing and sign it so that I can keep it in my file to show you and your parents in the future if you question your grade. If you dont like the activity I have assigned, Im sorry; but I am the teacher, and I chose that assignment because I believe it will teach important information and skills. You dont have to do the assignment. You have the right to sit and quietly vegetate if you truly dont want to do the work, but you do not have the right to interrupt my teaching, stop anybody else from learning, or waste everybodys time with obnoxious disruptive behavior.
Ask the student if he or she feels ready to come back to class and cooperate. If so, shake hands and get back to business. If not, its time for the next step.

5. Take a Time-Out
Leave the student standing outside your door (or in the back of your room, if you have small children or a strict policy that would prohibit having a student stand in the hall temporarily). Ask the student to consider his present behavior and whether or not he wants to continue. Go quietly back into your room and give the student time to think about his behavior. Occasionally step outside to see whether the student is ready to talk to you. If not, leave him there. If necessary, leave him there until the end of the class period or school day. Tell him you are trying to help him be a more successful student and person. Remind him that if he runs off, you will have to refer him to the office as being truant and then the matter is out of your hands. If he doesnt run off and doesnt talk to you, let the matter drop and see what happens the following day. Often students will pretend the entire incident never happened. You can then do the same.

6. Call the Culprit
One evening after a particularly trying day, I called the father of a student who had tried to drive me crazy by whistling softly at a very high and annoying pitch for ninety minutes in my classroom. Father wasnt home, and junior answered the phone.

You know who this is? I asked.

Yes, he whispered.

I was very disappointed in your behavior today, I said. I like you, but I dont like the way you acted. It was very annoying, and it disrupted my teaching. Its important to me to be a good teacher. I dont want you to do that again. All right?

All right, he said.

He never whistled again, and I began calling students directly to discuss their behavior. In most cases those phone calls were much more effective than calls to parents, because the students were entirely responsible for their behavior. Often when the student behavior improved, I did call the parentsto tell them how much I enjoyed having their child in my class.

7. Sign a Contract
Just as behavior cards serve as an effective visual reminder to students who forget verbal instructions, student contracts serve as effective written reminders to students who have promised to cooperate. Your contract doesnt have to be elaborate, and it doesnt have to be a form. Some teachers use a form on school letterhead to make the contract look official; all they have to do is fill in the blanks. Other teachers ask the student to write out an agreement about what behaviors will improve and what consequences the student will suffer if he or she breaks the contract.

Just as positive reinforcement produces quicker and more lasting results in behavior, positively stated contracts result in quicker cooperation and a better relationship between student and teacher. Instead of listing things the student wont do, list things the student will do. And if possible, incorporate some rewardnot a bribebut something such as, if the student does not break this contract for thirty (or sixty) days, the student will earn ten points for good conduct and this contract becomes null and void. Think about how much more responsive you would be if a traffic officer gave you thirty days to prove you could drive safely instead of issuing you a ticket.

8. Send for Reinforcements
Sometimes even the best teacher meets an immovable student. If the first seven steps fail, and the student still causes major disruptions, dont waste time blaming yourself. Clearly, the problem is bigger than a simple personality clash or routine misbehavior. Send for reinforcements. Call security to escort the stubborn student to the principals office. Meet with your principal and ask for suggestions and support. Call parents and request a conference. If parents or guardians are unhelpful or a key element in the students problem, see if you can find an adult relative, such as an aunt or uncle. Check with the bus driver and your school security personnel to see if they have managed to create a good relationship with the student. Talk to your school counselors and psychologists and ask them to talk to the student and suggest alternative approaches for you to try. Ask a coach to counsel the student. If your community has a mentor program, see if the student has a mentor. If not, put in an emergency request. (And if your school doesnt have a mentor program, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper and ask community organizations and businesses to sponsor a mentor program.)

9. Request a Transfer
If your school is large enough to have another teacher at the same level, see if that teacher would be willing to accept the student as a transfer into his or her class (of course, you and the other teacher cant make this transfer yourselves, but if both teachers agree, the office will be much more likely to cooperate with your request).

At small schools where a transfer is not an option, you may be able to find a fellow teacher who also has a problem student. Offer to switch students for a specified period of time each day, to give yourselves and students a break from each other.

10. Remove the Perpetrator
You may be stuck with an incorrigible student for any number of reasons: a small school with limited options, lack of administrative support, undue parental influence in the community, inflexible guidelines from your local school board. If you have exhausted every avenue and a student continues to disrupt your teaching and other students learning, then you need to remove the student from your classroomunofficially. I have used this method successfully myself, and I have recommended it to other desperate teachers, who report that it worked for them.

First, create an assignment folder for your troublesome student. Include the next two or three assignments that you intend to complete during class and a brief but complete description of any special activities or projects. Next, talk to your school librarian and ask whether you may send a student to do independent work as long as that student does not misbehave in the library. If the librarian agrees, explain that you will give the student a pass each day and that the student is to ask the librarian to sign the pass and indicate the time that the students enters and leaves the library. (In schools with no library or no cooperative librarian, find a counselor, coach, administrator, or teacher who can supervise the student and agree on a time period and location for this experiment. If no other location is available, place a desk outside your classroom door and have the student sit outside and do his work. If he leaves the desk and wanders off, he is now in violation of your school policy, and you must refer him to the appropriate office.)

Do not make any preface or provide any warning. Simply call your student aside, hand him the folder, and explain that he will be completing his work independently. Provide an instruction sheet that states your expectations about conduct in the library, the procedure for getting his passes signed, and his responsibility for returning the completed work to you at the end of the class period each day. Do not argue with the student. Hand him the folder, show him the door, shut the door, and teach the students who cooperate. If your troublesome student decides to take a vacation, simply fill out the proper reports and let the discipline system handle him. If he complies with your instructions, continue this policy for as long as necessary. Once I had to remove a student for an entire quarter, and Id like to add that the day I reached the end of my patience and removed him from the class, several students stopped by individually to thank me for removing the troublemaker and making it possible for them to learn.

Of course, there is a chance that your administrators (or sadly, your fellow teachers) may object to your emergency independent-assignment procedure. If that happens, explain (and follow up with a letter summarizing your conversation to cover your back in case somebody decides to file a report at your district office) that you exhausted every legal option and the student still made it impossible for you to teach and other students to learn. Provide dates and times when you asked administrators for support or assistance, copies of disciplinary referrals, minutes from any conferences, and dates and times of phone calls or meetings with parents.


Some schools insist on having a detention center, and many schools require that teachers take turns supervising detention. If thats the case in your school and you cant convince your administrators or fellow teachers to try a different approach, then do your best to make detention useful. Instead of simply enforcing a no-talking rule or overseeing time-wasting activities, find some interesting articlesinteresting to young people, not necessarily to adults. For example, my students have responded enthusiastically to critical reviews of popular movies; feature articles about sports stars or musicians; essays about controversial subjects such as UFOs, tattoos, and body piercing; pop psychology quizzes; self-help articles on handwriting analysis, dating success, anger management, ways to stop bullies, and so on.

Dont make your reading assignments mandatory if you have a room full of little rebels. Just pass out the papers and say, Heres something interesting we could read. Then give them a few minutes to look it over. Read a little bit out loud. Some students will follow along. If anybody seems interested, ask for volunteers to read. If nobody volunteers, read the entire article aloud yourself. Encourage the students to discuss the article, but if they prefer to remain mute, dont take it personally. Detention rooms may have some nasty bullies among the crowd, and many students prefer to keep a low profile. That doesnt mean they arent interested, however. Hold your own discussionwith yourself. State your opinions. Collect the papers. Let the students go back to vegetating. Vegetating is boring, so some of them will think about what you just read. Some of them may even be inspired to think for several minutes in a row. Thats a good start.

Beware: your efforts to stimulate thought may backfire. One teacher reported that when she began using short psychology lessons and discussions during her assigned detentions, students often complained when the bell rang to signal the end of the period. After a few weeks, some students began asking to be sent to her detention because they enjoyed the lessons so much!


Regardless of what behavior policy you choose, create a folder for discipline problems (in Chapter Three, I suggest making a Misbehavior folder). Keep track of your efforts to help students, with dates for each disciplinary action. You dont need to record quick chats and time-outs unless a student starts to show a pattern of serious misbehavior. If that happens, document everythingwarnings, behavior cards, phone calls, notes to parents, referrals to the office (students can disappear en route or get lost in the shuffle), and requests for help from administrators and other teachers. This record will not only provide evidence in the unlikely event of a legal problem, it will also show you whether you have a pattern of becoming too stressed and short-tempered at the end of a grading period or the beginning of a new unit.


Investigate resources and explore your options before you settle on a discipline program. Find a method that makes sense to you and that fits your own teaching style. Dont adopt somebody elses rules just because you think you should have rules. Children instinctively understand when adults are sincere, and heaven help you if they sense that you arent. If you try to impose a behavior code that you dont really support, then nobody in your classroomincluding youwill honor it.

After asking for advice from your professors and colleagues and conducting your own research, if you still find yourself at a loss for how to approach the discipline problem, you might start with a modern translation of the Golden Rule: treat people the way you would like them to treat you. Dont merely post the rule in your classroom. Follow the rule yourself. Treat your students the way you would like them to treat you. They may be a little slow at first, and some of them may need a short vacation (or two, or three) from your class; but if you sincerely respect them and maintain your own high standards of behavior, eventually they will come around. And eventually you will find an approach that works for both you and your students.

Should you encounter a plethora of die-hard, incorrigible little stinkers in your classroom who steadfastly refuse to appreciate you, hang in there. And hang a calendar in your bathroom where each night as you brush your teeth, you will have a visual reminder that you have survived one more day. Dont give up hope. Dont take the students actions personally; they would torment another teacher just as they torment you. Do give up feeling guilty or unworthy. Most of us have had one of those years.


Occasionally several factors combine to drive a teacher past the point of his or her tolerance. Even the best teachers can crack under the right conditions. When students sense that the teacher is near the breaking point, a handful of sympathetic souls may behave themselves, but most students will become relentless in their efforts to break the teacher. This can happen even with students who are not vicious or unfeeling. It is a result of specific ingredients and group dynamics that are beyond your control.

I remember a dynamic young teacher with seven years of experience successfully teaching advanced-level classes at a California high school. Her students adored her, and graduates often came back to offer their thanks. One day a student in her class stood up without warning and started to criticize her teaching methods and curriculum. Caught by surprise, the teacher allowed the student to draw her into an argument, and before long the entire class of students polarized on the boys side. A power struggle quickly turned into a shark feed. The teacher ended up running out of the room in tears, prepared to resign and give up teaching permanently. Fortunately, the principal refused to accept the teachers resignation. He held a conference with the teacher, several students, and their parents. The parents supported the teacher and were able to apply enough pressure to force the students to stop attacking her. Within a few weeks, the students went back to adoring their teacher; but it took years before she regained her former confidence, and even then she admitted to having doubts.

When I observed that teachers struggle, I felt sorry for her, but I didnt believe the same thing could ever happen to me. It didnt. Nobody ever stood up in my class, criticized my teaching, and stole my confidence. But just in case, I made an emergency meltdown plan and filed it away. A few years later, in New Mexico, I took over a class from a long-term substitute who didnt want to be replaced and had worked hard to turn the students against me. She took another sub position at the same school and devoted her energy to sabotaging my class. A few students responded favorably to me, but the ringleaders and the former sub were too strong for them to overcome. I wont go into details, but I will say that those regular students were far more vicious and stubborn than any of the so-called at-risk, incorrigible, or behavior-disordered students I have ever taught, including juveniles who have spent time behind bars. When I realized that I was in the midst of my own shark feed, I pulled out my plan.

1. Be professional. Make sure your lesson plans (or a rough outline) are in order for the next few weeks. Check to see that your sub folder (see Chapter Three) contains lesson plans, roll sheets, and emergency evacuation information.

2. Take a mental health break. This is an emergency. Dont feel compelled to provide specifics. Just call the office, say that you are seriously ill and will be in touch when you are feeling better. If you have a spouse or friend who can call for you, even better. Pay at least one visit to a doctor, therapist, counselor, chiropractor, masseuse, or other professional who can help you handle the stress; but dont make up a bogus medical condition. Stress is a serious problem all by itself. Give yourself at least three days. A week would be even better.

3. Do some serious thinking. Do you really want to teach? Or did you think you would enjoy teaching, only to find that you hate going to work? Do you struggle but find enough joy and satisfaction that you are willing to work on your teaching skills? Or do you have to admit that you just werent cut out to teach, no matter how much you would like to?

4. If you realize you dont want to teach, figure out how soon you can quit. Do you have any other options for earning a living? Can you afford to quit right now? If you cant quit right now, create a plan for updating your rsum and conducting a job search. Contact professional colleagues and ask them for general letters of recommendation. Dont whine about your job; just say that you are thinking of making a career change in the future. Focus on creating the life you want instead of hating the life you have. Just changing your focus will make it easier for you to teach until you can afford to leave. Knowing that you arent stuck forever, that you have choices, will make a big difference. You may even find that once youve decided to stop teaching, you relax and enjoy yourself so much that you decide to stay.

5. If you decide you do want to teach (or you have to teach until you can afford to quit), then prepare yourself to make some serious changes in your classroom when you return. Plan to change everything in your classroomfrom the decor to the furniture arrangement, student seating, even the rules and procedures. Also plan to change your attitude, your approach, your posture, even your tone of voice. Buy a suit or some other clothing that shouts Power! Check your local library or bookstore for books on power dressing; a black suit with a white shirt is the ultimate power outfit.

It may sound frivolous, but check your footwear. You may have to give up comfort for a little while. Find a pair of leather-soled shoes (boots are even better) that make an authoritative clunk when you walk, as opposed to the dainty click of high heels or the squish of tennis shoes. If your classroom is carpeted, make sure you leave the room once or twice during each class period so that students can hear you walking sharply back toward the room. When you enter, shut the door firmly behind younot a slam but a nice, hard close.

6. Change the look of your room. Design an alternate arrangement of furniture. How you arrange it isnt as important as creating a new look. You want students to see immediately that things are different. Put your desk in a different corner. Shuffle some file cabinets around. Hang some new posters or artwork.

7. Rearrange the student desks. If youve been using a semicircle or U shape, move the chairs back into rows. If youve been using rows, find a shape that will fit your room.

8. Create a seating chart. Using one of the copies of your roll sheets that you keep at home for planning, create a chart that separates the strongest students from each other. Put a major power player nearest to your home base. Put another near the door, where he or she will have less distance to travel when its time to step outside. Place that handful of good, decent kids near each other for moral support.

9. Create a weeks worth of extremely interesting and challenging lessons, lessons that require students to do the bulk of the work. Place the focus on them, not on you. Search online, read magazines and journals, check the library and bookstore for ideas. The Web site has a lot of links and suggestions.

10. Call on a Friday morning and tell the school you will be back on Monday. Treat yourself to a movie or a special meal on Friday. Try to relax because you will be working on the weekend. Spend that weekend rearranging your room and getting things in order. On Sunday night, take a long walk or get some exercise to help you sleep better.

11. On Monday morning get up thirty minutes earlier than usual. Do some calisthenics or yoga, meditate or take a quick walkanything that will get your blood flowing and your heart beating a little faster than usual. Youre in training for an important contest, so eat breakfast. Put on your power clothes, grab your lesson plans, and get to school ahead of the early birds. Write the instructions for your first assignment on the board and station yourself in the doorway. Block the doorway so that only one student can enter at a time. When students begin to arrive, look each student in the eye, say, Welcome to my new, improved classroom, and direct the student to his or her new seat. Dont discuss the seating arrangements. If students ask questions, say, Well discuss it in a minute. Right now Im busy.

12. When everybody is seated, tell them why you were absent. Tell them you didnt like what was happening in your classroom, so you have done some serious thinking and made some serious changes. If you have decided to stop teaching, just tell them that you are still considering different options for your future and that you have a lot of options because you are a college graduate. You havent made any decisions about your career yet, but you have made some decisions about your classroom. You are going to conduct things differently. If anybody disrupts this speech, call security and have them escorted to the office immediately. If this is a completely hopeless situation and you end up sending the entire class, then send them. Let the administration be responsible for supporting you, which is their job. If your students are beyond help and your entire school is out of control, consider applying for a job at another school, working as a sub in your district or a nearby district, or taking a sabbatical. As one old rancher I know used to say, Dont blame yourself if you cant put out a forest fire by peeing on it.

On the other hand, if you have decided you want to continue teaching, tell your students thats what you have decided. Tell them why you want to be a teacher. They probably dont have any idea how dedicated most teachers are. Explain that you want to help them be successful people and that you have made some changes in order to make that possible. Tell them everybody is starting with a clean slate but that you expect them to conduct themselves with self-control and self-respect. Then start your first lesson.

Good luck to you. Teaching is difficult work, but if you make up your mind that you truly want to teach, your determination and sincerity will lead you in the right direction.

One final note about discipline. Many teachers find it difficult to pinpoint the bullies in their classrooms, so Id like to share my method for detecting them. Tell your students that you would like their input as you plan group activities. Ask them to write their own names at the top of a sheet of paper, and then list the names of three or four students they would especially like to work with. Finally, ask them to list the names of two or three students they never want to work withno explanations or details, just names. Dont read the lists in front of the students. When you do read them, look for students whose names repeatedly appear on the never want to work with lists. Those are your bullies or your outcasts; both need your attention and help.