I think many people have this idealized image of the American classroom. It’s a place full of curious students and passionate educators. A place where creativity and critical thinking are encouraged to thrive while students work diligently on authentic, project-based learning. Now, this is certainly the world we educators hope to build. On some lucky days we even get to experience it a little, but most of the time, education is messy, complicated, and difficult.

This is largely because students are messy, complicated, and difficult. I’m not saying this to be cruel, I simply mean that life can be tough for kids and teenagers. Some students are dealing with trouble at home. Others are trying to navigate learning disabilities or emotional issues. Many more are suffering from that awkward, uncomfortable state know as, “being a teenager”. These frustrations inevitably lead to misbehaver, and as their teacher, it’s important for you to respond with discipline.

Defining Discipline

But what is discipline exactly? For years, discipline has been synonymous with punishment. If a student breaks the rules, they must endure some sort of penalty: detention, writing lines, even expulsion if the action is serious enough. Yet, as Jennifer Gonzalez points out in the Cult of Pedagogy blog, punishment is not the same as discipline. In fact, punishing students often exacerbates existing problems.

“Punishments don’t really do anything to address or correct the source of the misbehavior, and most of the time, they do nothing to fix any damage that may have been caused by it. On top of that, exclusionary punishments like suspensions create their own set of problems: When students are removed from class, they miss instruction, putting them behind their classmates and making them more likely to fail academically. This often leads to higher dropout rates and puts far too many students—especially students of color—on the path to prison.”

In order to build better classrooms, educators need to discard old methods of punishment and implement constructive discipline. So, what does this look like?

punishment vs. discipline

Here are a few useful techniques for practicing constructive discipline within your classroom:

  • Social Contracts: One technique that has proven useful is to include students in the rule-making process. At the beginning of the year, work with your students to create a set of rules for your classroom. This will give your students a sense of accountability. They helped create the rules, so they are responsible for following and upholding them.
  • Celebrating Good Behavior: Set up a system which celebrates good behavior within your classroom. For example, if a student has demonstrated good behavior, make a call to their home and tell their parents what a great students they are. This kind of reinforcement can incentivize students to avoid misbehaving while also allowing them to strengthen personal relationships.
  • Moments of Meditation: Today’s students are dealing with astronomical levels of stress and anxiety. Sometimes you can prevent a problem simply by giving them opportunities to meditate or decompress. It’s simpler than you might think. Put on some ambient music and lead them in a deep breathing exercise. Five-to-ten minutes of this can work wonders for an overwhelmed student.
  • Repairing Harm: With this practice, a student who has misbehaved is tasked with figuring out how to repair whatever damage was caused by their behavior. Then, have them carry out the necessary steps with everyone who was impacted by their actions. If they disrupted a class, have them apologize to their fellow students. If they broke someone’s project, they need to help fix it. Use this opportunity to develop their social-emotional skills and teach them the art of responsibility.
The Golden Classroom

I personally don’t believe there will ever be such a thing as the perfect classroom. Learning requires that we make mistakes and get messy. It’s in the moments of correction and repair that students are truly allowed to grow. The same principles hold true for all social-emotional learning as well. Your classroom is going to have students who misbehave or break rules. Make sure your discipline is teaching them the right lessons.

What about you? What are your thoughts on punishment vs. discipline?

Editor’s Note: The image for punishment vs. discipline comes from David Goes To School by David Shannon. Get your copy today!