Discipline obviously has many meanings as used in different contexts. We all wish that our children lead a disciplined life. We know that without proper discipline difficult concepts can rarely be achieved nor momentous tasks accomplished. Yet we use discipline to also denote punishment or to put in place for what we believe ought to be followed, often without even questioning the rationale. It is also a euphemism which has been exploited to denote a certain positive value when its meaning is closely linked to adherence to prescribed rules and orderly behavior. In this context behavior management (through rewards and punishment for example) takes center stage in the classroom. Class management of this sort is rooted in the simplistic assumption that effective teaching predisposes a set of behavior modifications, something that is rigorously taught in teacher education today. This idea neglects the fact that children require a certain level of freedom to unfold, to act, to talk or behave like children as children do. Unfortunately behavior management and modification is heavily practiced at primary school level. One example is requiring students to sit still (and often rewarded for neat posture and sitting with arms folded) and not speak or ask questions unless asked or when there is open floor for discussion. This often works well with small children – the practice of the “naughty corner”, preferred chair”, “sticker chart” is still well alive in primary schools. Of course all this makes the job of the teacher much easier at least what concerns the administration of the classroom.
Does discipline (punishment) really address the core issue of class management? Discipline in the classroom has its repercussions which are often not taken in consideration because the immediate results are satisfactory at the time and place administered. We need to be conscious of the fact that by exercising disciplinary measures (time-outs, expulsions, etc.) the script that is written into the developing mind becomes the operating manual for future life: accept authority (without really understanding why) or else you are put in your place.
Equally we have come to accept discipline (punitive disciplinary measures) as a norm and hardly question the long term effects of it, never mind the underlying ethical concerns. This subject is addressed from a wider angle1:
The whole schooling ethos, it can be argued, has become an unquestionable assumption; and once something becomes ‘unquestionable’, people stop thinking. By this very ‘non-thinking’, we keep ourselves enslaved by the obedience and blind allegiance we give to powers whose true motivation we do not always understand.
Setting clear, fair and acceptable rules and regulations and requiring adherence are very important in any setting in order to provide a safe and distraction-free environment conducive to learning. The assumption that children simply do not understand why these rules are important in the first place and are inherently incapable of regulating themselves is wrong. In practice some schools take a positive, restorative approach to discipline while others, adhering to principles of democratic education, have practically proven that when students are involved in devising the necessary rules (if matters are mundane and relate to day-to-day processes like wearing hats on sunny days) their mere participation directly translates to observance from a deep sense of understanding. If matters are more complex or are paramount for ensuring safety or protection of others, explaining to children and adolescents (in a tone and language they understand, the real reasons for certain rules and regulation) yields far more effective results than the practice of rewards and punishments.
There is of course a need to curtail disruptive or disrespectful behavior and there must be consequences for breaking set rules and codes of conduct. These are mostly individual cases which need to be dealt with effectively and ethically. These measures are necessary to maintain a safe and orderly environment conducive to learning. Weaving discipline (the spectre of punishment) into the fabric of school or classroom culture is a different matter entirely.
Needless to say that children are full persons and need to be respected and protected in lieu of deviations to standards we have set for them. These words by Louise Porter resonate in this context2:
… the early childhood code of ethics (AECA, 1991; NAEYC, 1989) upholds that children must not be disrespected, intimidated, or emotionally damaged in the process of correcting their behavior. These dual requirements suggest that corrective measures must ensure that:
- the child returns to considerate behaviour: the disruption ceases;
- similar disruptions are less likely to recur in the future;
- the miscreant learns something positive through the process of correction–such as how to solve problems;
- there are no unintended side-effects that could disadvantage the miscreant–such as increased fear of adults, feelings of intimidation, or being defined by peers as ‘naughty’ and so being rejected by them;
- there are no spillover effects for onlookers–such as intimidation about how they would be treated if they too made a mistake;
- there are no spillover effects for adults–such as a loss of their humanity or violation of their own principles;
- there are no detrimental effects on the adult-child relationship as a result of how a misdemeanour is handled. Aside from its emotional benefits, our relationship with children is the only currency we have for influencing their actions: if as a result of how we discipline them, they no longer care for our good opinion, we subsequently have no way to persuade them to act thoughtfully.