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Discipline: Accepting it and becoming disciplined individuals

Discipline is one of those age-old topics people keep discussing.  What is the correct way to discipline a child?  When should one discipline a child and whose responsibility is it?  We came across this article in ‘Learning Years’ Vol 24 no 2 Winter/Spring 1999 and thought we would share it with you as it is still as relevant today as it was then.

Helping children to accept discipline and become self-disciplined people

The age of children is irrelevant if we want them to adhere to rules.  Children must understand the rules and routines as well as understand why these measures are necessary, sensible and to everyone’s advantage.  Of course it is time consuming to discuss and explain reasons for rules.  It is much easier, based on your own knowledge and experience, to know which routines and rules are necessary to ensure peace and calm.  However, involving children encompasses more that getting their co-operation. Sure, co-operation is vital, but if we think of the long-term educational value, we will realise that the real purpose of routines and rules is not only to make life easier for the adult, but also to help children acquire self-discipline and good working habits (being on time; being dependable; finishing a task to the best of your ability; being self-motivated; being willing to acknowledge lack of knowledge; and being able to learn from others) are rated much higher by employers than good marks.  This implies that we, as adults, have to be a role model for the children in this regard.

Understanding and accepting routines, rules and discipline make it easier for children to practise the skills of self-discipline.  It is always seemingly easier to be undisciplined and live without rules. However, everyone knows that it is actually much less complicated if everyone adheres to the rules.  It requires some energy and effort to acquire these important skills and it should be practised even when you do not feel like it.  The function of routines and rules is to be ingrained into your behaviour to such an extent that after a while you do it without really thinking about it.  It is a fact though, that this statement is just as applicable to adults as to children.

Making sure that everyone understands and accepts the routines

Parents and other adults often assume that because the routines and rules of the home or classroom are sensible and logical, the learners will automatically know this too. However, rules need to be discussed and reinforced explicitly over a period of time.  Teachers also need to explain the reasons for something like instructional routines, not because the learners need to approve of that, but because it helps learners not only to appreciate order and rhythm in daily tasks, but also to reinforce a good role model.  You might even consider suggesting to learners to make posters with rules written down (or drawn in case of younger children) for the different learning areas in the classroom.  This would also facilitate the integration of new learners in the classroom.

If learners make posters, you might even consider having a “signing” ceremony where learners would pledge their resolve to work towards a learning environment where everyone would do the best they could to ensure that learning goals would be reached.

Routines and rules are not cast in stone.  You, as the adult, should not feel threatened if children question certain procedures.  Discussing their criticism creates the opportunity for growth in insight.  This growth is not restricted to the children alone.  Defending and explaining rules force us as adults to re-examine those rules and their validity.

The message you send out

Your role as a teacher and parent is absolutely crucial in creating a disciplined child.  You set the tone.  Your dedication gives you the right to demand the same from your learners.  You, as a teacher, should never expect more from the learners than what you are prepared to do yourself.  Working with the learners, putting in extra time to reach a goal, gives the learners a role model that is worthy to follow.  We live in an instant gratification society.  Television, popular media and the whole society focus on immediate benefits for the individual.  The real educational task of teachers is to help learners focus on distant goals and delayed gratification.  If we can teach young people that through selfless service to other people and communities, real personal growth and lasting feelings of worth are generated, then we have really made a tremendous impact on the future.  We cannot do these things by talking.  We can only be role models through example.


If you come to your class well prepared you set an example of hard work and dedication, let alone the benefits to your teaching and the improvement in the work of the students.  Many teachers seem to think that written preparation is unnecessary.  If we talk of rekindling a “culture of learning” we have to remember that a culture of learning is impossible without a “culture of teaching.”  We, as teachers, have the key to this country’s future in our hands.  It is a great and fearful responsibility.

Body language

When working with young children and young people of all ages, teachers as well as parents know that what we say is never as important as what we do.  While we are often unaware of the secret messages proclaimed by our body language, learners are not.  They literally read adults and more specifically in this case, their teachers, like a book.  Teachers should then be aware of the kind of messages they send out via their body language.  A well-prepared teacher is confident and that message is conveyed very clearly through body language.  A teacher who has good human relationships and has achieved good rapport with his or her learners through communication, is much more relaxed and can focus on the essential task of teaching.  This is one of the major positive gains of effective classroom management.  It gives you a head start, and it shows!

Open to changes

Learners debating or opposing aspects of the classroom management or even the content of subjects should not threaten a confident, well-prepared teacher.  The most frightening thing in a classroom is a room full of young people without any opinion of their own or even worse, lots of opinions but without the courage and the skills to air those opinions.  Discussion and communication is the essence of learning.  This starts at preschool level.  Without talking, arguing and debating we would become less than human.  Our ability to talk and reason, even disagree vehemently through verbal or written communication, is a precious heritage of democracy.  A teacher open to the wonderful educational opportunities in these debates provides learners with much more than factual knowledge.

Accommodating learners’ suggestions and comments

One of the ways to empower learners is to have regular discussion sessions in which ideas, suggestions and changes to the existing routines and rules are thoroughly debated and discussed from all angles.  This can be done with children of all ages.  Not all the suggestions need to be implemented, but learners sometimes have excellent ideas on classroom management because they are actually within the classroom situation and experience the effect of the routines and rules on their learning.  Accommodating some of the suggestions strengthens the bond with the learning environment, the teacher and their peers.

Making sure that everyone sticks to the rules and the routines

Up to now we have looked at routines and rules from a positive angle.  We emphasised the positive effect of co-operation.  However, everything is not always sweet and positive in a classroom full of learners.  At the same time that we discuss the routines and rules of the classroom with the learners, we also have to discuss possible problems and how this would be handled.  It is always a good idea to involve learners in suggesting of how to handle learners not willing to recognise and obey classroom routines and rules.  I am often surprised at how harsh learners can be when they have to discuss possible ways to counteract behavioural problems.  Procedures agreed upon will have to be reasonable, positive and practical.

Assessing learners’ behaviour and the atmosphere of the learning environment

Planning classroom management is only the beginning.  When learners have settled in the class and it seems as if they have learned the routines and procedures, your management task is only starting.  Cruikshank, et al. makes the observation that even the best planned management system can fail if it is not maintained (1995:381).

How do we maintain the management system?  The most important way is to have your proverbial finger on the pulse of the learning environment all the time.  A good teacher knows that prevention is better than cure when we talk about behavioural problems in a classroom.  The secret is to constantly monitor the behaviour of the students and the atmosphere in the classroom.  In that way you can be pro-active and stop a problem before it really starts.

Accountability and responsibility

Learners tend to do only those things they know they will be held accountable for.  One of your major management tasks will be to make sure that learners actually adhere to the routines and rules all of you agreed upon at the beginning of the year.  The purpose of this is not only to hold learners accountable but to help them master the skill of accountability. Being accountable and assuming responsibility for your own conduct are two important principles that go hand in hand.  Of course, you as the teacher have to set the example of accountability and responsible conduct.  The following are four of the strategies successful teachers use to hold learners accountable for their conduct right through the year.

Being aware

The effective classroom manager cultivates the ability to always be aware of what is happening in every corner and crevice of the classroom.  It often seems as if these teachers have eyes in the back of their heads!

Being able to monitor more than one activity at a time

Co-operative group work rests on the function of small groups without interference of the teacher. This kind of setting expects of the teacher to be able to monitor more than one activity at the same time.  Let us look at an example to describe this:

Operating smoothly and briskly

This technique is linked to the previous one.  The pace of a lesson should be brisk and learners should be encouraged to move through the work without too many interruptions.  Thorough preparation is again the key to this technique.  This does not at all mean that we should not give time for questions and discussions.  Questions and discussions should be part of the teaching style of every teacher regardless of the subject matter.  However, operating smoothly and briskly means that we focus on the prepared lesson materialin our questioning and discussion.  Well prepared teachers do not interrupt the learning process by...irrelevant or intrusive details, they do not interrupt children engaged in learning activities and they follow through rather than leave activities “hanging in the mid-air” (Cruikshank, et.al. 1995:382).

The momentum or pace of the teaching activity is influenced by things teachers do that slow down the pace of a lesson.  Examples of these are dwelling too long on a minor unimportant aspect of the presentation, or putting too much emphasis on learner behaviour.  Good momentum is maintained when learners are given clear and explicit directions on how to do something.  The teacher should also ensure that everyone understands the directions.  This eliminates unnecessary questions and too much attention to individual learners to explain routine detail.  This results in a situation where the learners who did understand must wait for the teacher to finish explaining to the individual learners.  The result is restlessness and misbehaviour.  The key is once again thorough, thoughtful preparation!

Keeping learners involved

Cruikshank et al. calls this “group altering.”  This involves helping learners focus on the important aspects of their task, as well as gaining and maintaining the groups’ attention and holding them accountable and responsible for what they should do.

Another way to focus on learners’ attention is to control the time allotted to a certain task.  However, if we have a mixed ability grouping this might affect the slower learners adversely, although learners may be reminded that they still have five or ten minutes before it is time to pack away.  Learners finding it difficult to finish within the allotted time may be invited to stay a bit longer after class or after school to finish their work.  This should be done in an inviting way and not to penalise students for not being able to complete their work. 

One of the ways to help learners focus on their work is to move nearer to those learners dawdling or starting to lose momentum.  The learners’ awareness of the teacher’s nearness tends to refocus them on their task.  However, teachers should not use this technique to intimidate learners.  This will lead to confusion and an inability to focus on their work.

Teachers should at all times be visible.  Do not leave your class unless it is a real emergency.  Your presence, the business-like atmosphere of the classroom and the availability of necessary material all tend to focus learners on what they are supposed to do. Learners need to see that the teacher is available to answer questions, assist in problem solving and ready to maintain good order in the classroom.  The availability of material removes lame excuses like: “I did not have paper,” or books or whatever.  Teachers should remember vividly their own school days.  In that way they will be able to pre-empt many problems!

Rewarding and reinforcing

A second way to monitor and influence the behaviour of learners is to use a system of reinforcement and rewards for good behaviour.

Extrinsic rewards and reinforcement

If we give recognition to learners for good behaviour, either by praising them or giving concrete rewards like stars or stickers for younger children, we are then giving them extrinsic rewards and reinforcing good behaviour.  This, at least, is the theory of behaviourists.  Teachers tend; however, to reinforce misbehaviour because they give most of their attention to the “problem” learners.  The learners doing their duty, obeying the routines and rules of the classroom often get neglected because most of the teacher’s time is spent trying to maintain order.

One of the problems of these types of rewards is that it is often just the top students who get rewards.  On the other hand, if these types of rewards are given indiscriminately in order to spare feelings, it will lose effectiveness.  Although there is a limited place for these rewards and reinforcements, especially in the younger groups, they should be used with caution since they can do more harm than good.

Intrinsic rewards and reinforcement

Many researchers have a problem with extrinsic rewards.  They say that if we want to help learners to become accountable, self-disciplined, motivated people they should be exposed to values and norms that reward learners for adhering to routines and rules.  This reward lies in the satisfaction you get from a job well done.  However, recognition, whether by congratulating publicly or just by touching a learner and saying: “Well done!” or perhaps just meeting the eyes of a learner and smiling, will also strengthen a learner’s resolve to work hard.  These types of rewards are called social reinforcers and are often the most effective because they are seldom abused and speak to the mind and emotions of learners.


Adapted from original document  – AECYC 2015

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