Over the past few decades, educators have been placed in the middle of a struggle between traditional views of classroom discipline and the more humanistic approach.

But many educators today feel that the best of both the traditional and the humanistic approaches can be effectively combined. They feel that the goal of any discipline program should be to help students develop self-discipline, while providing necessary structure and keeping classroom disruptions to a minimum.

Effective classroom management depends greatly on the degree of cooperation among several groups - from the district administration and the school principal to the parent and the individual classroom teacher.

In order for the efforts of the individual teacher to work, it is essential to have a systematic, district- or school-wide policy of discipline. It is also essential to have a principal who helps teachers maintain classroom discipline by providing a dependable system of support and in-service training for teachers, and the opportunity for teachers to coordinate their actions.

When individual teachers are confident that parents are aware of the school's discipline policy and that the administration will back them up in their efforts and will follow through on the agreed-upon policy, they are then more likely to take action as it is needed. When this happens, students are more likely to see the system as fair and consistently applied.

But what can you, as the individual classroom teacher, do to maintain student behavior?

Preventing Discipline Problems

As much as possible, try to keep the physical environment conducive to learning. The temperature, ventilation, and lighting of the classroom should be adequate and comfortable.

Get the year off to a good start.

  • Learn your school's and district's policies toward discipline before the first day of class. It is important to know what the school's expectations are for both the teacher and the student and to convey those to parents in your early communications with them. It is especially important to know your district's policy toward corporal punishment before taking any action in this regard.
  • Discuss your expectations with students. Establish classroom rules or guidelines early.
    • Plan for plenty of instructional time and activities (as opposed to "busy work"). This will reinforce with students that you are "in control" and have all bases covered.
    • Learn your students' names as early as possible. Devise a seating arrangement to help with this. Referring to students by name lets them know you care about them as individuals and is much more effective when correcting student behavior.

    Be firm and fair. Firmness should not be equated with harshness. Being firm means using an emphatic voice, looking directly at the student and, if necessary, moving toward the student.

    Be consistent in your application of classroom and school rules. Consistency in dealing with disruptive behavior is crucial if students are to view the teacher, and the system, as being fair.

    Acknowledge the diversity and individuality of your students. Be aware of the different learning and communication styles, preferences and tendencies, and ethnic backgrounds of your students. Allow for various abilities and interests in making assignments.

    • Draw your students out in conversation, letters of introduction, etc., to discover interests, aptitudes and attitudes.
    • Do not require the same response of every pupil.
    • Give each student the chance to feel important and useful by performing some constructive service for the teacher or for the group.
    • Let each pupil feel your genuine interest in him or her.

    Recognize situations which can lead to discipline problems.

    • Tardiness to class. Insist on promptness. Do not be lenient.
    • Delay in taking attendance. Roll call is another signal to students that class is beginning.
    • Disorder in the classroom. The class must begin work when the bell rings. Quick drill lessons or tests at the beginning of the period will encourage students to get to work quickly.
    • Student difficulty in mastering developmental tasks. Each age group has a certain set of social and behavioral skills that students are striving to master. If a student is having difficulty with a particular developmental skill, this leads to frustration, which often leads to discipline problems. It is very important for the teacher to be able to identify these problems as they occur and to help the student overcome them before they lead to other problems.

    Dealing with Disruptive Behavior

    No matter how dedicated you are to good classroom management, you can't prevent all disruptive behavior. Kids will talk, swear, fight, push and carry weapons, in spite of rules. The question is, "What do you do about it?" Again, you must first be aware of the discipline policies of your school building and your district, especially with regard to corporal punishment, before a discipline problem arises.

    Here are a few general guidelines for dealing with classroom disruptions:

    • Don't take it personally. Likewise, avoid making reprimands personal.
    • Avoid sarcastic remarks.
    • Don't threaten actions with which you will not or cannot follow through. If you state a consequence for a specific behavior, enforce it.
    • Be specific. Refer to the disruptive student(s) by name and specify the misbehavior and the preferred behavior.
    • When a situation threatens to get out of hand, immediately remove the student(s) from the classroom, if at all possible, without losing sight of your class. Removing the audience from the picture will often defuse the situation. If necessary, ask someone else to supervise your class while you take care of the problem.
    • Don't hesitate to ask for the help of other professionals in your building when dealing with serious student problems. These could include other teachers, counselors, psychologists, or your building principal.

    Disobedient and Insolent Students

    Ask him/her to leave the room immediately, but be definite as to whether the pupil is to wait outside the door for you or report to the dean, counselor or principal.

    Maintain your poise and continue with class. Do not permit a student to break up a class by quarreling with him or her or by forcing an issue.

    Never argue with a student. Correction of a problem must be completed before the student returns to the classroom.

    The clown, showoff, or interrupter should be corrected audibly in class. The pupil's attitude can be controlled by an impersonal attitude on the part of the teacher who holds consistently to the classroom standard of good conduct.

    How to React to Classroom Disruptions

    Leave things alone when a brief and minor disturbance occurs with no danger of its continuing or interrupting learning.

    End the action indirectly when learning is disrupted or it looks as though someone may get hurt. Let the student or students involved know you're aware of what's going on through expression or quiet action.

    Give the matter closer attention when a high level of emotion is evident. Ask the disruptive student(s) what's going on and respond appropriately. Again, providing a one-on-one exchange by immediately removing the student(s) from the room will allow you to more quickly determine what the problem is before a full-blown altercation occurs.

    Give clear directions. When a situation threatens to get out of hand, making learning impossible or risking harm to someone, spell out directions clearly. Explain to the student(s) involved the consequences of his or her actions and let them know you will follow through.

    Track student progress by keeping a record of the individual's behavior. This is one way of checking out the effectiveness of your discipline methods.

    Give positive feedback.

    • When you've noticed an improvement in a student's behavior or attitude, let him or her know you're aware of it and inform the parents.
    • Call attention to the positive behavior and accomplishments of all of your students. All of us need to hear what we're doing "right" and this can serve as a powerful reinforcement of the behavior you would like to see in the classroom.

    Keep good records. Keep a log of serious discipline problems, including actions taken.

    Schedule conferences as needed. These include student-teacher conferences, parent-teacher conferences and/or follow-up conferences with parents, on the phone or in person.

    • Don't wait too long before asking for a conference. An early conference can be a very effective way to prevent more serious problems from occurring.
    • Consider meeting with the principal, psychologist, or guidance counselor prior to the conference. In addition to giving you suggestions on how to handle the situation, these individuals can provide you with background information that may give you a better understanding of the student and his or her problems.
    • See "Planning Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences."

    Much of the information contained here has been gleaned from Classroom Discipline: Case Studies and Viewpoints by Sylvester Kohut Jr. and Dale G. Range. The book is part of the NEA "Aspects of Learning" series and is available through the NEA Professional Library.

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