Classroom Management Theorists and Theories/Thomas Gordon

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Thomas Gordon[edit | edit source]

Overview of History and Theory[edit | edit source]

History of Thomas Gordon[edit | edit source]

Thomas Gordon dedicated his life to developing training systems that help individuals improve their relationships with one another. Dr. Thomas Gordon’s approach to psychology was revolutionary because it looked at relationships, rather than individuals, to solve conflicts.

When Dr. Gordon began in the field of psychology he was dissatisfied with the emphasis on statistics and scientific process. What Dr. Gordon was really interested in was the relationships between people. On his website, there is a story about how a young Dr. Gordon was inspired while watching a Sunday school teacher. The Sunday school teacher, “created a climate in class that made the students feel good about themselves and that encouraged them to enjoy learning” (Gordon Training International, 2005–2007). Dr. Gordon was also influenced by his experience in the Army Air Force from 1942-1946. As a student in the Army’s pilot training program he suggested that the authoritarian style of discipline contributed to accidents and a large drop out rate. After persuading his superiors to implement a program in which fear was not the primary element, students in the training program became much more successful.

After his time in the war, Dr. Gordon went to the University of Chicago to pursue his Ph.D. with his favorite professor Carl Rogers. It was there that he discovered, “that with training in reflective listening, and with an attitude of genuine acceptance and trust in their clients’ ability to solve their own problems, positive and lasting changes in their clients could be achieved” (Gordon Training International, 2005–2007). After receiving his Ph.D. in 1949, he spent five years of teaching at the University of Chicago. After that,Dr. Gordon took his experience and continued his career as a private consultant.

Throughout his career Dr. Gordon has published works focusing on issues such as organizational leadership, communications, counseling, discipline, parenting, conflict resolution and democratic decision making. In addition to contributing over 50 published articles, Dr. Gordon also authored 9 books including Teacher Effectiveness Training. During his lifetime he was involved in many different psychological associations including Division of Peace Psychology and the National Peace Foundation. In 1997, 1998 and 1999 Dr. Gordon was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Gordon Training International, 2005–2007).


Gordon Training International.(2005–2007). Retrieved June 11, 2007 from

Classroom Philosophy[edit | edit source]

The central tenet of Dr. Gordon’s approach to classroom management is the importance of developing meaning and mutually beneficial relationships. Dr. Gordon rejects traditional models of reward and punishment because they are based upon an assertion of power and foster no intrinsic motivation. Instead Dr. Gordon focuses on how student’s conflicts can be resolved in a way that will improve their relationships with their teacher and peers.

Dr. Gordon recognizes that conflict is an inevitable part of relationships because each person is an individual with unique values and needs. There will be times when these needs come into conflict. However, conflict does not have to destroy a relationship. By having open and honest communication, along with listening with genuine acceptance and understanding, individuals are able to find their own solutions. It is important that these solutions are agreeable to both parties involved in the conflict. It is also important to tell someone if their behaviors are negatively affecting you. The hope is that they will respect your feelings enough to change their behavior (Gordon, 1978).

When conflict arises in the classroom setting Dr. Gordon suggests following a series of steps. The first step is to use a graphic tool developed by Dr. Gordon called a “Behavior Window.” The purpose of the Behavior Window is to determine if “a problem exists, who owns it, and what skill can be used to solve it” (Gordon Training International, 2005–2007). If the student owns the problem, the second step for the teacher is to engage is active listening. Active listening occurs when a teacher listens and reflects back to a student their understanding of the conflict. This process communicates to the student that the teacher cares and is genuinely engaged in the conversation. If the teacher owns the problem, Dr. Gordon suggests that the second step of the resolution process begin with an “I-Message”. This means that the teacher will initiate the conversation by explaining her feelings to the student. The purpose of the I-Message is to confront someone else’s misbehavior without being confrontational. The final step is the “No-Lose Conflict Resolution.” The purpose of this final step is to come up with a solution that everyone can be invested in. If both parities participate in creating a solution, the solution is more likely to work!


Gordon, Thomas. (1978). A Credo for My Relationship with Others. Retrieved June 12, 2007 from

Gordon Training International.(2005–2007). Retrieved June 11, 2007 from

Implementation[edit | edit source]

The implementation of Thomas Gordon’s theory of conflict resolution must be based on helping student relations grow positively out of conflict, rather than degenerate. This can be accomplished by discussing and agreeing on common resolutions in a role-play situation before implementation into the classroom. The main components of the theory should be modeled, discussed, and then actively practiced for proper implementation. These components include active listening and the usage of I-messages to form a common resolution of a dispute.

In an elementary setting, Thomas Gordon’s theory of conflict resolution can be implemented through a “Peace Walk.” The peace walk is designed for two students to walk together through specific steps that lead to peaceful resolution of conflict. Each student is to practice active listening, as well as the usage of I-messages. One student is the color red, while the other is blue. The steps include:

  Step 1: RED: use an I-message to tell how you feel.
  BLUE: Listen and retell what you hear.
  Step 2: RED: Suggest a solution.             
  BLUE: Listen and retell what you hear.
  Step 3: BLUE: Suggest a solution.             
  RED: Listen and retell what you hear.
  Step 4: RED: Agree on a solution.
  BLUE: Agree on a solution.

In a secondary setting, Thomas Gordon’s theory of conflict resolution can be implemented through a “Peace Table,” which is permanently located in a section of each classroom. If a conflict among students occurs in a classroom setting, the students are required to sit at the “Peace Table” and discuss their individual feelings. The peace table is equipped with a graphic organizer, which lists the steps students are required to take in order to resolve the conflict. The steps are as follows:

  1.   Student A uses I-messages to explain how he/she feels about the present situation.
  2.   Student B practices active listening while Student A shares his/her feelings.
  3.   Student B uses I-messages to explain how he/she feels about the present situation.
  4.   Student A practices active listening while Student B shares his/her feelings.
  5.   Students A and B agree on a common solution after their discourse is complete.

Implementation of the peace walk and the peace table should be preceded with appropriate modeling of the conflict resolution theory. Students should have the opportunity to practice active listening and the usage of I-messages through role-plays in the classroom.

In an elementary setting, a teacher can provide students with generated social conflicts, which students may practice resolving through the peace walk process. Students can practice active listening and the usage of I-messages. They can then determine an appropriate resolution to the generated conflict, in which both students are equally invested.

In a secondary setting, a teacher can create a role-play scenario, in which students are to conference peacefully about a specific global issue. Students are required to practice active listening while another is speaking. In discussing the global issue, students are required to use I-messages to present information about the issue, as well as express how they are personally feeling. Near the end of the discussion, all students are required to agree upon a common resolution, in which everyone is invested.

Professional Critique[edit | edit source]

According to Thomas Gordon, the basis for a manageable classroom is developing positive relationships with students. Many other educators support this idea through the use of I messages and active listening; some have even gone as far as to include it as part of a curriculum.

Amy Martin, from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, has created lesson plans for teaching the use of I-Messages in the classroom. Martin’s use of I-Messages supports Gordon’s philosophy in that it provides resources for teachers and parents to resolve conflicts constructively with their children. Martin focuses on the fact that I messages do not put blame on the individual, but rather allow for a strong statement about one’s feelings while remaining positive. Similar to Gordon, Martin recognizes that peaceful resolutions help individuals to grow in positive relationships after a conflict. In addition to using this method in times of conflict, Martin claims it is important to create a routine where students can practice using I-Messages before hectic times of day such as recess and other transitions. She states “These are times of the day when strong emotions can take over and interfere with clear expression. Because our days are usually over-packed with teaching and learning, it is important to really plan this activity into your schedule” (Martin)

Other curriculum companies such as Success for All have actually created manuals like Getting Along Together to teach conflict management at the very beginning of the year in order to create an environment filled with positive relationships. This manual uses an activity called “The Peace Path” (Success for All, 2005). This activity supports Gordon’s philosophy of creating positive relationships out of conflict by giving students specific steps for resolving conflicts. The first step calls for one child to use an I-Message to express their feelings. At this time, the other student must use active listening to listen and restate what he or she heard. The next step has the first student suggest a solution while the other student listens and restates the first student’s solution. Then, the second student suggests a solution while the first student listens and retells the other student’s solution. Finally, both students agree on a solution (Success for All, 2005). This particular activity focuses on Gordon’s primary components of conflict resolution and supports the building of positive relationships in the classroom.


Martin, Amy. I-Messages and the Assertiveness Line. Retrieved June 15, 2007 from

Success for All. (2005).

Thomas Gordon Critique:

While Thomas Gordon’s theory on classroom management has many positive aspects, it is important to critique any theory before implementation in the classroom. Thomas Gordon focuses mainly on how to solve problems in the most kind and effective way possible. He believes that by using his method of solving conflicts, relationships are going to strengthen. One might critique Gordon’s theory because he focuses mainly on resolving conflict after it arises. Gordon does not take any preventative measures in avoiding conflict. Theorist Jacob Kounin, however, is a firm believer in preventing misbehaviors from occurring in the classroom by setting expectations at the start of the year. If expectations are not set right from the start, students are likely to misbehave, simply because they are unaware of how their teachers expect them to behave (,_Jacob, June 14, 2007). After teachers elicit clear and concise expectations for their students, other forms in which to prevent misbehavior include the creation of engaging lessons, teacher preparation and organization, and a focus on movement. Kounin believes there are five important roles a teacher must exhibit in the classroom: Withitness, Overlapping, Momentum, Smoothness and Group Alerting. When a teacher is “with it,” he or she knows exactly what is happening in the classroom at all times. Overlapping is having the ability to do more than one thing at a time. Momentum has to do with the flow of the lesson. A teacher must be prepared during a lesson, but also willing to be flexible if necessary. Smoothness refers to the ability to stay on task within a lesson and refrain from using tangents. Group Alerting is the way in which a teacher keeps students actively involved and engaged in a lesson. If a teacher exhibits these five roles, students will refrain from misbehaving in class (,_Jacob, June 14, 2007). Thomas Gordon has also been critiqued on his usage of I-messages. I-messages are ways in which a person can express him or herself without placing blame on another person. They are designed to be used in a positive manner, however, Dr. Jane Bluestein (2007) believes I-messages are ways in which to control and manipulate others. Dr. Bluestein gives an example of a negative I-message in an article entitled, “What’s Wrong with ‘I-Messages?’” Her example is as follows: “I feel ____ when you _____” (Bluestein, 2007). In other words, your behavior causes me to have a specific, usually negative, feeling. Dr. Bluestein (2007) argues that one should always take responsibility for how one is feeling and never place burden on another. She writes, “We certainly don’t want to burden others, especially our children with the overwhelming—and impossible—responsibility for our hap¬piness and well-being. Remember that personal growth and self-responsibility typically involve learning to separate who we are and how we feel about ourselves from other people’s behav¬iors” (Bluestein, 2007). Everyone has very different needs, and when a person attempts to please others, that person’s individual needs are often not being met. Bluestein (2007) also argues that I-messages can create an opposite reaction than they are intended. After hearing an I-message, a person may feel resentment toward the other person and may not be willing to change behaviors for the person. Instead of using I-messages, Bluestein argues that it is important to set boundaries. If a child is misbehaving, an adult should step in and be assertive with the child. Misbehaviors should not be supported or condoned, and the child who is misbehaving should not have to feel responsible for how another person is feeling about their behavior. That child should take responsibility for his or her own actions without feeling blamed by another.


Bluestein, J. (2007). What’s Wrong with I-Messages? [Electronic version]. Instructional

Support Services, Inc.,, 2007.,_Jacob, June 14, 2007.

Our critique:

After carefully researching Thomas Gordon's classroom management theory and articles from his colleagues, we have concluded that Gordon's theory is only one piece of the puzzle. Gordon’s use of I-Messages and Active Listening can be a very useful tool for addressing one’s own feelings. However, we believe that the use of I-Messages still poses blame on another party. We feel it is important for students to recognize that feelings from an action are subject to that individual’s personality; no one can make you feel something. We believe it is important for students to take responsibility for their own feelings and not blame them on another person. In Gordon’s implementation of I-Messages as student would state: “I feel (feeling) when you (action).” We disagree with the use of I messages in this format because the blame is still being placed on another individual. Perhaps a way to change this is by never using the word you in an I-Message. For example, “I feel (feeling) when (action) happens.” One of Gordon’s goals in his management theory is for students to develop positive relationships out of conflict; we believe there is a better way to meet this goal than using Gordon’s model of I-Messages.

Questions[edit | edit source]

1. What techniques that Thomas Gordon uses to solve conflicts? List at least three techniques.

2. Evaluate. How you could implement Gordon’s model of conflict resolution in your classroom management plan?