Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 11/11.2.2

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No More Mister Nice Guy!

by James Noble

"Mutual respect requires that adults see children as people and as unique individuals. Teachers who see students in this light do not treat them as robots whose only function is to be controlled and manipulated for their own good. They see students as valuable resources with worthwhile ideas and skills." Jane Nelsen, Ed.D..

Positive Discipline:

Is it all about being nice?


I am a father, a parent, and a future schoolteacher. Licensed social workers and professional psychologists, people I have gone to for help, people I respect, experts in their fields, have called me "laidback," "easygoing," and "too nice" in my style of discipline. "But I'm positive in my discipline; I encourage them (my kids) and praise them, and, still, they show me very little or no respect!" I shout from the rooftops. "What am I doing wrong?" Wayne A. Martin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Colonial Psychiatric Association in Newport News, Virginia, says, "Children need structure, structure through positive discipline and mutual respect!" It all sounds well and good, but what exactly does it mean? What is positive discipline? Is it all about being nice? How do I apply it to a classroom of kids, kids from diverse ethnic backgrounds, kids from various positions in the sociological and intellectual ranks, kids who have learned a unique style of discipline from their own parents, and some who have learned no discipline at all?


The term Positive Discipline might sound like an oxymoron to some people: I mean, let's face it, discipline has usually had a negative connotation—punishment (Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary), and in the mind of a child, punishment is not a positive consequence.
According to Carol Chemlynski, Assistant Managing Editor, School Board News, Positive Discipline is a system of "responsibilities and mutual respect." (Education Digest, Nov96). Using common sense, and Carol Chemlynski's definition, let's break it down into easy to understand terminology: Responsibility—both teachers and students must know the rules and adhere to them. For example, if school policy is turning off cell phones in the classroom, then teachers and students have the responsibility to make sure they turn them off. Mutual Respect—students respect teachers, teachers respect students, students respect other students, teachers respect other teachers, and everybody respects the rules. What happens if there's a breakdown in Responsibility and Mutual Respect? What happens if a student becomes obstinate, unmanageable, or disruptive? How should a teacher execute discipline in the classroom?

Executing Discipline in the classroom[edit]

It may surprise you to know that the United States is one of the few industrialized countries to allow corporal punishment in schools; in fact, twenty-two of our fifty states still allow teachers and administrators to paddle or spank children: most of those states are located in the south(ies,2007).
Although a number of states abolished corporal punishment in schools in the 1980s, teachers still ridicule students, place them in detention, and suspend them. In her book Positive Discipline in the Classroom, Jane Nelsen interviewed a group of middle school students and asked them if getting yelled at, spanked, suspended, sent to detentions, or embarrassed in front of peers and parents solved their discipline problems; they responded with "No,'" "What do you think?" or they just laughed (page 24). Okay, so students don't like the corporal punishment approach; in fact, psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, Ph.D of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, suggests that corporal punishment stunts the learning process, promotes low self-esteem, incites anger and violence, and makes the job of teaching that more difficult(July,2002). Yet, many school districts in many states still advocate spanking as a way of controlling bad behavior.So, what's the answer: corporal punishment or positive discipline? Does one work better than the other does, or is it just a waste of time?

Coporal Punishment versus Positive Discipline[edit]

Growing up, I had the opportunity to experience a school that used positive discipline (I attended Parochial school from Kindergarten through eighth grade) and one that used corporal punishment (I attended public school from ninth through twelfth grade). The Catholic school I attended used the Preventive Method of discipline as taught by a 19th Century Salesian priest named Don Bosco. Don Bosco's method of study knew nothing of punishment. Observance of rules was obtained by instilling a true sense of duty, by removing assiduously all occasions for disobedience, and by allowing no effort towards virtue, how trivial so ever it might be, to pass unappreciated. He held that the teacher should be parent, adviser, and friend (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907). Of punishment, Don Bosco said, "As far as possible avoid punishing and try to gain love before inspiring fear."

Patrick Webb, Doctoral Student, School of Juvenile Justice and Psychology, Prairie View A&M University, Lecturer, Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, Lamar University did a study on the pros of corporal punishment and found that, although it is not a long-term deterrent to bad behavior, spanking and paddling is effective when:
1. It is given by an adult with an affective bond to the child
2. It is consistent and close to the behavior needing change
3. It is perceived as "fair" by the child
4. It is developmentally and temperamentally appropriate; and
5. It ultimately leads to self-discipline (pg 5)

Corporal punishment in public schools was outlawed in Virginia in the mid-1980s. Now, 26 states and most large school districts have banned the practice, according to Katharine Kersey, professor of early childhood education at Old Dominion University. Kersey, who lobbied for Virginia's ban, said, ``Corporal punishment is unnecessary, and it creates additional problems because you have now become a model for hitting. Children who have been hit will go out and hit others, their siblings, their dogs. They have to do something with the anger that the hitting produces (The Virginian-Pilot,1997).

Although governed by the laws of the state, what is the responsibility of classroom teachers? Should they expect parents to send disciplined students to the school? Should they write detention slips, send unruly students to the principal, and let him or her handle discipline?

The Responsibilities of Teachers[edit]

Many teachers think that they are only responsible for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic; parents should teach discipline, in the homes. According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, teachers want students who are responsible, have respect for self and others, exude self-discipline and self-control, show concern for others, display self-esteem and self-confidence, are risk takers, show confidence and happiness, have developed communication skills and problem-solving skills, have a sense of humor, are motivated to learn, and are compassionate. (Page 6) Yet, how can we as teachers expect all of those things from our students if we lecture at them, ridicule them, if we fail to praise them when they achieve, if we give them detention, and we paddle them when they misbehave?

In the Practical Tools for Positive Behavior, Edna C. Olive, writes, "Human behavior is not something we can simply pop into a machine, push a button, and have delivered to us in an altered state." Saying a kind word to a classmate, acknowledging other students' feelings, sharing books and advice, defending a victim of bullying—these are just a few of the prosocial behaviors that can enhance students' social and academic lives at school. Because we know that children do not develop social values in a vacuum, educators, policymakers, and researchers are increasingly emphasizing the importance of the school's role in building students' prosocial skills. (Kidron & Fleischman, page 90).

David Strahan mentions case studies in which positive discipline was employed. Strahan shares that teachers in these case studies established warm, supportive relationships with their students. They did so by showing a deep interest in individual students and involving students in classroom decisions. Teachers play a huge role in not only creating positive discipline, but a positive classroom environment as a whole. Teachers can help students understand that they choose their behaviors and guide them in accepting responsibility for their choices. Many schools now implement practices in which students are engaged in addressing their disruptive behaviors in ways that promote self-discipline. By asking students to reflect on their decisions, plan and carry out corrections, make commitments, and discuss what they have learned, teachers simultaneously hold students accountable and reinforce positive relationships (Strahan, 2005, p. 26). Positive discipline has been a crucial aspect of schools for as much as twenty years. As far back as twenty years ago educators were encouraging teachers to improvement classroom management by making rewards and punishments more explicit. Strahan references “Inviting Positive Classroom Discipline”, which includes three features for a successful classroom: successful classroom management promotes self-discipline; successful classroom management begins with Academic Learning Time; successful classroom management promotes academic achievement. These features encourage students to understand themselves and make better decisions, while learning more about the subject matter.

So, Responsibility, Mutual Respect, Positive Discipline, will it work in the school, in the classroom: is it all about being nice?


I think it's safe to say they we all were young at one time and probably met a teacher or two we didn't like, and even now, as adults, we are still students, still learning, still searching for all of the right answers. Jerry Rubin of the infamous Chicago Seven is credited with coining the phrase, "Never trust anyone over thirty!" ( Schoolchildren look at teachers and parents as the older generation that doesn't know what's best for them.

I used to get mad at my school (No, I can't complain) the teachers that taught me weren't cool (No, I can't complain) Holding me down, turning me round, Filling me up with your rules (Lennon & McCartney, 1967).

We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom. Teacher leave those kids alone. Hey, teacher leave those kids alone! (Roger Waters, 1979).

You could probably ask one hundred kids why they hate school, and they'll give one hundred different answers: it's boring, it cuts into my free time, the teacher's think they know everything, teachers make me feel stupid, they yell at us, they send us to the principal's office to be punished, they don't treat us with respect, etc. (SNN,Dec/2003). Add to that, the rise in violence in schools, and you can see why the demands of being a teacher are challenging.

The question was, Positive Discipline: Is it all about being nice? The answer is; yes, sometimes, when it's appropriate, but not without structure and guidance, and a lot of patience.

Here are some rules to follow to help make Positive Discipline work:
Dr. Jane Nelsen's Positive Discipline Classroom Management Tools:

  • Limit choices to appropriate and acceptable
  • Assign classroom jobs to give students opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways
  • Problem solve, and follow through with dignity and respect
  • Ask, don't tell -- "what," "why," and "how,"
  • Use redirection questions to defuse bad behavior
  • When appropriate, do nothing (natural consequences) and don't overreact
  • Decide what we want to do and how to handle a problem
  • Say "no" with dignity and respect
  • Treat everyone fairly
  • Use positive time-outs instead of immediately punishing
  • Use parent/ teacher/ student conferences to get everyone involved
  • Take small steps, think before acting. (pp 189–216)
  • These tools might not create a perfect world, a perfect classroom, but it's a good start.


1. According to Carol Chemlynski, Assistant Managing Editor, School Board News, Positive Discipline is a system of?
a) detentions and suspensions
b) dark sarcasm in the classroom
c) responsibilities and mutual respect
d) bad behavior equals spanking

2. An example of Mutual Respect is?
a) teachers fill you up with their rules
b) students never trust anyone over thirty
c) nobody respects the rules
d) everybody respects the rules

3. The United States is one of the few industrialized countries to?
a) allow corporal punishment in schools
b) outlaw paddling and spanking in school
c) insist on mutual respect between teachers and students
d) outlaw corporal punishment

4. Some research suggests that corporal punishment in schools?
a) is the Preventive Method of education
b) makes teaching easier
c) incites anger and violence
d) stops all bad behavior in schools

5. According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, teachers want students who?
a) admit that teachers are superior
b) sit quiet and shut up
c) have a sense of humor and are compassionate
d) think that teachers are not cool

6. In the Practical Tools for Positive Behavior, Edna C. Olive, writes, "Human behavior is not something we can simply?
a) pop into a machine, push a button, and have delivered to us in an altered state
b) expect from children from low income families
c) take for granted
d) hold down and turn around

7. Which of the following is not one of Dr. Jane Nelsen's Positive Discipline Classroom Management Tools?
a) problem solve
b) say "no" with dignity and respect
c) using positive time-outs instead of immediately punishing
d) spare the rod and spoil the child

8. Mutual respect requires that teachers?
a) treat students as robots whose only function is to be controlled and manipulated for their own good
b) leave those kids alone
c) debate over who coined the phrase "Never trust anyone over thirty!"
d) see students as valuable resources with worthwhile ideas and skills

Answers to Questions
1(c) - 2(d) - 3(a) - 4(c) - 5(c) - 6(a) - 7(d) - 8(d)


MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE [1] copyright 2005 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

Discipline as teaching. By: Chemlynski, Carol. Education Digest, Nov96, Vol. 62 Issue 3, p42, 3p, 1 cartoon; (AN 9612043678)

Institution of Education Sciences (ies); U.S. Department of Education; National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.

Positive Discipline In the Classroom. (Revised and Updated 3rd Edition). . By: Nelsen, Jane. 2000, 241 pp.; THREE RIVERS PRESS (ED402064)

Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, PhD; Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 128 (4), July 2002. pp. C2.; Publisher: American Psychological Association

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II, published 1907, New York; Robert Appleton Company

Spare the Rod, Destroy the Child: Examining the Speculative Association of Corporal Punishment and Deviant Behavior among Youth . By: Webb, Patrick. Online Submission. 2007 10 pp. (ED495289)

Scholarly Communications Project, By: Paul Clancy, Staff Writer; The Virginian-Pilot, May 31, 1997, page B-1, Final Edition

Practical Tools for Positive Behavior Facilitation . By: Olive, Edna C.. Reclaiming Children and Youth: The Journal of Strength-based Interventions, v13 n1 p43 Spr 2004. (EJ703809)

Promoting Adolescents' Prosocial Behavior . By: Kidron, Yael; Fleischman, Steve. Educational Leadership, v63 n7 p90-91 Apr 2006. (EJ745594)

"Getting Better" John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band; Apple Records, 1967

"Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2" Roger Waters, The Wall; Capitol Records, 1979

SNN, Schoolnet News Network; Student Magazine, December, 2003 issue.
Positive Discipline with Students Who Need It Most. By Strahan, David B.; Cope Hamilton, Mellie; Hundley, Sally; and Faircloth, Victoria C. The Clearing House, v. 79 n1, September/October 2005.