A Teachers’ Guide to Positive Discipline in the Classroom

As I look through the paper every morning, I become more and more convinced that our methods of disciplining children simply do not work. We have done the time-outs, the spanks, the groundings, and the principals’ office for years and years, but it is obvious that the whole of children everywhere are not responding to punative discipline. They learn to tune out their parents’ and teachers’ yelling, and they figure out better methods of not getting caught.

Most of the parents whom I’ve talked with about positive discipline are ready to get on board. They like the idea of seeing positive changes in their children, and they know that traditional methods of punishment are simply not effective. This has a lot to do with the fact that punishments and consequences are not constant during childrens’ – they may receive one type of reprimand at home, but will experience something entirely different at school. They become confused about what to expect from authority figures because their codes of conduct are not upheld universally.

With teachers, however, the idea doesn’t seem to sink in. Teachers don’t understand how they can have a positive impact on the children they teach by abandoning conventional and punative solutions and moving toward a more logical and positive approach. It starts with the idea of positive discipline. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then there is no way that you can convey those principles to the children you teach. I’ll provide you with a definition:

Positive Discipline – encouraging children to understand why they should not do certain things, and to gain a better self-awareness when it comes to correct behavior and responsible actions.

I think that my definition is inadequate, but it sums up the philosophy of positive discipline. The difference is that instead of reprimanding, belittling, and punishing children, you are creating a set of moral and ethical codes that are socially acceptable and logically understood. If a child doesn’t know why he or she is in trouble for certain actions, then you aren’t going to correct the problem.

In the classroom, you are faced with a diverse selection of students from varying backgrounds and parenting beliefs. They have all been taught differently using a varying set of moral codes, and this serves to frighten teachers into thinking that it is a problem. In reality, however, the diversity of your students allows you to start from Square One. They must learn that in situations outside the home, that they are expected to behave responsibly and respectfully towards authority figures as well as each other.


There have to be rules, no matter what kind of a teacher you are. Not setting guidelines by which your students must adhere will create confusion in the classroom and a gray area where behavior is concerned. Before the school year begins, outline the rules that must be obeyed in the classroom. Draw on your experience when making this list: what problems have you experienced in the past that you would like to avoid this year?

When school starts, these rules should be posted where children can see them. Go over them in class so that everyone understands, and answer any questions that might come up concerning your rules. More importantly, though, you must explain why these rules are in place, and what could potentially happen if these rules are not followed.


I discourage teachers from listing consequences for behavior. Putting names on the board, taking away gold stars, and removing privileges are examples of negative reinforcement. Children who do not have a proper code of conduct and who are likely to rebel against rules will not be concerned with the loss of a gold star, and all you will do is fuel the fire of rebellion.

I encourage teachers to take each situation as it comes, and to handle each child individually, as each is not like any other. When it comes to school conduct, there is often a reason why children behave the way they do. If you can get down to the root of the problem, you will have more success in the handling of that particular issue.

Time Outs

Teachers as well as parents employ the time out rule as a response to negative behavior. This typically involves sitting a student in the hall or a corner where he or she is supposed to ‘think about what they did.’ The problem with this method is that you have absolutely no way to control how that child thinks, and you are giving the child an easy out. And reprimanding a student in front of his or her peers will serve one of two purposes: either the child will be severely embarassed or the child will be encouraged by the attention. Both of those reactions are negative, because they do not solve the problem.

So what would be more effective?

A positive way to handle this problem would be to take the child into the hall and talk with him or her. Explain why what he or she did negatively affected someone else (i.e. you or the other students) and ask why he or she felt it necessary to behave that way. Based on their answer, explain that he or she was not respecting you as a teacher or their peers as classmates, and that disrespect is not acceptable in your classroom. Don’t threaten with punishments, but explain that you can’t allow that behavior to continue, and that you hope they understand how their actions have negatively affected others.

Group Discussions

One of the times that teachers have the most problems is when they have to take a day off, and students misbehave for substitute teachers. Before such a problem can happen, you should talk with your students about substitutes on the first or second day of school. Explain to your students that other adults deserve the same respect that you are given in the classroom, and that you expect for them to be on even better behavior. Again, there is no reason to threaten consequences; it shouldn’t be necessary. Let them know that the substitute will be leaving you a detailed note about how the students behaved.

If you return and find that your classroom was ill-behaved, tell your students how it made you feel. Let them know that you were embarassed to find that your students treated the substitute so poorly, and that you know they are capable of much better behavior.

Problem Students

Every classroom has a ‘problem student,’ and the last thing you want is for that student to leave your tutelage without any positive changes in his or her behavior. Make it your mission to turn that student into a respectful, well-behaved child who believes in creating a positive atmosphere for everyone else. You can do this using positive reinforcement, and letting that student know that you believe in his or her skills and abilities. All it takes is a little bit of personal investment.

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