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ESE502 : The Class : Balance : Balancing Discipline : Lesson3-5-1

Balancing Discipline

Our classrooms are on the cusp of moving from the discipline models of the past in an exciting, stimulating and novel direction. The momentum has been gathering for several decades, and large movements from Dewey (1916) to Goodlad (1984, 1990) swept in, carrying teaching praxis forward, modifying the educational landscape. Each ground swell receded, but altered sentiments and practices always remained.

The momentum of the newest restructuring adds strength to the waves. The move from industrial revolution to age of information, from isolation to world community, from local school control to National and International scrutiny of standards and instructional progress adds force to the flood of school change. Modes of computer assisted instruction, distance learning, and virtual institutions of education span the globe, bringing education practices into sharper focus and inundating older practices with new opportunities and challenges.

The status of children changed. Children were once property, belonging to parents and subject to their whims. Litigation, protective services and heightened awareness dramatically changed the rights of parents and children. Through television shows featuring characters like Bart Simpson and docudramas like Mommy Dearest, we gained a different sense of children, their power and position in the family and community. Of course, writers like Charles Dickens, and Carl Rogers described humanity’s ability to value and enhance the lives of children as a measuring stick for depth of humanity and civility.

The causes of change are less critical than recognizing the dawning of children’s rights. It changes the position of children in society and in classrooms. It heightens the importance of educational changes. It adds compulsion to our abandonment of physical force in chastening youngsters. Many educators are reluctant to leave the paddle behind as a form of discipline. We know that few creatures - human or animal, perform better when berated, belittled or hurt (Hyman,1990; Kohn,1996), yet the rituals of the past frame punishment as an alternative.

Our uncertainty about punishment is still evident. While newscasters raged about a youngster being caned in another country, television anchors and educators entertained ambivalence about head masters who paddled youngsters in our local communities. Many schools continue to permit the practice of corporeal punishment with parent permission. We express sentiments about capital punishment being a deterrent to breaking the law and put more youthful offenders into adult course, positing that incarcerating juveniles will prevent law breaking.

This lingering over punitive measures may derive from a sense of vacuum. We seem unprepared with a different or more effective alternative that is simple and “feels” like its working. Some people feel a sense of relief and reward when they punish children. The child’s immediate personal response is often gratifying. The miscreant seems chastened, the adult’s adrenalin is drained through physical action and obvious chagrin or horror of other students appears as a heady tonic. We sense that other children will not be as ready to break the rules. It “feels right” intuitively. In addition, it mirrors our own experiences, since most of us grew up expecting or receiving force as a response to delimited actions (Straus, 1994). Fortunately, no one is “owned” by another, and abuse is unlawful.

We may believe that those who are punished change their behavior out of fear, for that is what we claim to ourselves. In fact, many of us when children, behaved and followed rules out of an intrinsic desire to be loved, accepted, to match the actions of those we knew and admired. The fear we remember, the withdrawal to fight or flight when assaulted, masks the true humanity of our choices, our basic readiness to cooperate and develop.

Another force comes from a ground swell of scientific theories about children in the Twentieth Century. Behaviorism swept into educational practice (Skinner, 1953, 1968). These ideas and tools, effective in certain limited forms, became common practice regardless of their ability to serve children or further good education. Their linear, one-size-fits-all application occurred in grading. As we taught the use of the bell curve to justify test questions, grading practices and program effectiveness, we lost track of the limitations (sample size, various forms of validity and reliability, bias, etc.).

Curriculum and lesson planning became simplified as we focused on teaching material that could be defined and quantified in ways that could be measured, observed and tested with objective questions (Mager, 1975). We placed our focus on teaching material or content instead of teaching children. Then, when children and their needs interrupted that focus on material, the instructor experienced frustration, became anxious or angry. Evidence of this perspective can be found in numerous classrooms where signs are posted declaring, “I have the right to teach.”

These practices are reinforcing for educators because they simplify an otherwise messy field. It makes the job of educators more manageable if we make classes linear. In reality, human dynamics are multi-dimensional and children are as idiosyncratic as they are similar. Great teaching is complex, entangled, paradoxical and elusive.

Human nature is enigmatic, too. We strive our whole lives to understand ourselves, with mixed success. Our progress in understanding the physical world has progressed dramatically from the Socratic view, but our understanding of human nature has changed very little in comparison. People are complex. We are in our infancy in understanding and explaining human nature. Even the functioning of the human brain is a threshold just emerging.

Many teachers wish for a logical and simple discipline plan, a cook book approach to working in the classroom, teaching subjects and content rather than constructing meaning with individual youngsters. Yet, the closer we come to that goal, the further we are from what we want to accomplish with respect to child building, nurturing, educating. When we simplify teaching, the richness, diversity and excitement is often lost, not only to children, but for all of us.

It is enticing to establish the sanctity of rules, of black and white, right and wrong. But our great literature shows us, one book at a time, that the sanctity of the individual, when factored with circumstances, makes discipline in black and white a travesty. Two scholars in moral development, Piaget (1965) and Kohlberg (1981) suggest that viewing events and the things people do as black and white represents moral immaturity and lack of perspective.

It is so much simpler to see rules and social systems as inviolable. Once we make one exception, there are so many that beg our attention, so it is simpler to draw a line and refuse to equivocate. It is simple, but inaccurate and inequitable and ultimately damaging to children, education and society. It is not so much a question of truth being relative, but of acknowledging that human beings are -- unique, developing, unfinished, and that traits differ from child to child, that states, and thus visualization of actions and justifications differ from moment to moment.

We play out the dilemma of individual or society rights beginning in kindergarten, and our modeling of social good coming before the rights and needs of the individual may be a grave error. Society is only as strong as our humanity to the weakest among us. Schooling is only good for the whole if it is also good for the individual child.


The curriculum is no different. In working to measure and quantify teaching and learning, we sometimes ignore the richest portion of teaching. Teaching and learning involve relationship. It is process. It is a synergistic practice of art and craft that soars beyond the person weaving the spell, superseding time and space. Like a great ballet or symphony, it is the joining of the performer, the performance, and the audience. Great teaching pulls those in the room into a shared bubble that is unique to that moment and that group, that setting and the hopes and aspiration of the person who first took up the mantle of teacher or performer.

Recognizing the multi-faceted nature of teaching and learning is critical in understanding the components of a good discipline or leadership plan. Such a plan is the outgrowth of multiple layers of complexity. The role of teacher, the role of student, the rules and norms of the community and the constraints of the curriculum come together with the personalities of the participants. It is, of necessity, more than a set of rules or expectations. It must be larger in scope than the vision of the teacher or the expectations of those in charge.


What is it that we wish from the students we are teaching? Do we really wish silent, fearful or withdrawn youth waiting for the next command? Do we wish students to be undemanding, passive, compliant? Do we hope for automatons, absorbing and reciting to specifications? The outcome defines the need. We cannot compose classrooms that address the comfort or needs of the teacher or written expectations of a final examination, alone. It is essential to broaden our base of attention, including the needs of all members in the classroom. We are planting the seeds of the future in the way we treat and educate children. These future leaders and decision makers, who will take the next steps for our society, need our tenderness and attention to their needs and desires. Each student truly needs to leave schools reluctantly, with a sense of whimsical loneliness, and sense of fulfillment and gratitude. Many people speak openly of getting rid of youth who do not appreciate how lucky they are to have schools. We need more voices raised in honor of enhancing schools enough that attendance is not a problem, for children wake in the morning excited about the prospects of a new day.

Developmental Discipline

Developmental Discipline is a dramatic next step in education. It focuses on moving from teacher as controller to student as the agent for self control and self motivation. By empowering students to take responsibility for fully engaging in the process and substance of education, student energy shifts from passive participation or detractor to motivated partner. Youthful energy bursts into excited learning and questioning with commitment to task coming from the student. Teachers find fulfillment and delight in teaching.

Opening the way for students to sense this freedom to learn requires certain beliefs about the teaching role, the student role, the administrative role and home - school connection. It alters the way a school is developed and a classroom looks and feels. The human dynamics are different, the vision of what can and should be happening in schools is different. What we see as success is different, and what types of learning we value and engage in changes. Even the way we measure and report progress alters.

DD (Developmental Discipline) is an education process that empowers all participants. It challenges adults in the system to engage in or acquire the ability to see each student as a real person, a whole person, someone as vitally important as the adults in the system. It asks the teacher to take the role of the protagonist, energizing and advancing the mutual search for who each child is, who each student can become. It is an unfolding drama with the teacher and students working in concert.

It is a proactive mutual quest with a focus on civility and community building. It frames schooling as a major part of the apprenticeship for life. It does not presume that school is the seat of all learning, but rather that life itself is an education. Schooling assists the youth to develop the tools to successfully engage life, to successfully enhance personal gifts and abilities to make that journey notable, meaningful, and uniquely personally fulfilling.

The teacher utilizing DD views the school experience as a focusing mechanism, enhancing each child’s ability to fully develop self, the real self and the real abilities each child can build upon, and simultaneously work as a unit to further community. Each student and the unique importance and value of that person hood becomes a shared focus. Acquiring and honing the tools for a life time of learning, thinking, reflecting, becomes an axis, for this discipline program is about understanding the significance of every child.

This prototype provides the foundation for the individualized model a teacher will develop in concert with personal taste and experience, a microcosm that will shift each year, reflecting a new complement of personalities and the shared governance of a new group of youngsters. One set of skills involves understanding structure as a critical component of the teaching and learning community. With practice and artistry, teachers become architects of the learning edifice, recognizing how and when to arrange the classroom or learning establishment to facilitate learning and validate the age old honor of the teaching dedication.

Teachers and students share responsibility for maintaining the learning environment. The educator initiates this process, and holds firmly to the dedication to humanity and the amelioration of the future. It is the teacher who initiates changes, and then together, the community of learners, students and teacher with parental and community support promote the positive changes that follow.

Shared governance is complex, and most students are not prepared to control self or are not yet mature enough to assume full responsibility to enhance learning and community, so a wide range of tools and options are furnished to support teachers and students as they cultivate the new repertoire of skills necessary to help maintain structural integrity. In this system of shared regulation, the roles of teacher and student change dramatically.

This program assists all participants to gain the understanding that the community building process is developmental in nature. DD highlights the acquisition and perpetuation of a sense of personal responsibility and second person perspective. It helps participants explore the positive components of community and hone elements of personality that enhance cooperation and individuation.

Content and curriculum are richer when education is approached in this manner. As the individual and community are built, excitement about content and responsibility for expanding the opportunities to learn are shared. Students learn to monitor self, to develop and hold to a standard of excellence. They learn to self assess, to organize new learning experiences that strengthen weaknesses, and become active partners in evaluation. Youth can then utilize those outcomes to further develop distinctive techniques to refine strengths and bases of knowledge. They also maintain a sense of ownership about learning, the curiosity and the excitement that assure life long learning.

Discipline is more broadly defined as the honing of inner power, the inner voice of potential, the bringing together of the being of self and the competency that springs from that self. It is building a competent person for the sake of personal esteem and the well being of the community. Thus, content is another crucial question addressed. When development of the whole person is a valued element of education, a process curriculum becomes as important as product curriculum. Who a person is and is to become is as critical and worthy of attention and focus as what the person is able to do, how well they, read, write, cipher, perform. Examples of process skills include: self discipline, ability to see outcomes of behavior, capacity to discipline self to think through options and create new outcomes, ability to clarify own feelings and ask for meaning and reflection from others, paths for self growth and development that also respect the needs and stages of others, communication, conflict resolution, acceptance of and appreciation for diversity.

These areas are also critical components of the DD program, and excellent mechanisms for enhancing self-esteem. The humanistic view of the nature of human beings recognizes that self worth comes from the interplay of complex components of self-esteem. Enhancing sense of self includes understanding many layers of human nature that address personal being and person as doer. It is an embodiment of a sense of significance, competence, power over oneself and one’s choices and competence in achieving a sense of virtue in those things the culture values. The program helps teachers and students utilize the building blocks of esteem, strengthening self and enhancing each student’s facility in community.

The classroom milieu is enhanced as participants analyze the ongoing struggle and importance of blending and balancing need for control, for self expression and maintaining the sanctity of others. Issues surrounding power and control become part of the learning experiences for facilitating natural development of student self-responsibility for conduct and for educational progress. Understanding this developmental model involves close scrutiny of the function of autonomy and heteronomy as the two life-long dimensions of self will and socialization. Such inquiry and consideration enhances the educator’s capacity to focus on the importance of assisting students and self to acquire civility and social graces, balancing classroom decorum and human interaction as a means of establishing a common recognition of human dignity and the value of respect for self and others. Individuality is developed. Community is encouraged and refined. Students are taught to attend to the well being of both.

Holistic development of the student is another critical piece in the DD classroom. The components for person building include understanding and working to optimize the physical, emotional, philosophical or moral reasoning, and social as well as the cognitive or intellectual underpinnings of each person. (This is called the pepsi model). Each of these is a critical building block in achieving the goal of helping young people become competent, fully functioning, fully educated beings.



From the beginning, this type of classroom setting focuses on the individual while promoting relationship, cooperation and community building. The emphasis on proactive discipline techniques, on helping the student to master self and feel in control of self in the situation is critical. The teacher’s role of support, guide and mentor is essential. Learning and implementing these roles is also very different from most of our own classroom experiences and what we visualize as the teaching role.

The DD program is exciting, stimulating and challenging because it provides more than a theory. It helps the teacher visualize the “what” of such a dynamic classroom, and then moves forward to describe the bridge building process that allows today’s practices to telescope into new skills. As trust is built in the ability of students to take a vital interest in learning and in self discipline, the motivation to continue heightens. Teachers find themselves feeling the sense of hope and expectation that first opened the door to teaching as a career and lifetime dedication.

Discipline in the classroom asks some of today’s hard questions:

  • If we spend time teaching students new skills for self management, what happens to the current curriculum model that’s already overtaxing?
  • There are some really troubled kids in schools today. What kind of discipline techniques work with kids who are ‘out of control’?
  • What if I balance my classroom and other teachers don’t. Won’t it be a waste of my time and hard on the others in the profession?
  • Aren’t there times when blind obedience should be taught? Aren’t we teaching students to question authority and unleashing a monster?
  • What about punishment -- Don’t kids need a little retribution?
  • If we do not use compliance as a model for classroom management, then what will a different approach look like and how can we make it happen?
  • Once a teacher starts to share power in the classroom, won’t the students take over and abuse the system? Won’t they stop working and obeying?
  • What will parents think about a departure from old standards?
  • What will happen to student achievement test scores?

by J'Anne Ellsworth


     Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

     Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York: McGraw-Hill.

     Goodlad, J. I. (1990). Teachers for our nations’s schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

     Hyman, I. A. (1990). Reading, writing and the hickory stick: The appalling story of physical and psychological abuse in American schools. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

     Kohlberg, L. (1981) The philosophy of moral development (vol 1), San Francisco: Harper & Row.

     Kohn, A.(1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

     Mager, R. F. (1975). Preparing instructional objectives. Belmont, CA: Fearon.

     Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child. Illinois: The Free Press.

     Skinner, B. F. (1953). The science of human behavior, New York: Macmillan.

     Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Croft.

     Staus, M. A. (1994). Beating the devil out of them: Corporeal punishment in American families. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

     Developmental Discipline© was written by J’Anne Ellsworth and Alicia Monahan

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