The Discipline Experiment

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When we first opened up the Community for Learning, I had just finished reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, and his philosophy resonated with me on so many levels. But most of all it seemed to answer questions that had been niggling at my mind for a long time.

As a new teacher, I often got assigned to babysit in the detention hall after school. Day after day, week after week, the same students came to sit out their detentions – and I couldn’t help but ask myself, if this system was working, why were these kids still here? I implemented all the strategies I was taught in my teacher training, and yet if I stepped outside my classroom for even a minute, the kids went wild….. and they were 15 years old. If this system was working, why were these kids acting out? Most of the students I taught didn’t want to be in school and didn’t seem to make much effort at all. If this system was working, why didn’t they care? And all of this – the rebellious behavior, the lack of caring, the punitive stance – was wearing me down completely.

If this system was working, why was I ready to quit?

So, when we began TCFL, we decided to go for it. We would follow Alfie Kohn’s ideas completely: no stickers, no stars, no smiley faces, no grades, no honor roll, no rewards of any kind. We wanted the students to feel an intrinsic desire to learn, and we nurtured that through meaningful work and critical feedback. We got rid of punishments altogether and replaced them with reflections. We implemented Kelso’s Choices to teach students how to deal with their own problems, and we followed Marvin Marshall’s ideas in Discipline Without Stress. We held classroom meetings to discuss feelings, to recognize bullying and learn to deal with it, and to help us understand each other.

It wasn’t easy. It was scary… what would parents think? Would kids respond? How would we balance the difference between home (where reward and punishment were a way of life) and school (where they didn’t exist)?

But we put aside our fears and dove in. And the kids? They responded….positively, overwhelmingly, awesomely!

What worked?

  • Making classes interesting. This is definitely number one! The next time you’re in a dull meeting, monitor your own behavior….it will help you understand the way a bored eight-year-old responds when he’s asked to sit at the same desk all day long and listen to a teacher drone on and on at him. Projects, centers, infusing work with the arts, following students’ interests, putting them in control of their learning – all of this will go a long way towards improving behavior.
  • Having procedures in place. Often what seems like misbehavior is simply a lack of procedures. When students know what to do and how to do it, “behavioral problems” diminish instantly. (High school students need to be taught procedures too. We tend to assume that because they’re “big” they’ll know what to do…. not true!).
  • Teaching respect by modeling respect. Students may seem to respect their teachers when they fear them, but they don’t – and often they will misbehave in sneaky ways, worrying more about being “caught” than about how they behave. But when they truly feel honored and respected, they tend to return the favour.
  • Understanding. Children who act out or misbehave are probably hurting in some way. Finding out why they’re causing trouble and helping them understand their own feelings are important steps in helping them improve.
  • Connecting with our students. When kids see that we care about them, they respond in positive ways. Find out what they do on the weekends, what their interests are, what their worries are, and talk to them on a personal level. Greeting kids at the door of the classroom shows you care. Have a look at this short, 2-minute edutopia video:

  • Having a sense of humour. Kids will be kids and sometimes we have to laugh at the things they come up with. Laughing at a situation or throwing in a humorous comment will often diffuse a potentially explosive situation. But be careful: avoid sarcasm and make sure humour is NOT used to poke fun at the students themselves. No one likes to be the butt of the joke.
  • Remembering that it’s not personal. When teachers believe that kids misbehave on purpose just to bug them, they can’t remain objective. Often teachers who take things personally react to the situation instead of managing it. We can’t let students push our buttons – we need to keep our emotions out of the situation, remain in control, and calmly handle whatever comes up. When we react to misbehavior, we need to do it in a calm voice. It’s not about us, it’s not about the student – it’s simply about the behavior at the moment.
  • Being consistent (which is harder than it sounds). When students begin to misbehave, we need to call them on it right away… we need to be “fair.” For example: don’t let the noise level in a classroom slowly rise until you can’t take it anymore, and then jump on some poor kid who happens to be talking at that moment. Instead, monitor the noise level and give kids reminders to keep it down before things get out of control.

Fifteen years later, it’s still hard work. It’s hard to change those habits instilled in us through our own upbringing… especially in moments of stress. Kids are kids and their behavior isn’t perfect, but with kind nurturing instead of punishment, they reflect on negative behaviors and learn to control them, taking responsibility for themselves and becoming internally motivated to do their best.

Now as we walk around the school, we see kids working even when they’re not supervised. We hear them disagreeing with teachers in a respectful way. We watch them solve their own problems and we can happily say…..the discipline experiment has been surprisingly successful.


  1. I think it’s possible to have a system with no rewards and I do believe children focus more on the learning process when they are not just doing it for the reward. Parents, however, make it very difficult. They want rewards and they make every little spat between kids, a personal offense. Sometimes they even go as far as approaching the other child and their parents, as if the offense was against their entire family. I am a true supporter of the “No Rewards” system, but I feel parents need to be educated and guided on how it works and why they cannot continue reinforcing negative and vengeful (the “hit back” technique among others) strategies to help their children learn and grow.

    • I agree completely. Parent education is essential. We begin the year with a parent meeting in each classroom to explain our methodology and then, throughout the year, we meet individually with parents who seem to be having difficulty understanding our philosophy. It’s a slow process, but most parents “get it” when they see the positive response in their children

  2. I love what I just read. I started learning gentle parenting and also trying it out with my pupils(elema tart students).

    Maybe I should set up a community of teachers so we can learn about it together.

    Do you have any resources we could start with?
    Would prefer free downloadables,to encourage more teachers to participate.

4 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  3. No Rewards: Why You Shouldn't Reward Students - The Teaching Experiment
  4. Restorative Discipline is Not a "Program," It's a Mindset - The Teaching Experiment

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