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Developmental Discipline

Marilyn Watson, Daniel Solomon, Victor Battistich, Eric Schaps, and Judith Solomon.

In this excerpt the authors describe an approach to classroom discipline for the elementary school setting. The approach is one which was developed within a more general approach to education called, "The Child Development Project" (CDP).

The CDP Program

Our goal was to create a comprehensive set of home and school activities and practices that would incorporate all of the [following] experiences: warm and supportive adult-child relations; highlighting and explaining the importance of prosocia valuesl; discussion of and reflection on the reasons for moral actions; and understanding, discussing, and reflecting on the feelings, motives, and needs of others. It was also necessary that our program be learned by average teachers and parents within the constraints under which schools operate, and that it easily within the normal routines of the classroom and the home.

For a variety of reasons both our school and home programs underwent substantial change during the process of development and implementation. Sometimes these changes resulted from our developing understanding of the practical limitations imposed by the fact that parents, teachers, and school administrators are very busy people and simply did not have the time to engage in all the activities that we and they deemed worthwhile. Sometimes these changes resulted from our becoming clearer about our own theoretical perspective and better able to translate that perspective into classroom and home activities. As we worked with teachers and parents, designed specific school and home activities, observed aspects of the program in action, and reflected on our experiences, we more carefully articulated our theoretical perspective and understood its relationship to school and home activities. What follows is a description of the school program as we currently conceive it. This is an idealized description; it is the conception that we present to teachers and that shapes the activities and materials we develop. The program in practice was sometimes far from ideal. After describing our ideal conception, we shall describe ways in which the actual implementation of the program met and failed to meet our ideal conception.


Although we see the CDP program as an integrated whole, we have designed and taught it as five mutually consistent and somewhat overlapping components:

  1. Developmental Discipline - an approach to classroom management that involves a concerted effort to create a caring community in the classroom in which each child’s needs for autonomy, competence, and affection are balanced with the needs of community in order to maximize the learning and well-being of all.

  2. Cooperative Learning - an approach to academic instruction in which children work together to help one another learn and have opportunities to experience and practice such prosocial values as fairness, helpfulness, responsibility, and considerateness.

  3. Helping - activities that provide children with opportunities for prosocial action both in the classroom and beyond.

  4. Understanding Others - a focus on helping children understand and empathize with the situation and experience of others through literature, discussion, and direct experience.

  5. Highlighting Prosocial Values - a focus on explaining the importance of prosocial values and helping children see the relation of values to actions through exposure to characters and events in literature and history and through personal example.

Developmental Discipline

We view the classroom as having four main functions: helping children learn a specified set of academic skills, concepts, and facts; fostering their love of learning; helping them learn a set of social skills, values, and expectations; and fostering their commitment to those values. The classroom management practices that a teacher uses must be consistent with all four goals. The teacher is inescapably engaged in socialization as well as education. Most current classroom management systems have been designed to serve the academic function only (e.g., Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 1980; Canter 1876; Jones 1979). In fact, a recent review of classroom management research (Doyle 1986) does not even mention the possible socialization function of classroom management.

The socialization practices we advocate assume that most school-age children are disposed to learn and adopt the values of their community, to construct a personal moral system, and to act to benefit others as well as to satisfy personal needs. In contrast, many discipline systems are predicated on a view that children, particularly children who seem incline to misbehave, need to have good character imposed on them. Such approaches are designed to show children that the "right" thing is their self-interest. The only incentive invoked by such approaches is student self-interest - the knowledge that their behaviors will increase or decrease their receipt of positive or negative consequences. In such controlled classrooms, compliance can indeed be achieved by increasing the promise of external rewards or the threat of negative consequences. Such control may allow the teacher to achieve an environment conducive to academic learning (although probably not an intrinsic orientation to learning), but it does not teach commitment to prosocial values.

Our program holds that socialization must focus on developing an internal disposition toward prosocial action. Development discipline attempts this in four somewhat overlapping ways:

  1. Building a warm and supportive relationship between the teacher and each student.

  2. Building a community in the classroom in which the stated learning goals are being achieved and in which each child’s personal needs for competence, autonomy, and respect or affiliation are being met.

  3. Assisting children to refine their own cognitive moral systems and their understanding of how those systems apply to everyday classroom life.

  4. Using both proactive and reactive control techniques that enhance (or at least do not undermine) the above goals; that is, techniques that effectively control behavior but at the same time help or allow children toSee themselves as well-intentioned (i.e., as morally competent),Understand how expectations or rules are consistent with their own sense of fairness or kindness,Understand how behaviors affect the well-being of others,Feel some autonomy in compliance (by experiencing the least coercive control method possible),Retain their belief in the affection and good will of the authority (by experiencing means of control that are nonpunitive, the focus on solving the problem at hand, and that appear to be fair), andMore easily satisfy the norm or expectations (by being taught a needed skill or being given tasks that require less skill or self-control).

Building Warm Teacher-Child Relationship. As stated earlier, we see warm and supportive adult-child relationships as central to the development of a child’s motivation to be concerned about the welfare of others. It is not a simple task for a teacher to establish a personal relationship with each of the thirty-plus students, especially when also charged with maximizing students’ academic learning. In addition to increasing teachers’ awareness of the importance both of the teacher-child relationship and of using information opportunities to talk with students about mutual interest, we recommend that teacher use standard academic learning situations to build these relationships. For example, teachers can introduce stories by telling a related personal experience and inviting students to tell about their own related experiences, writing assignments can be about personal experiences or viewpoints, and children can learn interview skills by interviewing the teacher. In direct contrast to the "don’t smile until Thanksgiving" approach, we advise teachers, especially at the beginning of the year, to take opportunities to perform kind or helpful acts for their students in order to let them know that the teacher is personally concerned about their individual needs.

Developing Children’s Cognitive Moral Understanding. Children have much to learn about what constitutes fairness and kindness and about the reasons for the many rules and procedures necessary for regulating life in a social group. Teachers’ needs to assert their power in order to maintain classroom control will be lessened if the children understand the moral principles that are being enforced.

In addition to offering explanations when stating expectations and correcting misbehavior, teachers can enhance children’s moral understanding by involving them in developing class rules and norms and in the responsibility for seeing that the rules and norms function well. At all grade levels teachers begin the year by asking the children to think about and talk with one another about "the way we want our class to be." The children are specially asked to think about things they do and don’t want to happen in class. The teacher then helps the children see that these things can be fit under a few general norms or values such as "be fair," "don’t hurt," "be kind," and "be responsible." The norms are chosen to be general enough to cover a wide range of behaviors, and thus obviate the need for dozens of prescriptive and proscriptive rules. Regular class meetings are held throughout the year to assess how well the teacher and children are following the norms and, perhaps, to devise some procedures to help in areas where improvement is needed. We see this as a way of increasing children’s understanding of such general values as kindness, fairness, and responsibility and of their application in the school and classroom setting.

Creating a Caring Community. As we argued above, children will be more inclined to adopt the values of their community and respond to community members in a caring way if their own needs are being met. We focus on three psychological needs - autonomycompetence, and belonging. Many different activities go into creating a classroom community that meets or addresses these needs. Each child’s sense of competence, for example, can be enhanced by using individual mastery rather than normative standards to evaluate learning, by avoiding competitive learning techniques such as spelling bees and the public display of differential levels of achievement of individual class members, and by using cooperative learning structures and multiple-ability tasks to help all children find avenues to success.

Personal autonomy is always restricted in a group setting, and the classroom is no exception. However, teachers can satisfy most children’s needs for autonomy by providing opportunities for choice in the timing and content of academic work, by encouraging children to develop and work toward their own personal learning goals, by relying more on explanations than external control to induce children to meet academic and behavioral expectations, and by awakening children’s intrinsic interest in the learning tasks.

In addition to needing a sense of competence and autonomy, children need to interact with the feel understood and liked by their fellow class members. Our program encourages teachers to conduct a number of classroom activities that promote children’s interaction while learning, and to build a sense of belonging and friendly feelings among children. These include cooperative games in which children work together to help one another, activities involving products (such as class books or murals) to which all class members contribute, and partner and small-group activities in which children have opportunities to exchange personal information.

Classroom Control Techniques

While many think of classroom discipline as synonymous with gaining children’s compliance through adult control, control techniques are only part of developmental discipline. In fact, if not exercised with restraint, the use of external control can undermine the development of prosocial motivation. However, the teacher’s careful and respectful exercise of control is a necessary aspect of a classroom in which children acquire a prosocial orientation.

Setting Expectations. We ask teachers to consider both the conditions that cause them to feel a need to exert control and the kinds of control to use when they feel it is needed. Teachers vary in the range of behaviors they feel they must control, and different teachers may react differently to the same student actions (Solomon and Kendall 1975). Often the amount of effort a teacher has to spend exerting control can be lessened by a careful analysis of what behaviors are important to a well-functioning classroom and developmentally appropriate for the particular group of children. We ask teachers to analyze their classroom procedures and expectations with the goals of eliminating unnecessary regulation and adjusting expectations to the developmental levels of the children in the class. Is it necessary that the children complete a learning activity exactly as prescribed? Is it reasonable to expect first-graders to sit quietly for over an hour? For third-graders to keep a class meeting interesting and well-paced? For fifth-graders to handle problems on peer rejection on their own? When control is needed, we recommend that teachers use approaches that will not undermine children’s sense that they are competent, cared for, and autonomous.

Indirect Control. Control can be exercised in several ways. Indirectly, the teacher may organize the environment to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones. Common examples of this type of teacher control are separating the children engaged in noisy tasks form those doing tasks requiring quiet contemplation, eliminating unnecessary distractions, and using a calming activity to help children make the transition from an exciting, energetic activity to a contemplative one. Indirect control is commonly used by effective teachers and is indispensable to maintaining a productive and enjoyable learning environment.

Reminders. A second type of control involves the teacher more directly, but the "force" behind the control is the child’s recognition and acceptance of the teacher as a legitimate authority. This form of control often serves more as a reminder than as a threat. For example, a teacher’s glance or frown can be seen by both teacher and child as a quiet way of reminding the child that he or she is not attending to the task at hand. The exercise of such control implies that the teacher believes that the child shares the underlying understanding and will willingly comply. This type of control implies mutual trust, and when such trust exists in a classroom it can take the place of more coercive forms of control.

Teaching Social Behaviors. A third type of control involves teaching or guiding children to more acceptable ways of behaving. This is similar to the ways teachers respond when children make mistakes in academic areas. For example, a teacher might intervene in an argument by demonstrating more tactful ways of stating opinions, or by suggesting a fairer way to reach an agreement. Such forms of control are often seen by children as helpful rather than coercive. For example, three first-grade children were pushing one another and arguing about who had the right to be first in the lunchroom line. A CDP staff member who was standing by suggested that the children guess a number and whoever was closest would be first. The children agreed, made their guesses, and the argument was settled. The next day, upon seeing the staff member again, one of the children exclaimed, "Hey, I remember you. You’re the lady who helped us solve our problem." This type of control can be an important means of helping children understand and live up to prosocial values, but it can be time consuming and difficult to exercise. It requires that the teacher understand the problem from the children’s perspectives and understand children well enough to know what solutions to suggest or how to help them discover a fair or kind solution.

We believe that three forms of control are key to managing a classroom without an undue reliance or manipulative and power-assertive techniques. We encourage teachers to think of most children misbehavior as they would think of academic errors: as opportunities to teach. What is taught will depend on what skill or knowledge the child appears to be lacking: verbal self-instruction for children lacking in self-control; specific social skills such as being able to explain feelings or resolve conflicts for children lacking in skills; and provision of the moral or practical reason for a rule or expectation for children who do not see its importance.

Power Assertion. Of course, not all misbehavior is the result of children’s lack of knowledge, self-control, or skills. Sometimes children misbehave even when they know better. If such misbehavior is more frequent than can be explained as momentary lapses in effort, we advise the teacher to see if there is some important need that is not being met in the classroom. Is there a warm and trusting relationship with the teacher? Are there sufficient opportunities for autonomy? Are there sufficient opportunities to demonstrate competence? If any of these is lacking for a child, a group of children, or the whole class, the teacher is advised to alter the situation, if possible, to better satisfy the children’s needs. Figure 4-1 [NOT SHOWN] is a chart that we use to help teachers understand the many factors that should be considered in their decisions about whether and how to respond to children’s misbehavior.

While most children can be helped to behave better by the use of these non-power-assertive techniques, some children, for one reason or another, will not respond to them, and it will be necessary to resort to the use of power assertion. Indeed, because time is frequently short in classrooms, and the need for immediate control is sometimes pressing, most teachers occasionally will find it necessary to use power-assertive techniques even with generally well-behaved children. When power assertion is used, we suggest ways to lessen the sense of coercion without lessening the effectiveness of the control.

Coercion is frequently less painful if the child has room for some choice or if the authority figure express sympathy for the child’s situation (Koestner et al. 1984). For example, a teacher can send a disruptive child from the room but allow the child to determine when to return. A teacher may tell a disruptive group that he or she knows it is hard to work quietly, while still insisting on quiet. A child’s sense of self can be preserved even in the face of serious misbehavior if the teacher attributes the best possible motive to the child consistent with the facts, while simultaneously stopping or even punishing the action. The following incident is an example. Some sixth-grade boys while trying to play a practical joke, accidentally broke a girl’s wrist. When the principal had finished explaining to them the pain they had caused the girl, the boys were in tears. The principal told them that he know that they were sorry and that they had not realized the harm they could cause. He then explained that he would have to suspend them from school for a day as a message to them and the community that what they had done was serious. The boys, on their own initiative, brought flowers to the girl. This example illustrates what we regard as constructive approach to the use of power. We do not have a specific formula for its use, but simply advise teachers that when they find it necessary to assert power, they should try to be fair and nonpunitive, and to focus on solving the problem at hand.

The Importance of the Teacher’s View of Children. In the course of training teachers in developmental discipline and providing them with techniques and activities for accomplishing all four of its aspects, we have found that many hold a view of children as self-centered, manipulative, and lazy. If one see children this way, the logical way to prevent or respond to misbehavior is to use threat or punishment, and the logical way to get children to behavior well is to use rewards. We try to help teachers see children not just as self-interested but also as prosocially oriented. If one believes children are interested in learning and want to please and to be fair and kind, then the appropriate response to misbehavior is to find out why the child was not able to do the right thing, and to provide the necessary help. The way to get children to behave well is to be sure they know what is expected, have the skills required, and can see that it is a reasonable, fair, responsible, or kind thing to do.

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