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Positive Classroom Management Series

Positive Classroom Discipline

Chapter 18 - Discipline Management as an Integrated System

Positive Classroom Discipline has described in considerable detail a series of management procedures for dealing with classroom disruptions of almost any shape and size. These procedures have been presented as an integrated management system: a technology based on fundaments which are simple, powerful, and adaptable to the wide range of management dilemmas that characterize a typical day in the classroom. The present chapter attempts to describe more fully the interrelationships between the parts of positive classroom discipline, a careful organization of fundamental skills and procedures rather than a "bag of tricks."



The way teachers talk about solving discipline problems reveals much about our traditional frame of reference for discipline management.


  • What do you do when a student . . . ?

  • That's a neat idea. I can add that to my bag of tricks!

  • Just show me briefly how it's done.


These statements, so common to my ears after years of teacher training, reveal with elegant simplicity the dominant notion held by most educators about how classroom management techniques are mastered.


  • A discipline technique is a reaction to a problem situation.

  • The management of discipline consists of the collection of as many remedies for as many problem situations as possible. You are better off the bigger your bag of tricks.

  • Techniques are simple notions about what to do that can be quickly and easily conveyed by a few words or a quick demonstration.


Such a simplistic view of discipline dooms teachers to be perpetually overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. A roomful of students will always have more tricks up their sleeves than you will have in your bag of tricks. In a week in the classroom any teacher will be faced with a thousand "what do you do if . . . ?" situations. Even if the prescriptions existed, who could learn them all and keep them all straight?


As the years go by, I have developed an increasing aversion to the term "bag of tricks." It characterizes the management of discipline as a hodgepodge of home remedies-a catch-as-catch-can collection of cures for the dilemmas of everyday life in the classroom. When teachers refer to their bag of tricks, they acknowledge that they are out there winging it with anything that they have been able to beg, borrow, or steal over the years.


Unfortunately the term bag of tricks describes rather accurately the lack of any systematic methodology for discipline management in education. Bag of tricks represents to me the antithesis of a modern profession with an empirically based technology of professional practice. A professional, most simply, is a person with highly specialized skills, skills taking years to master which equip that person to do a difficult job that is far beyond the capability of untrained lay people. For having these much-needed and difficult-to-master skills, professionals charge and receive a high price for their services. Teachers refer to each other as professionals, but the general public more frequently thinks of teaching as glorified baby-sitting. Until teachers are masters of a repertoire of specialized, professional-level management skills that clearly set their competencies apart from those of the average parent, teachers will be neither regarded highly nor paid highly by the general public.


Rather than being a bewildering array of home remedies, Positive Classroom Discipline clarifies fundamental vectors of management and defines high level yet basic professional skills and competencies. From this organization of skills and competencies comes the ability to choose between potent management options on the basis of cost-effectiveness rather than perpetually running through the bag of tricks for yet another quick cure or bail-out.



Differential Reinforcement

Most effective behavior management programs must deal with pairs of behaviors. You must systematically strengthen the behavior you want while systematically weakening the competing behaviors that you do not want. A discipline program, for example, should not only eliminate problem behavior, but it should also systematically build the positive behaviors that you want to replace the problems. If problem behaviors are simply eliminated, whatever replaces them will be left to chance. It could be dawdling, or it could be another discipline problem.


Discipline management, therefore, is more appropriately viewed not as the simple suppression of problems but rather as the differential reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, often in conjunction with suppression of the problem. Since most problem behaviors in the classroom are self-rewarding, some suppression is usually needed to eliminate the reinforcement generated by the problem itself, which then competes with the differential reinforcement of appropriate behavior.


Each level of discipline management, therefore, should ideally have both reward and penalty components. The more explicit the reward component, the more predictably positive will be the outcome of an intervention.


The Three-Tiered Management System

Positive Classroom Discipline is composed of three different management methodologies which are integrated to form a three-tier approach to discipline management.


  • Limit-setting

  • Incentive systems

  • Back-up systems


Each of these three methodologies, however, can be properly understood only within the context of the differential reinforcement of appropriate behavior.


Limit-Setting Limit-setting is mild social punishment, and as such it is incomplete. For limit-setting to be in balance, there must be reward. The reward would, of course, be social reward-the positive social interactions between teacher and student that create an informal incentive system. The natural counterpart of limit-setting, therefore, is relationship. Together, limit-setting and relationship building form a tier of the management system which we might best describe as the interpersonal-interactive level of management.


In the interpersonal-interactive level all sanctions, both positive and negative, are delivered as part of the fleeting interpersonal interactions between teacher and student. The teacher's success at the interpersonal- interactional level depends on the social competence of the teacher - his or her accurate assessment of interpersonal situations and spontaneous and effective use of a broad range of social skills and emotions with students of all kinds moment by moment throughout the day.


The effective juxtaposition of positive and negative sanctions during the social exchanges of teacher and student requires a much higher level of precision than we have any right to expect from an untrained teacher. And they require the consistently supportive and successful helping interactions to be described in Positive Classroom Instruction.


Incentive Systems Incentive systems make the exchange of positive and negative sanctions prearranged, explicit, concrete, and public. It is the formalized counterpart of the interpersonal-interactive level of management with positive and negative sanctions being juxtaposed in an analogous fashion.


Incentive systems can be so formalized as to be written in the form of a contract. "Contingency contracting" is a type of individualized behavior modification program in which the quid pro quo of the behavioral exchange is both negotiated and set down in writing. Incentives in business and industry are typically negotiated and written down in the form of a contract, but in education the cost of the negotiation and the giving of individualized reinforcement limits their use to special settings in most cases.


With responsibility training the only thing that may need to be written down is the tally of accumulated PAT. This simple tally, however, is a kind of written contract that keeps the system honest by making the 6ze of the reward accurate (fair) and public. It is axiomatic in parent and teacher training that the first person to break a contract between adult and child is almost always the adult who fails to deliver the agreed-upon reward. It is often innocent: for example, losing track of time while teaching so that there is no time left for PAT. A public record, however, will almost always ensure that PAT happens on schedule. The class will see to that,


One might, therefore, consider incentive systems as the incentive-contractual level of management. Training in the proper use of incentives can be more "bookish" than training at the interpersonal- interactive level. Yet a basic technical understanding of incentive systems is indispensable for teachers, along with a thorough familiarity with the mechanics of some of the more important classroom management procedures. Social skills for implementing responsibility training focus primarily on relaxation and the issue of having fun - especially fun with learning.


Back-up Systems Back-up systems break the pattern of differential reinforcement. Back-up responses are negative sanctions, and the reinforcement of appropriate behavior is left to chance.


The smaller the back-up responses, the more likely it is that differential reinforcement will take place. In the classroom of a nurturant teacher, for example, the use of a small back-up response might be juxtaposed and balanced with warmth and approval for good behavior. Relationship therefore provides the balance for small back-up responses just as it does for limit-setting.


The larger the negative sanction, however, the more difficult it will be to offset penalty with reward. Thus the higher up the back-up system you go, the more unbalanced the management system will become. The more unbalanced the system, the more likely you will be to generate resentment, resistance, and revenge.


Teachers frequently use threat of impending punition, such as the loss of a privilege, to "control" their students.


"All right, class. If you don't settle down and take your seats right now, we are going nowhere when the recess bell rings! Do you understand?"


Almost any social exchange between people creates some kind of incentive system. When threat and loss of privilege are used by themselves, however, they typically signal a teacher who is off-balance and struggling to regain control of a situation that is unraveling. Such attempts at management are shortsighted, and their results are short-lived. Without clear differential reinforcement of appropriate behavior, there is no systematic behavior building, and no answer to the question, "Why should I?" that would produce lasting cooperation. Incentive systems based on punition alone are incentive systems gone awry - stripped of their incentive function. To avoid confusion we will refer to such unbalanced contingency exchanges which focus on penalty alone as "disincentive systems."



  1. Interpersonal-interactive

    • + Informal incentive systems (relationship which includes positive instructional interactions)

    • - Limit-setting

  2. Incentive-contractual (formal incentive systems)

    • A. Simple incentive systems

    • B. Complex incentive systems

      • + Reward/bonus

      • - Penalty

  3. Back-up and containment

    • Punishment, suppression (disincentive systems - penalty only)

      • + (Nothing)

      • - Negative sanctions


Back-up systems, especially those negative sanctions going beyond the relatively innocuous exchanges of small back-up responses, are exercises in disincentive management. The lack of differential reinforcement dooms them to rarely self-eliminate if used repetitively since there is no systematic mechanism to build cooperation and thereby reduce the ongoing reliance on negative sanctions.


Medium back-up responses are an in-between zone in which a nurturant teacher with an effective classroom incentive program can still match penalty with reward to an acceptable degree. A less nurturing teacher who has established little relationship with his or her students will already be "in the hole." By the time large back-up responses are being used with a student on a regular basis, the management system will most likely have become counterproductive.


The differential reinforcement for back-up responses will in most cases have been borrowed or "bootlegged" from level I or level 2 (above). To the extent that you use your back-up system, therefore, you are living on credit. We may only hope that you have plenty of relationship "money in the bank" and that you draw out no more than you have put in. The economics of cooperation, therefore, dictate that you cannot live permanently within your back-up system. You may only visit while you buy time to develop a balanced, reward-based management system.


To a greater or lesser degree the decision to use negative sanctions signals the boundary between generating cooperation and achieving containment at any cost. The most appropriate term for level 3 of discipline management might, therefore, be backup and containment level of management.

The three levels of management might be characterized as shown in "Levels of Discipline Management" above.



Avoiding Negative Sanctions

In a sense positive classroom discipline can be divided into only two parts:


  • Everything you can possibly do to avoid the use of your back-up system

  • Back-up systems


This division of positive classroom discipline accurately reflects the ambivalence and therefore the caution that any educator should have toward the use of negative sanctions in management. The repeated use of negative sanctions in discipline management places all teachers, who continually need the students' cooperation in both behaving properly and learning, into double jeopardy. One of the sad but predictable ironies of discipline management is that the more teachers rely on their back-up system for managing discipline, the less likely they are to effectively build relationship. Not only does the repeated use of negative sanctions kill relationship, but people who naturally favor punition also tend, obviously, to value relationship less and to build and preserve it less. Thus, as negative sanctions are used more often, balance becomes less likely and student resentment overwhelms the will to cooperate.


Most people, however, assume that discipline means punishment and that a bigger discipline problem deserves a bigger punishment. Never mind that the vast majority of the severe discipline problems at any school site are generated by that small minority of the student body that has been the recipient of the largest negative sanctions. Never mind that this pattern perpetuates itself year after year. If something is not working, more of the same must be the cure.


Saving the Loser

The progression in the management of discipline problems from mild negative sanctions for common disruptions to a preference for positive sanctions for extreme disruptions was as much a product of the school of hard knocks as it was a result of theory or values. Classrooms full of emotionally, behaviorally, and learning-handicapped teenagers comprised the crucible in which the ideas of Positive Classroom Discipline were formed.


With regular elementary and secondary students and with behaviorally handicapped elementary students we learned about the incredible power of limit-setting. With behaviorally handicapped secondary students we learned that limit-setting was not enough, even with both the back-up of negative sanctions and the aid of individualized incentive programs. We learned that most alienated teenagers have a life or death commitment to winning any battle for behavioral control waged by adult authorities. In addition, they possess the jaded cockiness of a seasoned veteran in matters of discipline that produces a willingness to "high roll" in the classroom discipline poker game until the stakes are driven to dizzying heights. We learned that we would either come to understand incentive systems well enough to generatecooperation consistently among our alienated teenagers or we would burn out teachers faster than we could matriculate our problems.


The Negative Deadlock What kind of home do you think produces an angry, alienated child? The modal pattern is not as mysterious as one might think. Aggression produces counter-aggression - a continued reliance on management by negative sanctions in conjunction with a shortage of nurturance produces anger and alienation.


To raise a truly angry child, parents must usually start early. Slap the hands of a 9month-old for picking up forbidden objects. Swear in exasperation when the baby spills or smears or drops food on the floor. Admonish your 2-year-old through clenched teeth to 11 act your age!" when he or she fusses and whines in public. Threaten that things will get worse if the child does not learn his or her lesson. Meet the child at his or her emotional level so that you will be able to finally get through to him or her.


The dialogue of force progresses over the years from the terrible twos to the miserable threes to the abominable fours. It is a home where discipline all too often means nagging, threatening, yelling, spanking, criticizing, hitting, demeaning, and endlessly revoking privileges.


  • Get down off that counter top! How many times do I have to tell you before you'll listen! If you don't get down this instant, I'm going to warm your little bottom!

  • Would you shut up when I'm on the phone! I said shut up! Can't you see I'm trying to talk!

  • You get up those stairs right now or I'll give you a reason to move that you'll remember'.

  • This damn kid of mine won't do a thing I ask.


When you grow up with negative sanctions, you grow immune to them through repeated exposure. Your skin is thick, your feelings are defiant, and you take pride in your capacity to absorb punishment and prevail. Therapists often refer to this pattern as the "burned child" syndrome. You learn to fight force with counter force, and you learn to frustrate force with noncompliance. You master the art of passive resistance. Cooperation means capitulation, and you resist that humiliation as long as possible out of resentment and pride.


When these children finally enter the public education system, they will be seasoned veterans in the politics of power - their "school of hard knocks." They have been trained to regard adult authority as arbitrary, capricious, and unjust. And now you, the teacher, are going to ask these children to cooperate and go along with the demands for conformity with the multiplicity of rules, structures, and routines required for organized group activity. You will make more demands for both work completion and rule compliance before lunch than the parents would dare make in an entire day. And we are surprised at the response of a predictable minority?


  • You and your stupid rules!

  • Gimme a break! You're always pickin' on me!

  • This is unfair, I'm not going to do it!

  • Get off my back!


How are we going to cope with their provocations and oppositionism? We are obviously going to have to "use discipline." Use discipline - our age-old stereotype of discipline sneaks up on us again. We will have to get rid of these intolerable behaviors - suppress them - put the lid on. See how easy it is to reach our back-up system in one easy step? When pushed, most teachers and parents instinctively turn to negative sanctions.


Can you ever make it with "burned children" while relying primarily on negative sanctions? Can you ever reach them or turn them around or shape them up using the same control techniques that they grew to hate and learned to overpower? To try to do so produces the same conflicts at school that characterize the home, an endless exchange of force and counter force, a war of attrition characterized by coercion.


And who are the casualties? Will you absorb the stress and punishment endlessly, or will you at some point simply "bounce"? "It's them or me, and it sure as hell isn't going to be me!"


Oh yes it is. Our alienated, burned child has already extracted his or her pound of flesh from you and from a succession of your colleagues. As long as we meet negativism with negative sanctions, force with counter force, we will pay the price of our folly until either these children drop out or the public education system spits them out.


A Philosophy of Punitive Parenting

"That damn kid won't do a thing I ask!" says the distraught, angry parent at his first family therapy session. "The only thing he understands is when I take off my belt!"


"Does it work?" I ask.


"It's the only damn thing that works!"


"It's the only thing that works!" I wonder how many times I have heard that sentence from a parent while wondering each time how they could say it out loud without hearing its sad irony. Things that work solve problems. Things that do not work perpetuate problems. "If it works so well, what do you think has brought you to therapy?" I think to myself.


If I have found any one predictable feature about parents who are deeply locked into a cycle of coercion and counter-coercion with their child, it is a marked failure to appreciate the role of reinforcement-either formal or informal-in generating behavior. It is a lacuna-a blank space in their understanding, a circumscribed ignorance that in many cases is nearly complete. In its more extreme forms it is encased in a series of attributions and rationalizations that form the punitive parent's philosophy of child rearing.


"Hey, listen, I don't buy this reward stuff! You're telling me I'm supposed to give them some kind of payoff or bribe just to get them to do something? Listen, Iexpect them to do things that I ask them to do because I say so. They're living in my house, eating off my table, and I'll be damned if I'll kiss their behinds to get them just to agree to do a few things around the house! Nobody ever offered me any rewards for doing what I was supposed to do when I was growing up!"


Indeed, nobody probably ever did, nor are those parents offering any now, nor in all likelihood will their children when they become parents. It is hard to give what you never got. You must be raised with nurturance, approval, and reward to understand and appreciate them. If you were raised by the scruff of the neck, the notion of reward does not compute, and the feelings and spontaneous responses of nurturance are withered and small. You are doomed to repeat the past to one degree or another because it is you.


And some of these burned individuals become teachers and some become principals. And some are more burned than others, and we are all burned to some degree. If an angry, withholding child meets a teacher cut from the same cloth, we will surely have a "personality conflict." And if an angry, withholding child meets a warm and nurturing teacher, he or she will frustrate that teacher to death. The child will continue to play the "you can't make me" game until the child's game extinguishes or until the teacher's patience runs out or until we somehow skillfully teach that child about nurturance and reward, about giving and receiving.


Lesser Degrees of Oppositionism

"But these alienated students are the few, not the many. They are the lower 5 percent. They are not typical. Most of the discipline problem kids are not 'at war'."


True, not many students qualify as severe cases. But a great many are mild to moderate cases. A few hate school from the beginning and fight authority all the way, but many others will be passive resisters who distinguish themselves by tuning out most of the time with occasional outbursts of squirrelly behavior. Some lose their education with a flourish, but most of the walking wounded lose it by inches.


Yet the lessons learned in the crucible of secondary special education apply to all. A class of alienated teenagers will give you only two choices, learn how to generate cooperation or struggle with enforcement until you burn out. Yet the choices are the same in any classroom. Only the rate of burn-out is different. You cannot write off the lower 5 percent without blinding yourself to the needs of the middle 50 percent. You cannot turn your back on the basic imperative of discipline management to deal constructively with students' negativism. Cooperation based on reward will always be the central issue of discipline management, and limit-setting and penalties will always serve only as a means of allowing appropriate rewards to operate.


Most of us want to give and need only a sophisticated technology to set us free from the continual struggle for control. Some of us only understand control and will struggle with the notion of discipline based on reward. Most of our students want to respond with cooperation based upon affirmation and reward. Some of them respond only to threat and punishment.


For all the students we must learn the lessons of Positive Classroom Discipline. But we must learn our lessons especially well for the sake of the burned child. We must teach such children about rewards and cooperation and nurturance from scratch. Patience and sweetness are not enough - the negative transfer from home is too strong. They will fight us and they will wear us down. We must know our craft well enough to succeed at a price we can afford in spite of their resistance. For these burned students in particular but for all students to some degree we must either master the skills of limit-setting and the technology of incentive systems or be doomed to fight an eternal battle of containment that no one can win.




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