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Discipline: the Scribner dictionary furnishes six definitions for discipline.

  1. Training that molds, corrects or perfects…
  2. Orderly, obedient, or restrained conduct; self control; self-restraint…
  3. Acceptance of or submission to authority and control order…
  4. Punishment given to train or correct; chastisement….
  5. Branch of instruction or knowledge; field of study…
  6. Set or system of rules for conduct.

A sense of ‘control’ is apparent in all of the definitions; but the locus of control changes depending on whether one uses discipline as a noun or a verb. The fourth definition seem to indicate that one is providing control for another, which means I will discipline you [a verb]. Number one indicates the use of training as the process of helping persons gain discipline [a noun].

Some might argue that punishment as suggested by number four is really a method of training. We would argue that both the intention and the outcome would be flawed if this were indeed the case. Beneficence is one of the three basic ethical goals of The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects. The others are respect for person and justice.

Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm. But also by making efforts to secure their well being. The term “beneficence” is often understood to cover acts of kindness or charity that go beyond strict obligation. In this document, beneficence is understood in a stronger sense, as an obligation. Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent action in this sense: (1) do no harm and (2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.

When using punishment for purposes of discipline, two basic questions must be answered: 1. Is it effective? 2. Is it ethical? The literature on punishment suggests that it not only does not work, but that it leads to increasing violence. Kauffman (1993) for example states that: “The punishment of children by adults may result in aggression when it causes pain, when there are no positive alternatives to the punished behavior, when punishment is delayed or inconsistent, or when punishment provides a model of aggressive behavior.” (p. 321)

Even if effective; can punishment be ethical? Where is the beneficence? Punishment can only be considered to be an ethical method when it can be demonstrated that there is a beneficial effect; when it is respectful of the individual being punished, and when it is fair and equitable. School personnel often ignore the issues of benefit and respect for person and discuss only the last of these prerequisites. In those discussions they often fail to understand that fairness is more connected to equitability than to equality. Punishment of all participants of an act equally is often unfair. However, it is easier to defend. Punishment may have the desired effect of reducing unacceptable behavior and may even provide a basis for the person to learn to control his/her behavior. However, such an outcome based on fear is likely to ephemeral.


The question of management of antisocial behavior in the schools seems logically to be of the first order. It is difficult for students to learn and for teachers to teach when disruptive behavior occurs. Unless, of course, such disruption is seen as the teachable moment that it is. There is a vast difference between disciplining some other person and teaching that other person discipline. There is a change in locus of responsibility that separates these statements.

To provide training that molds or perfects the student’s understanding of appropriate behavior and helps that student restrain their conduct and choose to accept the control order of the school and the authority of the staff.

To suggest that the present methods of discipline in home, school and community are inadequate is to understate the problem. “Aggressive and violent behaviors are increasing among children and youth in America’s schools. Although many children and adolescents occasionally exhibit aggressive and sometimes antisocial behaviors in the course of development, an alarming increase is taking place in the significant number of youth who confront their parents, teachers and schools with persistent threatening and destructive behaviors” [Rutherford & Nelson – 1995].

The problem is so acute that the Goals 2000: Educate America Act has as one of its eight National Education Goals that “Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.” In the past, we would have assumed that this was so; now we must plan to make it so.

The Office of Special Education Programs in its National Agenda for Achieving Better Results for Children and Youth with Serious Emotional Disturbance states the problem this way. “Effectively serving and meeting the needs of children and youth with serious emotional disturbance [SED] and their families is a national concern.”

Such concerns it seems are supported by teachers and principals everywhere. Yet we seem to be unable to ‘control’ our children; and that may be the problem. To control another person is qualitatively quite different than teaching that person how to control themselves. This locus of control is the significant factor in selecting different approaches to managing aggressive and violent behavior in the schools. This does not imply the avoidance of using authority in holding offenders accountable. Limits and accountability are essential ingredients in motivating offender change. But one must use authority constructively, not punitively. This requires a clear definition of limits and expectations as well as an articulation of progressive disciplinary action. “The offender is then challenged to make a conscious and deliberate choice: to accept these limits and conditions and participate, or reject them and not participate. The key is to place the responsibility and the power for making a choice on the offender….” [Cognitive Programs in Corrections].


The identification of responsibility raises some intriguing and important questions about how we pursue the matter of discipline and what we believe about behaviors in general. In order to explore these issues, it might be helpful to begin to carve out some differences between social [or prosocial] and asocial [or antisocial] behaviors. The distinction is not as clear as one might think.

We can begin our approach by listing some of those behaviors that we can all agree are generally unacceptable, like lying, cheating, stealing, damaging property, or assaulting either physically or verbally, another person. After creating such a list, we probably notice, that it is not just the behavior that makes unacceptability, but context as well. Thus, if a man steals bread to feed his starving children, we are more likely to accept this as reasonable than if he steals bread from starving children. Likewise, a ‘white lie’ regarding someone’s unusual hair style in order to avoid embarrassment, is often considered tactful, rather than negative.

There is a potential excuse for all of these behaviors that make them at least tolerable. S/he didn’t understand, s/he was provoked, s/he comes from a “bad” family, etc., etc.. It is this question of context that creates difficulty.

For the sake of argument, we could develop a two-sided chart [see figure 1]. Along one side we indicate behavior and along the bottom reasons.

| /
Behaviors | /
| /
| /
Figure 1

We might have a series of reasons that identify socially acceptable circumstance [like “white lies”] which justify the behaviors. But we will probably quickly find two other types of excuses. The first being ‘the environment’. Because of bad upbringing, abuse, neglect, and the like “it is no wonder that the person responds in such a fashion”. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The other set has to do with the emotions of anxiety, fear, anger and attachment that lead to such mental states as depression, panic, phobia, paranoia, opposition, defiance, obsession and compulsion. Certainly a person with such odd emotions cannot be held responsible for their behavior. Such people are ‘driven’, not driving. They are responding to a demon, disease or psychological drive that was unresolved in childhood.

Thus our figure could have on the left side knowing and willing behaviors and across the bottom unknowing and unwilling behaviors. Somewhere, at a point at the top, right corner, there must exists a point which when connected to the bottom, left corner with a dotted line would indicate the separation between “delinquent” and “mental health” behaviors. The actual behaviors may be the same, but the context [explanatory reason] is different. Just where that dotted line exists is almost impossible to get agreement on. Some, for example, would put self-abuse such as use of substance such as tobacco, alcohol or cocaine as a knowing, willing behavior and others would not. How about tattoos and body piercing?

Regardless of the ‘reason’ for the behavior, we can probably all agree that the action taken is not the only, or even the best, option available. My children may be starving, but must I steal? Are there other options that I might use to achieve the goal of feeding them? Or if I hear a voice telling me to kill myself or someone else; must I obey? What options I have might only be limited by my imagination and creativity?

Essentially, the reasons that professionals give for behavior fall into four categories: I behave the way I do because of a pathology [which can be either 1) biological or 2) psychological, because of the way I was and am treated 3) behavioral, or because I want to act this way because I believe it is in my best interest and I gain certain reinforcement, 4) cognitive, based on the ‘inner logic’. Almost all of us, when talking about ourselves [unless, of course, we are in deep trouble and need an excuse] understand that we did what we did, good or bad, because it seemed the right thing to do at the time. Whether it actually was the right thing to do depends a great deal on how effective it was in achieving our goals. If it satisfied or gratified our needs and did not bring about negative consequences, we usually decide that it was effective and would use it again. If we have had strong upbringing in regard to moral positions, a seemingly effective action may be spoiled by our own reactions of guilt. As Lord MacCauly pointed out the essence of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew no one would find out.

One of the outcomes of ‘tolerance’ of antisocial behaviors because of the many ‘reasons’ we can identify, is that it becomes appropriate to do “whatever the market will bear” – meaning whatever we can get away with. The voice of morality is muted by tolerance of a ‘cause’.

A second outcome is that we apply the ‘reason’ [label] to the people who do the behaviors rather than examine their options.

A third outcome is connected to “whose decision is it”. As to whether the action is a delinquent or mental health or ‘normal’ action. Dr. Drummond, a psychiatrist himself, is not the first or the last to explore this issue, but he says it quite eloquently.

To understand patienthood, perhaps we should begin with the psychiatric labeling process, which justifies and professionalize disempowerment. Volumes of research have been done to demonstrate the absolute unreliability of psychiatric diagnosis. The only consistent pattern is that the more the doctor likes the patient, which by and large means the closer they are in social class, the more likely he is to diagnose the patient as neurotic rather than psychotic. Poor people, blacks and Hispanics are quickly labeled psychotic or character-disordered for the same behavior that earns white, middle class patients the label neurotic [i.e.. relatively healthy].

Like the rest of us, psychiatrists tend to see people from their own image. Mental instability is certainly not me or people like me. Few psychiatrist or other mental health professionals understand emotionally, not just intellectually, the ‘streets’. Carrying a gun for protection, punching someone threatening, etc., may be survival skills, not ‘abnormal’ behavior. It is easy to sit in an ivory tower and tell kids not to fight, if fighting is not a part of your life. Attention deficit hyperactive disorder [ADHD] was made for Afro-American boys from the city. One could decide that they were alert, kinetically intelligent kids, but that does not fit well with our expectation of pathology.

A final outcome is of course, whose problem is it? So often we find that the behavior does not disturb the actor, but someone else around him or her. As long as the behavior is accepted by the individual him/herself, the problem becomes someone else’s problem. Thus, the need to control becomes apparent.

Dr. Gibbs, a psychologist, raises an interesting question in a wonderful little article called “Is Help Helpful?”. Since people in the service professions see themselves as primarily engaged in the job of helping others are their endeavors helpful? The question does not only cover the idea that the recipient see the help as useful, or that the help leads to greater satisfaction or better performance but also suggests that help ought to meet a more rigorous criterion – help should lead to continued growth on the part of the participants.

When we pursue this question from the perspective of pathology as the reason for behavior, we find that we [the helpers] must control the behavior of the unfortunate person because they are not responsible for themselves. Since they are unwillingly committing these behaviors, they obviously should be grateful to us. But this has not always been the case. Often such control requires “doing things for the person’s own good”, regardless of what they want. This tends to require either that we help people acquire ‘helplessness’ or we restrict and restrain them. While we have become fairly successful at teaching helplessness, we continue to have people who resist.

Follow the dotted line – first we believe that these people are not responsible, then we confront them with methods of control, and then they resist. Is this help helpful? We discipline them because we do not believe they can learn discipline.

What if we make a different fundamental assumption and say that, despite it all, each person is responsible for his or her own behavior? The traditional response also leads to control – since you know what you are doing and it is offensive, there must be retribution in the form of punishment. This would seem to properly reinforce social expectations.


If people behave they way they do because they want to, we are still left with the question of why? We would suggest that people always act in a manner that they believe is in their own best interest and is consistent with their mental schema.

Thinking controls behavior is the underlying principle of all cognitive change programs. If this basic assumption is accepted, it requires that schools try to find ways to influence the thinking of the individual students. This is a basic ingredient of all education, and the process is one with which teachers are familiar: modeling, behavior rehearsal, feedback and evaluation. These components are included in all cognitive training whether they are school wide approaches at changing the culture to a prosocial one or individual cognitive restructuring.

The most difficult aspect of the change is in the modeling. If we accept our premise that thinking controls behavior, we must start by changing the thinking of the school personnel. If staff believe that they are required to control students and that failure to do so will a) be detrimental to the student and b) be detrimental to their career; it will be very difficult for them to model a different kind of behavior. Two issues are connected to this modeling, first is clarity of [social] content to be modeled and second, concerns the symbols that are used to convey ideas from ourselves to others.

These symbols are at once salient and ambiguous. The power of words is so significant that one observer [Pinker] compares the ability to influence the mind of another with magic. As memes [a gene comparison] or viruses, propositions affect the way other individual people think and evolve as the ambiguities are explored.

The ambiguity of language can be explored though self referential statements such as “This sentence is false.” Of course if it is false, the sentence is true. Such dilemmas are only escalated by the various definitions of a word like spring [a coil], spring [leap], spring [a water hole], Spring [as season]. Only context can provide guidance.

Thus the primary way in which teachers relate to students is contingent upon a powerful, but ambiguous process. While this may be difficult within academic content areas, it is exacerbated when dealing with social issues. Social context is much less rigorous and a misconstruing of words can have a dramatic impact. “You are bad” and “That [action] was bad” are very different messages.

Thus not only the symbols being used but the method of using them must also be addressed. If one uses word symbols with the intent of controlling how a student should behave, rather than offering options about how they might behave; the message is quite different. Problem solving is a major skill in social integration. Problem solving requires imagination. Imagination can be blunted by direction.

This is not to suggest that student don’t occasionally need direction, but they also need opportunity to consider options. What alternative behaviors might they take in a given situation? Students who perceive a significant number of options are more likely to be able to constrain their behavior. Automatic thoughts, a common cognitive error, is a habitual use of one option without consideration of others. Teachers as well as students are prone to such habits. Enlargement of optional considerations is a significant element of cognitive behavior management.

In dealing with the teacher’s own belief system, one significant element will need to be addressed. While it is probably acceptable to offer students options and choices, it is difficult to deal with significant options when you have little experience in making choices. Since many children do not developmentally acquire a decision-making capacity, one ought not start with choices with high emotional value such as those choices that arise in the midst of a “disciplinary problem”. The school will need to provide both a culture that teaches decision-making on all levels and a development curriculum. Both of cultural and developmental models are readily available.

For learning one way to use disciple as a noun check out the Advantage Press, Resources for Better Schools, Individual Behavior Learning Packets.