No More Punishment? What Else Is There? Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers

guest post by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. and Kelly Gfroerer, Ph.D.

Dealing with behavior challenges in the classroom is stressful. This can be verified by asking any teacher in any classroom in the world. This stress can often lead to reacting in unhelpful, or even hurtful ways to children. While learning theory and research have long identified the negative results of punishment, many adults don’t know what else to do. Positive Discipline provides a model that takes everyday challenges or misbehaviors and turns these stressful moments into opportunities to teach children the important life skills needed to be successful throughout life.  First let’s talk about why punishment is hurtful and not helpful long term.

Research has shown that there are many well-documented negative effects of punishment, including these long-term beliefs and behaviors that can result in what we call the “Four R’s of Punishment.”

Four R’s of Punishment

Resentment: “This is unfair. I can’t trust adults.”

Rebellion: “I’ll do just the opposite to prove I don’t have to do it their way.”

Revenge: “They are winning now, but I’ll get even.”

Retreat: This can come in the form of sneakiness (“I won’t get caught next time.”) or reduced self-esteem (“I am a bad person.”).

In Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers, we share that many adults mistakenly believe that if they don’t use punishment, their only alternative is to be permissive. Permissiveness, however, can be just as damaging. Permissiveness does not provide the structure nor the accountability children need. Permissiveness invites children to develop mistaken beliefs like: “I should be able to do whatever I want,” or “I need you to take care of me because I’m not capable of responsibility,”

So, if punishment and permissiveness are out, what else is there?  Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers provide 52 classroom management tools that teach students social and emotional life skills and follow the Five Criteria for Positive Discipline.

Five Criteria for Positive Discipline

  1. Helps children feel a sense of connection, belonging, and significance
  2. Is kind and firm at the same time
  3. Is effective long-term
  4. Teaches valuable social and life skills for good character: fostering
    respect, concern for others, problem-solving skills, cooperation
  5. Invites children to discover how capable they are and to use them
    power constructively to contribute in social settings

Let’s take a closer look at each of these criteria.

  1. The primary reason children misbehave is that they do not feel a sense of belonging (connection) and seek “mistaken ways” to find belonging or seek revenge for not having it.
  2. Children need rules and boundaries. And, they are more open to cooperation when these rules are stated and/or enforced kindly, as well as firmly. Even better is when children are involved in finding solutions to challenges—which is emphasized in the last 3 criteria.
  3. Positive Discipline tools are effective long term because they address the need to belong when children are involved in finding solutions through class meetings or in the may other tools that focus on solutions.
  4. and 5. Children learn these valuable social and life skills by practicing them on a daily basis when they are involved in the process.

Forbes magazines reported on the success of using Positive Discipline as an alternative to punishment and how businesses could learn from this. Jim Sporleder, a principal at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington was inspired by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study and Centers for Disease Control and decided to use Positive Discipline instead of punishment with “misbehaving” students. Here are some of the results:

2009–2010 (before the new approach) 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)

2010–2011 (after the new approach) 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)

Three years later, the number of fights at Lincoln Alternative High School had gone down by 75 percent and the graduation rate had increased fivefold.

Positive Discipline is based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs. The Lincoln Alternative High School findings support what these psychiatrists advocated for many decades ago. Adler and Dreikurs were the first to focus on psychology in the classroom. They saw democratic leadership focused on kind and firm classroom management, not rewards and punishment, as the key to developing long term academic, social, and emotional success.

Many educators and parents have struggled with this paradigm shift from autocratic to democratic leadership for some time now. However, teachers and parents report that making this shift actually makes things easier over time because kids learn the necessary life skills to control their own behavior, contribute to the needs of the group, and show respect to others on a consistent basis.

When teachers use Positive Discipline tools like Focus on Solutions, Wheel of Choice, Class Meetings, Encouragement, and more—students develop internal motivation to work with others cooperative to solve problems for the good of all. Our vision is developing respectful, responsible, and resourceful citizens.

Punishment not only doesn’t work, it hurts relationships and is exhausting and discouraging to implement. Remember the 4 R’s of punishment.  Even if it looks like you achieved results in the short term, research shows the punished child will resent, rebel, get revenge and/or retreat. These long-term negative effects work against building relationships based on mutual respect and trust.  Positive Discipline is not about allowing your students to “get away” with misbehavior, it is about teaching skills for focusing on solutions to challenging behavior instead of making students “pay” for what they did. Teaching life skills to develop respectful, responsible, resourceful citizens is the long-term goal.

Kelly Gfroerer, PhD is Executive Director of the Positive Discipline Association and a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 2 decades of experience as a teacher, school counselor, and educational consultant. She is also the co-author of  Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers, and Positive Discipline in the Classroom Teacher Tool Cards, which provide practical, easy to implement classroom management tools that teach social emotional life skills. To learn more about Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers? Go to:

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