Discipline: A fresh look

Of the many problems faced by teachers – especially new teachers, the maintenance of discipline in the classroom seems to be the most pressing. This article looks at  'discipline' and ways in which teachers can guide their students towards constructive behaviour. 

It was Sheila’s first teaching assignment. She had never taught before – at least not to so many students. It was different during her training period. The class was told that she was a trainee and therefore they were expected to cooperate. Also, the class teacher sat in the class so the students never really got out of hand. But now it was going to be totally different and new.  She was the sole captain of the ship with no one to assist her in crisis. She was a little nervous. What should her approach be? Should she be stern and strict – adopting a no-nonsense attitude? Would that put them in place and inform them that she meant business? Or should she be a little kind and considerate?

Of the many problems faced by teachers – especially new teachers, the maintenance of discipline in the classroom seems to be the most pressing. Even though a new teacher can efficiently teach a given lesson, it sometimes becomes quite a problem to settle down some thirty-five youngsters who are all at once bent on talking, moving around, and generally doing everything except what they are asked to do! Most often, the teacher finds it easier to resort to autocratic classroom management.

Research has shown that very frequently children become apathetic when faced with repressive classroom control. They comply but they do only what is necessary to avoid punishment. What has been brought about is a change in the surface behaviour only, and not in the basic attitudes as would be necessary if good behaviour is to be made self-sustaining. Some changes have actually taken place in the basic attitudes but these changes have been essentially for the worse: dislike for school, the subject, the teacher, to name a few.

If the children are to live in a democratic society, they must be given the freedom to make decisions and occasional mistakes too. But autocratic classroom management is based on the tenet of conformity and obedience. The two viewpoints are diametrically opposed and cannot coexist.

Discipline means many things to many people. In this article, discipline is used in the sense of orderliness through self-control and self-direction. In this sense, discipline is equivalent to planning, for instance, where it is decided that we must drive on the left side of the road. As such discipline becomes a matter of public convenience and necessity which saves the confusion that would result from everyone making individual decisions in a given situation. And it is only because, at times, the child does not see this necessity that discipline in the sense of rules must exist everywhere – on the street, at home, in the classroom, and on the playground. Enforcement of rules is necessary for efficient living. It is obvious to everyone what would happen if all rules were to be suspended – chaos. So discipline is constructive. But much of the discipline found in our schools deters the children from misbehaviour without helping them acquire desirable attitudes and behaviour. In fact, too often discipline is just plain vindictive or retributive.

In the classroom, as well as at home and in the community, the children frequently find themselves face-to-face with rules not clear to them. Also, judging by the fact that they are often not enforced, the children think that laws are something to be violated or something that adults put together for the sole purpose of catching them off guard.

Usually it is difficult to set down a set of regulations that apply in all cases. For instance, the rule of silence in the classrooms is, on the whole, sound – yet it might interfere with efficient operation when the class is working on some projects. But good behaviour could be developed by cultivating attitudes that will lead the children to do what is ‘right’ in a given situation.

Let us examine a specific problem that might arise in a classroom. What should a teacher do when a child misbehaves in a class?

Generally all behaviour – including misbehaviour – is an attempt at satisfying needs. Children who misbehave have apparently learnt from past experiences to gratify their needs through misbehaviour and are therefore in need of help to find more suitable outlets for the satisfaction of these needs. Such children may have found that they could gain status among their peers by annoying the teacher. In such instances, instead of resorting to autocratic methods of control, the teacher should study the reasons causing such behaviour.

This may call for a certain amount of diagnostic work on the part of the teacher as well as trial and error on the part of the child (in a permissive environment). Questions such as ‘What need is the child trying to satisfy through misbehaviour? How could the child do the same thing in a better way?’ are in order. This may be long and tedious but there is no shortcut. Some children would like to cooperate but cannot since cooperation with the teacher would involve rejection by the group. Sometimes, they might find the gamble involved in misbehaving interesting – in fact, it may be the only relief they have from the monotony of an unsuitable curriculum.  The teacher can explore alternate ways of guiding children towards constructive behaviour. One way is not to give attention to disruptive behaviour, and reward immediately any positive, constructive behaviour of such children. Also, the teacher can find out the aptitudes of the children and encourage them to channelize their energies in that direction. If the teacher is sensitive and alert to the needs of the children and helps them work constructively towards the satisfaction of these needs, misbehaviour could be largely eliminated. 


This article first appeared in Teacher Plus, Issue No. 50, September-October 1997 and has been adapted here with changes.

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