Positive Discipline Focuses on a Culture of Learning

Kentucky's Jefferson County school district uses nonpunitive measures to encourage good behavior.

Kentucky's Jefferson County school district uses nonpunitive measures to encourage good behavior.

VIDEO: Positive Discipline Strategies Yield Quick Results

Running Time: 05:26 min.

As they work to reshape school culture and equip students with strong social and emotional skills, educators in Jefferson County Public Schools have shifted to a constructive, nonpunitive approach to discipline. Classroom management, designed to be both positive and educational, is a key part of CARE for Kids, the social and emotional learning initiative in its second year throughout the Louisville, Kentucky district.

"This strategy changes teachers from being punitive to really helping kids -- and adults too -- examine why something happened, and then consider what we can do to make it right and to make sure it doesn't happen again," says Penny Deatrick, principal of Jefferson County's Chenoweth Elementary School.

The CARE for Kids approach, called "developmental discipline," is based on work by the Northeast Foundation for Children, Developmental Studies Center, and the Minnesota-based nonprofit Origins. It shares some ideas and practices with the positive discipline approach, essentially shifting classroom dynamics so that educators share power and control with students.

The district's training materials explain that this "teaches students necessary skills and gives them new responsibilities when they are ready to handle them." Specifically, CARE for Kids recommends that teachers employ proactive and reactive strategies for optimum results.

Proactive steps, applied before a problem occurs, require teachers to:

  • build strong relationships with children, taking care to get to know them academically and personally;
  • respect each child and empower him or her to be a significant member of the classroom community;
  • work with students to collaboratively create classroom rules and expectations;
  • use encouraging language to remind children of expectations and support their success. (Ideally, this language should reinforce, remind, and redirect students, rather than condemn them, and focus specifically on the deed, not the doer.)

Reactive steps, taken when a problem arises, ask teachers to:

  • choose "logical consequences to help students fix mistakes and regain self-control;"
  • practice mutual problem solving as a tool to learn from mistakes and develop skills.

"One of the common mistakes about this approach is to think it's permissive," says Paula Denton, director of program development and delivery at the Northeast Foundation for Children and co-author of The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn, a text used in CARE for Kids training. "To be respectful of children is not the same as being permissive. We need to help them stay on track, but we need to help them in a way that's positive and supportive of their autonomy."

Problem Solving, Not Punishment

Jefferson County Superintendent Sheldon Berman explains that logical consequences for misbehavior should directly relate to the offense, and help the child learn how to do better next time. "For example, take an incident where a student pushes another student," he says. "You might say, 'Let's give that student a detention so they have to stay after school.' But that isn't a direct consequence. The student doesn't necessarily learn anything from that. The appropriate consequence may be to write a letter of apology."

Teachers and principals in Jefferson County are increasingly coaching children to solve their own problems, using constructive, rather than punitive language, and pushing them to think of better solutions. Pat Gausepohl, principal of Carrithers Middle School, says that when she handles student conflicts today, "I talk to them. I ask each student to tell me what happened, and ask each to listen to the other's answer. I ask, 'What sounds different? How could this have been prevented?'" She knew the approach was working when one kid who had been hit recently said, "I caused this."

At the middle school level, when students act out and need time to settle down, teachers put them in short Take a Break, or TAB sessions, like timeouts, in a quiet corner of the room. If a student needs more serious down time, teachers can send him to a colleague's classroom -- a TAB-out session, or "buddy room." (See the Edutopia.org video referenced above.)

Typically, the buddy teacher will quickly check in with the child, get him started writing his reflections on his behavior, and then carry on with class. For children with the most severe behavior problems, schools still use suspensions as a last resort.

Changing the language they use with students is what Jefferson County educators identify as the hardest part of CARE for Kids, because it's the most subtle and personal. The distinctions can be as fine as saying "Walk" to a running child instead of admonishing him with a more typical, "Don't run."

Return on Investment

Between all the class meetings and proactive measures involved in CARE for Kids, "You may look at the schedule and wonder how can you devote that much time to it," says Deatrick. "But the time you save in the long run, not having to stop and deal with behavior problems on a continual basis -- you get that time back."

Teachers in multiple Jefferson County schools agree. The improvement in students' behavior means they actually get more instruction time, not less, in the end. And the numbers show that discipline incidents have dropped by as much as 50 percent in some schools since CARE for Kids began.

There have been academic boosts, as well, which Jefferson County educators believe are a result of CARE for Kids, though they can't prove it for sure. A University of Virginia study in 2004 found that children in schools using Responsive Classroom, the Northeast Foundation for Children method on which CARE for Kids is partly based, showed bigger gains in reading and math test scores than at other schools. Teachers also felt more effective at their jobs and students felt more positive about school.

A small case in point: One afternoon at Chenoweth, a boy got upset with a classmate while his fourth-grade class was gathering in a circle. "He spit on me!" the boy exclaimed. Then he turned and sat down on the far side of the circle from the offender, to cool down, quietly ending the incident. Deatrick explained later how much that boy's self-control meant; three years ago, her staff had to physically restrain him two or three times a week.

One of the last frontiers of this discipline strategy is building up students' internal motivations for good behavior, rather than relying on external punishments and rewards. For instance, the idea is that a child would wait his turn to talk not because it will earn his class points toward a pizza party, but because he feels good about helping to keep an orderly, respectful classroom.

This is a hard change to make; it involves a shift in age-old traditions of how to negotiate and reward children. So Jefferson County educators are just beginning, and they predict it will take years to complete that change.

"Our whole hope is that we can create kids who have values," says Darren Atkinson, a sixth-grade science instructor and the CARE for Kids teacher leader at Carrithers. "So they're not acting out of fear of being caught. Instead, they are behaving a certain way because it's the right thing to do."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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This article originally published on 12/23/2009

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Comments (3)

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teacher elementary

I agree with ALMOST all of

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I agree with ALMOST all of this. I have been an educator for over 20 years and have seen elements of the above in many different programs throughout the years. However, I would like to add my 2 cents about the "letter of apology" for pushing or some other aggressive act. Sometimes that is too passive of a consequence. Students learn that if they say the right words, whether through a verbal or written apology, that just puts a band-aid on the action. I would go a step further and have the students involved actually spend some time together...maybe eat lunch with the teacher, work on a puzzle together or some computer time.

President, Developmental Studies Center, Oakland CA

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Developmental Discipline was created by the Developmental Studies Center and was originally adopted in two Louisville schools in 1992. It subsequently was disseminated to other schools. Its longevity is testament to its effectiveness. Happily, Superintendent Berman saw its value and incorporated it in the Care For Kids initiative.
Eric Schaps

Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

Sometimes treating students like people serves everybody best!

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Instant disclaimer: My students are older, so relating to them is a bit easier than, say, fourth grade students. I have found that relating to, or at least trying to, my crew makes life easier, more interesting and certainly more rewarding for everybody. Have an issue? Let's discuss it. Or before issues ever arise, discuss the relevance to why we do it. No arbitrary exercises in futility for the students and frustration for the instructor.
Perfect example? Bathroom passes. "Use less than 5 and get extra credit." Seriously? I have worked my entire adult years and have never had to present a pass, let alone make excuses as to why I should be allowed to go, nor have I ever received a pay raise for not going to the bathroom. Do ground guiding principles (lie those that would be found in an employee handbook)need to be explained at the onset? Absolutely. Do students need to be treated like an unruly lot? No. They will appreciate the trust and you will value the independence they exercise. Do some push the limits? Of course. Address it, move on; problem solving in an authentic environment.

I am an instructor in a technical high school, so we are preparing our students to meet the demands of various industries. Make it real, illustrate the value of everything (from keeping an appropriate appearance, to interpersonal communications) and the value is intrinsic. Why not the same for classroom management? In my class we call it professionalism.

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