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Discipline and School Spirit

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Summer is a good time for reflection, and I have been reflecting on why, after so much education research, and so many years of educational practice, we still seem to be struggling to find "what works." So my next two blogs will look back at the words of folks who have thought about social-emotional aspects of education, written about them, and created successful and effective efforts to promote them.

Here is what John Dewey wrote in 1915, almost a century ago, in Chapter One of The School and Society. I have added italics to denote those parts of Dewey's message most relevant to discipline and school spirit:

"A society is a number of people held together because they are working along common lines, in a common spirit, and with reference to common aims. The common needs and aims demand a growing interchange of thought and growing unity of sympathetic feeling. The radical reason that the present school cannot organize itself as a natural social unit is because just this element of common and productive activity is absent. Upon the playground, in game and sport, social organization takes place spontaneously and inevitably. There is something to do, some activity to be carried on, requiring natural divisions of labor, selection of leaders and followers, mutual cooperation and emulation. In the schoolroom the motive and the cement of social organization are alike wanting. Upon the ethical side, the tragic weakness of the present school is that it endeavors to prepare future members of the social order in a medium in which the conditions of the social spirit are eminently wanting.

The difference that appears when occupations are made the articulating centers of school life is not easy to describe in words; it is a difference in motive, of spirit and atmosphere. As one enters a busy kitchen in which a group of children are actively engaged in the preparation of food, the psychological difference, the change from more or less passive and inert recipiency and restraint to one of buoyant outgoing energy, is so obvious as fairly to strike one in the face. Indeed, to those whose image of the school is rigidly set the change is sure to give a shock. But the change in the social attitude is equally marked. The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat. Indeed, almost the only measure for success is a competitive one, in the bad sense of that term -- a comparison of results in the recitation or in the examination to see which child has succeeded in getting ahead of others in storing up, in accumulating the maximum of information. So thoroughly is this the prevalent atmosphere that for one child to help another in his task has become a school crime. Where the school work consists in simply learning lessons, mutual assistance, instead of being the most natural form of cooperation and association, becomes a clandestine effort to relieve one's neighbor of his proper duties. Where active work is going on all this is changed. Helping others, instead of being a form of charity which impoverishes the recipient, is simply an aid in setting free the powers and furthering the impulse of the one helped. A spirit of free communication, of interchange of ideas, suggestions, results, both successes and failures of previous experiences, becomes the dominating note of the recitation. So far as emulation enters in, it is in the comparison of individuals, not with regard to the quantity of information personally absorbed, but with reference to the quality of work done -- the genuine community standard of value. In an informal but all the more pervasive way, the school life organizes itself on a social basis.

Within this organization is found the principle of school discipline or order. Of course, order is simply a thing which is relative to an end. If you have the end in view of forty or fifty children learning certain set lessons, to be recited to a teacher, your discipline must be devoted to securing that result. But if the end in view is the development of a spirit of social cooperation and community life, discipline must grow out of and be relative to this. There is little order of one sort where things are in process of construction; there is a certain disorder in any busy workshop; there is not silence; persons are not engaged in maintaining certain fixed physical postures; their arms are not folded; they are not holding their books thus and so. They are doing a variety of things, and there is the confusion, the bustle, that results from activity. But out of occupation, out of doing things that are to produce results, and out of doing these in a social and cooperative way, there is born a discipline of its own kind and type. Our whole conception of school discipline changes when we get this point of view. In critical moments we all realize that the only discipline that stands by us, the only training that becomes intuition, is that got through life itself. That we learn from experience, and from books or the sayings of others only as they are related to experience, are not mere phrases. But the school has been so set apart, so isolated from the ordinary conditions and motives of life' that the place where children are sent for discipline is the one place in the world where it is most difficult to get experience.

Looking Forward

We are now rediscovering project-based learning, the importance of the school climate, why all students want and need a sense of purpose and accomplishment when they attend school, and how discipline problems are a byproduct of lack of engagement in school, and/or forcing students to be engaged in the uninteresting and non-involving. We see how character and social-emotional competence emerge not from instruction, or instruction alone, but from a classroom and school structure that calls forth values and behaviors of leadership, cooperation, mutual respect, consideration, self-control, teamwork, listening, and constructive problem solving and ethical decision making. A school that prepares students for academic and life success has a democratic, inclusive spirit. Indeed, the spirit, or climate, of a school is greater than the sum of its parts.

These are principles we have known since 1915 -- actually, from well before that. But they have not yet become integrated into best practice, or standard practice. Sometimes we seem to be moving in the direction Dewey decries. It is up to all of us to know, stand up for, and do what is right for our students.

Photo credit: dragoncheer via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Well said, Maurice. Thank you for your article. A few simple things have worked for me in my special education classroom, full of kids who not only struggle with school responsibilities, but with daily life and relationships with everyone.

Pat them on the back. Literally pat them on the back and say "I'm proud of you" with extreme sincerity and loud enough where they hear you

Learn early on in the school year what they like ... and learn a bit about it. It may be a certain rock band or a certain skate shoe. Engage them on those things from time to time ... sincerely

Toss a piece of candy across the room as a reward for a good question ... or for just saying "Yes, sir" ... or just for using manners. Bribing kids with candy as a reward for good behavior is okay with me, because it works

Never give up ... keep doing these and all other things as you know in your teacher's heart this ain't a sprint's an Olympic marathon under, sometimes, the toughest conditions

Walk around your classroom ... get in their space, but with respect ... so they'll know you're energetic, aware, involved, alive

Show them you care. A cheesy saying, I know ... but IT WILL WORK OVER TIME. Ignore the moments when you get blazing disrespect back, because it ain't personal, even though it feels like it!

Teach on! Never give up!

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

When class ends and they're walking out, stand at the door and say something encouraging and personal to each student. Even if you've got 342 kids filing out this is a tremendous gesture ... for them and you.

For you ... it keeps you sharp and demands that you notice anything and everything positive that they're doing. Every day.

For them ... the gesture shows you're paying attention to them ... that nothing gets by you, their teacher.

Funny, I think if you wonder if you're doing a great job as a teacher ... how do you really know?

Because you get home and sit in your favorite chair ... and can't get back up.

Chelsea Feutz's picture

One of the pieces we use, day in and day out, in special education is individual plans. I think this also goes in line with discipline. No child reacts the same way to a set standard of punishment.

I think one of the biggest pieces we need in incorporate in education is being proactive. We need to make every student feel like they connect to the teachers. I really liked how one teacher made a comment about giving them a pat on the back. Studies show physical contact is one of the quickest ways to connect with another person.

Also knowing your students is key and what is going on in their lives. If they know I am excited that they get to see their grandma over the weekend they are very excited to come back Monday morning and have me ask them questions.

I think we have to remember to make an enormous effort to connect with students. Even those very difficult students need connection. When consequences are necessary it is crucial to keep in mind how the student will respond.

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