Unit 2: Evaluate & Explore

ETAP 623 Spring 2015 by Dr. Zhang | About Cheryl DePra | Cheryl DePra's Design Portfolio | Return to Positive Discipline in the Classroom | Return to Unit 1

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Positive Discipine in Practice

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Why Positive Discipline?

Positive Discipline is a classroom management approach that is uniquely authoritative and invested in student outcomes, relying heavily upon dignity and respect, with kindness and firmness simultaneously (Nelson, 2006). Creating an atmosphere of cooperation is fundamental to building a positive learning environment that strives not only for academic success, but perhaps even more importantly, strives for character building and life preparation.

Fostering a deep sense of social responsibility in a learning community enculturates students to the very real need for empathy and models the desire to make significant contributions to society. By articulating respect in a tangible way, teachers embody a powerful role in shaping young individuals for meaningful futures. Let us think of Positive Discipline as the gesture of this empathic expression.

Empathy: The Bridge to Respect

The practice of cooperation, respect, and focusing on solutions in the classroom is of inestimable value. However, without the ability to identify with our students – and students with their instructors – not much can be accomplished successfully. Namely, empathy undergirds every aspect of the Positive Discipline approach. This ability to understand and to share the feelings of others, to walk in their shoes metaphorically speaking, is the first step toward genuine investment in others' success. This fosters engaging discourse across the classroom, emphasizes a collaborative culture of learning, and articulates clear learning-community goals centered on enriching the community as a whole (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999).

Let us view empathy as the bridge to respect in the classroom.


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Please watch Jeremy Rifkin's poignant talk The Empathic Civilisation here.

Let's Explore: Classroom Scenarios

Explore the following scenarios below with a partner. As you enact the scenario, consider what works well - and what you might approach differently.

Scenario #1: Ms. Neruda and Simon

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  • Positive Discipline approach - Learning to act more and talk less allows students to develop their sense of autonomy within a firm set of expectations. Because yelling, and even a raised voice, is disrespectful not only to the student, but to yourself as a teacher attempting to model respectful behavior, wrap your words and actions with dignity. In the scenario above, a short term response would find Ms. Neruda approaching the student privately during a quiet moment and succinctly offering two options, both of which are acceptable to her. Then, crucially, Ms. Neruda must follow through. If the student will not make a choice, she must make a choice for the student. This is both kind and firm because the choice was made available. A long term response would find Ms. Neruda in conversation with the student about what makes geography lessons challenging for Simon. Often, the answers can be as surprising as "Geography lessons always happen right before lunch, and I'm so hungry that I can't focus" to "I feel like James is always looking at me when I write my answers and it makes me feel nervous."

Scenario #2: Zoe and Andrew

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Zoe: This is SO lame. We're big kids. Why do we have to line up like preschoolers.

Andrew: Yeah. It takes forever.

Mr. Hemingway: Zoe and Andrew. That's enough. Go line up with the rest of class right now.

Zoe: Why can't we just be dismissed like everyone else, at the same time. Why do we have to line up every day?

Mr. Hemingway: Zoe--

Andrew: *Sigh.* Whatever. Fine. *Trudges to line by the door.*

Mr. Hemingway: Zoe, one more word--

Zoe: Okayyy. I'm going already.

  • Positive Discipline approach - There are myriad reasons for back talk and disrespectful behavior; testing power, fighting back against demands, or simple lack of respectful communication and interaction. It is important for Mr. Hemingway to consider the fact that this struggle only occurs during lining up for recess and on a daily basis. Knowing this, he may want to consider holding a classroom meeting where the students take ownership over how they will line up for recess or by appointing different students each afternoon to line their peers up by using games ("If you are wearing a blue shirt, please line up" or "If you ate pasta for dinner last night, please line up"). Mr. Hemingway must recognize that Zoe and Andrew, whether they are aware of it or not, are communicating a sense of insignificance - their thoughts and opinions are not recognized in the protocol surrounding this daily event. Empowering these two students by giving them meaningful tasks and roles neutralizes the power struggle and allows the focus to be on the leisure and freedom of recess. Let's take a look at how the scenario could be approached differently.
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Mr. Hemingway: Zoe, would you grab the class safety backpack on your way to line up? I noticed you really took good care of Sandra the other day when she fell and scraped her arm. I trust you with the safety backpack - you'll be our EMT-on-the-go!

Zoe: Sure! I'd love to help with that. *Walks to line by the door.*

Mr. Hemingway: Andrew, I noticed you made some really great shots at the hoop yesterday afternoon. Perhaps you could bring that small sack of basketballs with you on your way to line up; you can show me a few tricks on the court in a few minutes.

Andrew: Really? I've been practicing a lot! *Walks to line by the door."

Mr. Hemingway: Sheli, Tracy, and Jones, please line up behind Andrew. Anyone wearing a green shirt may line up behind Jones. Monty and Sally, thanks for sitting so patiently...

  • By noticing and appreciating each student, Mr. Hemingway takes the focus off the task at hand and redirects attention respectfully to the ways in which his students contribute with constructive guidance and encouragement. There is no power struggle, but rather a sense of mutual respect and affirmation in the community.

In the Classroom: What Works?

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Take a moment to reflect on the scenarios you and your partner have just explored. Did you find the conflict demanding? Uncomfortable? Frustrating? Assess your own responses and reactions, then discuss the following points below with your partner.

This is an opportunity to reconceptualize your understanding of conflict and misbehavior in the classroom.

Discussion Points

1. What is the underlying message behind the misbehavior?

2. How is the student's sense of belonging challenged and/or reconciled by your actions and response?

3. What is one way in which the misbehavior can be redirected positively?

4. How can the student be encouraged while still taking responsibility for his/her actions? What can you do to facilitate this?

5. What personal experiences do you have from your childhood/young adulthood that are of value to you now as an educator?

6. In what ways will engaging mutual respect foster successful classroom management? Why?

Review: The Tools of Positive Discipline

As a classroom management approach, Positive Discipline is an ever-adapting practice. Over time, as you gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of finding solutions to misbehavior, classroom management transitions from the need to manage and control a classroom to an opportunity to develop genuine respect and tenacity in one's students and learning community. Let us consider the following key tools:

  • Mistakes are opportunities to learn - sometimes, misbehavior is a student's response to fear of failure.
  • Stop, calm down, and focus on a solution rather than reacting with emotion. This is a vital life skill that everyone, both student and teacher, can embrace.
  • Give children choices in the classroom - this holds them accountable for their actions, empowers their ability to enact positive change in the midst of misbehavior, and models respect.
  • Use encouragement effectively. Encouragement is not blanket praise; it is specific and purpose-oriented. E.g. "Julie, you did it! I see that you were able to read through the whole paragraph with confidence and ease. I believe in you." vs. "Good job, Julie!"
  • Always ask questions! Curiosity questions allow students to explore their choices and their consequences without shaming. E.g. What did you learn from this? How did you feel about what happened? What are your ideas for solutions?
  • Remember, the root of all behavior is the desire to belong. Are you fostering a sense of belonging and significance in your learning community?

Booster Thought

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Why are constructive guidance, encouragement, and affirmation so crucial, particularly in the context of empathy and respect?

Building on strengths rather than weaknesses focuses on improvement and supports students by recognizing their talents and skills as useful and contributing to the overall learning community. Invite conversation. Listen much and listen with intention. Plant the seeds of what you want to see in your classroom by modeling and encouraging the very thoughts and actions your learning community needs to thrive. The best classroom management will grow out of a confident faith in the worth and capacity of your students as a family of learners.


Ready to move on? Continue with Unit 3: Model & Design.