You would never think of setting up a math or reading program in your building that treated every student exactly the same. You would not expect all students to use the same reader. You would not place an entire school in the same math book. If you did any of these things, your school board and your community would demand an immediate explanation. Yet, we set up discipline systems in our schools that treat all students exactly the same. In fact, everyone expects us to do just that!
Just as students function at different levels in reading and math, they also function at different levels, or stages, of discipline. It is possible to set up a consistent system for classroom discipline that will be appropriate for students functioning a t all stages and at the same time encourage them to work their way up to higher stages.
There are many experts telling us how to handle discipline problems in our classrooms. Yet these experts do not always agree. Thomas Gordon, creator of Teacher Effectiveness Training staunchly opposes Lee Canter’s Assertive Discipline concept. Yet, both have enjoyed a great deal of success all across America. Trying to decide who is right and who is wrong seems quite difficult. Instead, let us assume that both of them are right, that they just are not talking about the same students!
If we look at the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, we find the piece that will put this puzzle together. For many years Kohlberg studied stages of moral and ethical reasoning in youngsters from the United States, Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, and Yucatan. One important fact that surfaced in his research is that everyone, regardless of culture, race, or sex, goes through these stages. Although the progression from stage to stage is the same, the rate varies from person to person. It is for this reason that we need to be prepared to address discipline in our classrooms at different levels. Our students are functioning at different stages on the road to self-discipline. Let us look at these stages and see how youngsters behave.
Stage 1: Recalcitrant Behavior
The Power Stage: Might Makes Right!
Students functioning at Stage 1, the lowest stage, are typically recalcitrant in their behavior. That is, they often refuse to follow directions. They are defiant and require a tremendous amount of our attention. Theirs is a heteronomous morality: they have few rules of their own, but out of fear of reprisal, may follow the rules of others. Most youngsters have progressed beyond this stage by age four or five, but a few older students still function at this level.
This is the power stage. What makes it work is the imbalance of power between the child and the person in authority. When the child is young, the imbalance of power between him and his parent is significant. If the child is never taught a higher stage, the imbalance of power diminishes as he grows up . The parent then tells us that she can no longer control her child. He will not mind. He challenges authority constantly.
Fortunately, very few of the students we see in our classrooms function at this stage. Those who do, follow rules as long as the imbalance of power tilts against them. Assertive teachers with a constant eye on these students can keep them in line. Turn your back on them, and they are out of control.
If these students want something, they usually just take it. They show very little concern for the feelings of others. They seek out extensions of power. Pencils, scissors, and rulers become weapons in their hands.
Schools that use The Honor Level System find that the students who function mainly at this level are chronically on Honor Level Four.
Stage 2: Self-Serving Behavior
The Reward/Punishment Stage: "What's in It for Me?"
Students functioning at Stage 2 are a little easier to handle in the classroom. They also represent only a small percent of the youngsters we teach. Kohlberg would classify them as having an individualistic morality. They can be very self-centered.
This is the reward and punishment stage. These students behave either because they will receive some sort of reward such as candy, free time, etc., or because they do not like what happens to them when they do not behave. Most children are moving beyond this stage by the time they are eight or nine years old. Older students who still function at this stage do best in classrooms with assertive teachers.
There is very little sense of self-discipline at this stage. Like the power stage children, these youngsters need constant supervision. They may behave quite well in your classroom and then be out of control in the halls on the way to their next class.
Because we expect so much more of our students, these children are often on Honor Level Three and Honor Level Four.
Stage 3: Interpersonal Discipline
The Mutual Interpersonal Stage: "How Can I Please You?"
Students functioning at Stage 3 make up most of the youngsters in our middle and junior high schools. These kids have started to develop a sense of discipline. They behave because you ask them. This is the mutual interpersonal stage. They care what others think about them, and they want you to like them.
These children need gentle reminders. You ask them to settle down and they do. Assertive discipline works with these students because they understand it, but they rarely need such a heavy handed approach to classroom discipline.
Quite often you find students in your classroom that are in transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3. Perhaps you will know of a student that gets into lots of trouble in other classrooms but not in yours. This child is just learning to trust others and build the interpersonal relationships that are more common with his classmates. You need to let him know that his good behavior is important to you not only in your classroom, but in others as well. Nurture this youngster and you will see quick progress. Be unnecessarily assertive and he will slip back to Stage 2.
These students are almost always on Honor Level One and Honor Level Two.
Stage 4: Self-Discipline
The Social Order Stage: "I Behave Because it is the Right Thing to Do."
Students functioning at Stage 4 rarely get into any trouble at all. They have a sense of right and wrong. Although many middle school and junior high school students will occasionally function at this level, only a few consistently do. These are the youngsters we enjoy working with so much. You can leave these kids alone with a project and come back 20 or 30 minutes later and find them still on task. They behave because, in their minds, it is the right thing to do.
This is the social order stage. These students are almost always on Honor Level One.
Even though they may never tell you, students who function at this level do not appreciate assertive discipline. They are bothered by the fact that other students force teachers to use so much class time dealing with discipline problems.
Although most of our students do not usually operate at this stage, they are near enough to it that they understand it. Cooperative Learning activities encourage students to function at this level. The teacher who sets up several groups within the classroom gives students a chance to practice working at this level while he waits close by, ready to step in when needed.
Working Through the Stages
Kohlberg describes additional stages of morality and ethical reasoning that go beyond what we discuss here, but they are not usually seen in school age children. In fact, many adults do not progress much further than these.
Keep in mind that all of us work our way through these stages in this order as we grow up. When you identify the stage at which a student is functioning, you can then help that youngster work to the next stage. It is a mistake to try and skip stages. Insisting that a Stage 1 student “straighten up and start acting right” (like a Stage 4 student) is not a reasonable expectation. It simply isn’t going to happen! Instead, set your goal on Stage 2 and you will be less frustrated. You may be pleasantly surprised when you start to notice improvement.
It is important to remember that for many reasons, any child is fully capable of regressing every now and then. When you really get to know your students and are used to them functioning at a stage, it is important to look for a reason when one of your students regresses. Problems with family members, friends, alcohol, or drugs may be behind a shift in behavior. It simply might be tiredness or the onset of illness. Whatever the cause, it is worth taking the time to talk with the student and see what’s going on.
Picking Up the Pieces
You may feel that you do not have the time to walk these kids from stage to stage. You may be concerned about covering the material in the book or getting to all the objectives, but what do you teach? Is it English? Math? Science? Such a response is the one others expect of us, but the real answer is: “I teach children.” When you get used to thinking of your job in that way, it is easier to find the time needed to help a youngster with behavior problems.
Learning self-discipline is just like learning anything else. Your students aren’t always going to get it right the first time. So, you find yourself “picking up the pieces.” You help them some more, and when you think they are ready you give it another try.
If you have a math student who is not quite ready to handle long division, you spend more time on subtraction and multiplication. If you have a student that isn’t ready for Stage 3 or Stage 4, you spend more time working on Stage 2. Where other teachers may see a kid who is still a discipline problem, you may be able to see one who is making progress. Seeing that progress, as slow as it might be, makes greeting that youngster each day a pleasure that his other eachers may never enjoy. Soon you will be opening the doors to the mutual inter-personal stage and really make a difference in his life.