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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

The Futility of Coercive Discipline

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

You sit on the couch, relaxing on a cool evening with your latest Netflix binge. You bask in the quietness and solitude of your home. Your chores are up-to-date and you are contemplating the beauty of silence when reality suddenly hits you. Your home is silent! Rather than producing pulses of tranquility, that thought immediately sends your mind racing down an alarming path. Your mind checks off facts as your senses are verifying them:

  1. You have three small children.

  2. It’s too dark to play in the backyard.

  3. They must be inside.

  4. The little ones’ bed times aren’t for another hour or so.

  5. You hear no noise.

If you are a parent, you know that these facts are not reassuring but in reality deeply troubling. As you quickly extricate yourself from your cocoon of serenity and hunt down your progeny, the silence becomes deafening. Sure enough, you find all three of them on the floor of one of their bedrooms. They are all studiously using markers to color in the Winnie the Pooh wallpaper that adorns three of the four walls. The youngest looks up and smiles a large toothy smile. “Look Daddy, yellow!”

Rapidly assessing the situation, you notice they have colored in one wall up to about 4 feet in height. You know that you need to stop them from damaging the wallpaper further and hand out an appropriate consequence. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, you snarl with your most menacing voice, “Bring me your behavior sheets, now!”

Coercive Discipline

Yes, it’s okay to smirk. That does sound ridiculous, doesn’t it? As a parent, you have several real options at this moment. Some involve physical harm (e.g., spanking, yanking, wait until your father gets home, etc.). Some involve verbal chastisement (e.g., yelling, shaming, threatening, etc.). Simply walking away or pointing out that a darker yellow would work better for Pooh’s color palette are poor options. When something like this occurs, you have two goals: stop the immediate activity and prevent it from ever occurring again.

The same thing happens on a daily basis in a classroom. Misbehavior occurs and teachers constantly attempt to stop the ongoing behavior and keep it from happening in the future. So how in the world did behavior sheets/planners/agendas ever get involved?

To return to the opening example, one avenue the mother has available for behavior management is physical. She can spank the children or threaten them with the pending arrival of their father from work. This not an option for teachers. Even if you want to debate the value of whether or not physical pain can teach children moral behavior, have you ever tried to spank a 14-year-old? At some point, that avenue of discipline outlives its purported usefulness.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are consequences that are closely tied to the normal outcomes of misbehavior. Parents using these typically find superior results when disciplining children. If your child colors with markers on the wall, she could lose the use of markers (and perhaps all dyed implements) until she can show the she understands how to color responsibly. Spending time washing the walls will teach her that when she makes a mess, she’ll need to clean it up. A sore bottom can be much easier to get over than aching hands and sore elbows from scrubbing.

If we recognize this as parents, then why don’t teachers?  Teachers, more often than not parents themselves, often revert to coercive discipline as their preferred classroom management technique.

This point was driven home to me as a new principal several years ago, dealing with discipline issues on a daily basis. I had armed myself with stacks of office referral forms in triplicate and a strong sense of righting wrongs by a strict adherence to the student code of conduct. It took me about a week to see my first repeat offender, however, and realize that I couldn’t control kids with punishment.  

I could coerce them into temporary compliance by the threat of severe consequences, but in the end coercion didn’t last. In fact, coercion bred resentment in my students. The more I tried to control their behavior, the more they resented me and my influence actually shrank. Students are the only ones that can control their behavior. My job as an educator was to present them with choices and counsel them to make the right one.

Never Lose the Relationship

One of the greatest harms of coercive discipline is that it begins to confuse educators. They start to see the child and the behavior as inextricably linked. Because the behavior is bad, the child is bad. The resentment that teachers feel for constantly having to fight misbehavior turns into resentment of the child. When teachers see their students through the lens of their students' behavior, the relationship suffers.

The foundation of learning is the teacher-student relationship. When students feel safe, secure, and accepted, they are put into a mental and emotional space that allows them to learn. When they feel victimized, ostracized, or even bullied, they suffer both emotionally and academically. The false idea that coercive discipline will fix kids leads to frustration when it doesn't work. This annoyance quickly transfers to the student and everything spirals downward.

For teachers to maintain a positive relationship with poorly-behaved students, they must never confuse the children with their actions. They disapprove of the choices that their students make, but they don't disapprove of their students. They are saddened by the actions of their students, but they are not saddened by their students. Giving natural consequences allows teachers to stay above the fray and communicate unconditional regard while holding high their behavioral expectations.

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