Positive Psychology and School Discipline: Positive Is Not Simply the Opposite of Punitive

By Bear, George | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Positive Psychology and School Discipline: Positive Is Not Simply the Opposite of Punitive


Bear, George, National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Historically, most educators have recognized two primary aims of school discipline: (a) managing student behavior, relying primarily on the use of teacher-centered techniques for preventing and correcting misbehavior and (b) developing self-discipline, combining teacher-centered techniques with more student-centered techniques that focus on inculcating students with social, emotional, moral, and behavioral competencies needed to manage their own behavior (Bear, 2005). Research in the areas of both parenting and classroom management coalesce in showing that both aims are equally important. Nevertheless, in both the past and the present, it is not uncommon to find approaches and models of school discipline in which only one aim receives much attention. More othen than not, it is the aim of managing or controlling student behavior, using punitive or "positive" techniques.

When first introduced in the 1970s, and largely in reaction in increased disorder and violence in the schools, Assertive Discipline advised teachers to be "prepared to back up her words with actions" (Canter 8c Canter, 1976, p. 30) and to let "the child know that she means what she says and says what she means" (p. 9). As is true with many codes of conduct used today and especially found in the pervasive zero tolerance approach to school discipline, the techniques of choice in Assertive Disciplinewere primarily punitive. These included writing names on the board, calling home to report misbehavior, and removing students from the classroom or school. Although teachers were encouraged to use techniques of positive reinforcement (e.g., "Marbles in a Jar"), those techniques received much less attention. Since its first edition, Assertive Discipline has been revised three times (Canter 8c Canter, 1992, 2001, 2009), offering a more "positive" model of classroom management and school discipline in which techniques of positive reinforcement are preferred over the use of punishment. This is reflected in the authors changing the subtitle of Assertive Discipline from "A Take Charge Approach for Today's Teacher" in 1976 to "Positive Behavior Management for Today's Classroom" in editions since then.

Calling one's approach to classroom management and school discipline "positive" is now quite fashionable. In addition to the popularity of positive assertive discipline, we have positive discipline (Nelsen, Lott, 8c Glenn, 2000), used widely by parents and teachers alike, and school-wide positive behavioral supports (SWPBS; Sugai 8c Horner, 2009), adopted nationwide by approximately 10,000 schools. Unfortunately, in each of these models and approaches, it is unclear what "positive" means, other than the greater use of positive reinforcement than punishment (especially suspension and expulsion) . That is, positiveis simply presented as the opposite of something "negative" or undesirable. Similar to the use of the terms/reedom (e.g., Operation FreedominIraq),painòiism (the Patriot Act), and security (Homeland Security), the use of the term "positive" in approaches to school discipline has led many to accept those approaches with little scrutiny - "if it's positive, it must be good" (and especially if endorsed by the government, as is the case with the Department of Education's support of SWPBS).

To be sure, in most cases of changing student behavior, the use of positive reinforcement should be preferred over the use of punishment. However, it is well recognized that both techniques can be used to achieve the same ends, and those ends might be either good or bad (Landrum 8c Kauffman, 2006). Unfortunately, too often, whether it's with the use of punishment or positive reinforcement, the primary aim of school discipline is one and the same: student compliance to rules and adult authority. This is most evident in programs that rely upon office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) and suspensions as the primary, if not exclusive, measured outcome of a program's effectiveness. …

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