Robyn Jackson

President

Washington, DC

Interests: Professional...

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The Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

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There is a difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment is about eliminating misbehavior. It’s often meted out in frustration and focuses more on gaining (or regaining) control over the student. Discipline on the other hand, is about teaching students the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior and helping students make better choices in the future. . The focus is not on controlling student behavior: the focus is on teaching students how to control their own behavior.

The difference between punishment and discipline is not so much in the strategies you use (although there are some strategies that are purely punitive). The difference lies more in the spirit and philosophy that guides the use of specific strategies. So, I want to share four key principles that you can use to ensure that you are disciplining students instead of punishing them.

1. Safety First
We all know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that safety is the most fundamental of human needs. Thus, when disciplining students, it is important to first establish safety with students before you discipline them or they will not be able to learn the lesson you are trying to teach them. Beyond physical safety is the need to feel emotionally and psychologically safe. That means that you must also make sure that students know that with you, they are safe from blame, they are safe from shame, they are safe from criticism, and they are safe from judgment. Only then can they accept discipline from you. Without safety, your discipline efforts will feel like punishment no matter what strategy you use.

2. Connection BEFORE Correction
It is not always easy to remain calm when students misbehave. After all, we’re only human and some behavior is so obnoxious, so offensive, so disrespectful, it is natural to feel frustrated, angry, and even hurt by student misbehavior. That is why it is important to re-establish connection with the student first, before we attempt to correct their behavior. If students don’t feel connected to you, they won’t accept discipline from you. But establishing connection first doesn’t just help the student; it helps us regain our composure and calm down before addressing the inappropriate behavior. That way, we can respond appropriately, and focus on discipline rather than lashing out in punishment.

3. Correction NOT Control
Punishment is really about you. When you punish, you make yourself responsible for student behavior as you attempt to control the student. But control is an illusion. You cannot control another person. You can only control yourself. Discipline is about correction. It helps students adjust their behavior and make better choices next time. You may have to repeat the lesson several times, but stay focused on the goal for each time, you are teaching students how to make better choices and how to be responsible for their own behavior.

4. Separate the student from the act
Punishment conveys the message that the student is bad. Discipline conveys the message that the student’s choice was bad. The difference is critical. If the student is bad, then there is no possibility of his making a better choice. If the choice is bad, the student can choose to act differently next time. Discipline says you are capable and you are responsible for your own behavior. You made a bad choice. That currency doesn’t work here. How can we help you develop a currency that does work so that you can get your needs met in an appropriate way? Doing so helps students own their own behavior and helps them make better choices in the future.

Ultimately, successfully navigating the difference between punishment and discipline keeps us focused on the long-term goals rather than our short-term frustration. It helps us remember our calling in the moment and respond to students’ misbehavior calmly, diffuse the current situation, and successfully come to a long-term resolution.

​What are your personal principles of discipline? Please share them here.

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