Positive Discipline | Dr. Jane Nelsen


            Disciplinary action in the average school setting has become a rather problematic issue for policymakers and practitioners in the modern era. Where once discipline was instilled by the educators without fail, now there are rules, regulations, and even laws that have been set into place to protect the students from receiving any type of punishment that is deemed to be too excessive. It is widely believed by many that corporal punishment is no longer an effective tool, nor was it effective in its own time. Positive discipline in a school setting is swiftly becoming a preferred method of action when needed to combat unwanted behavior.

            What positive discipline does is substitute the use of discipline as a negative influence (Promote/Prevent, 2013) when a child breaks the rules or violates the regulations in one way or another. This process has become deeply integrated into the policies and regulations of many schools. It has become highly useful as it offers a more comprehensive and useful way to teach children what is expected of them in a social setting. Instead of punishing a student for their ill behavior it is becoming a common practice to instead create a valuable learning experience that can help to correct this behavior and help children to learn in new and innovative ways how to best channel their energies in a much more productive manner.

What is Positive Discipline?

            Positive discipline focuses more upon rewarding positive behaviors than punishing those that are negative. In effect it is the effort of a teacher or school staff to influence a student’s behavior by encouraging them when they meet school expectations and eschewing the traditional forms of punishment in favor of understanding a student’s behavior and its cause. By integrating this type of learning it then becomes possible to eliminate harsh and counterproductive punishments in favor of teaching the student to manage their own behavior in a safe, social, and open learning environment.

            Human beings are hardwired to be social, but in many instances this initial characteristic can become overridden by external factors that work to break down the ability to react to social cues. Trouble at home, learning disabilities, and many other factors can contribute to the decline in social skills and aberrant behavior that some children display. Because of these unforeseen factors a child’s behavior can be seen as either antisocial or a cry for help that takes the form of aggression.  In many cases the behavior is not addressed in favor of punishing the actions that are the result of the behavior. As is explained by Dr. Jane Nelsen (2017), this carries a positive short term benefit, but also includes a negative long term effect.

            Simply punishing a child for their behavior without seeking to understand why they act

out is likened to treating a disease without understanding the symptoms. Many educators and

adults make the mistake of punishing  a child without asking them why they have behaved in a

negative manner. They also neglect to present a more positive alternative to punishment that

could help the child to learn rather than endure their punishment.  Far too often teachers that are

overworked and continually stressed will look for an easy and effective manner by which to

teach their students a sense of discipline. Historically this has been seen to include referrals, trips

to the principal’s office, and even suspension or expulsion depending upon the level of the

offense committed. The unfortunate side effect of such punishments has been seen to weaken the

student’s desire to learn and their ability to act as a part of a cohesive unit within the school


            Evantheia Schibstead (2009) points out that without cohesion between the students and the staff there is little chance that the system will be able to operate efficiently. Schools tend to rely heavily on the relationships that develop between teachers and their students. While the distance that is kept between them is necessary to maintain professionalism in a school setting, the teachers must still be able to relate to their students on a deeper level so as to better understand their needs.  By simply punishing the “bad” kids by kicking them out of class and possibly out of school, the system is seeking the easy way out rather than taking the time to educate and assist these children by helping to understand their place within the system.

            One very important and useful method that Schibstead speaks of is classroom management. This method is quite well known to many educators, yet is quite often eschewed in favor of the quick solution of punishment. To maintain professionalism and still fulfill the needs of the students educators are being encouraged to follow several useful steps, which are:

1) Develop rules for the classroom at the beginning of the year.

            Children of all ages will seek out a sense of order, as it allows them to feel safe and secure. By creating a set of well-defined rules at the beginning of the school year it becomes possible to create a positive atmosphere.

2) Talk to the students before class.

            By keeping an open line of communication concerning what the students want to learn and what they might be having trouble with an educator can solve many problems before they begin. This method is also useful in getting to know the students.  The more that is known about the students allow the teacher to recognize when something is wrong or when a certain behavior emerges that needs to be identified and discussed, preferably in private.

3) Maintain consistency.

            No matter which staff member a student goes to, they must be able to get a similar answer to their questions. Consistency can help students to believe that they are in fact being listened to. By remaining consistent a system can maintain a successful rapport between staff and students.

4) Maintain the student’s dignity.

            If a problem does arise it is important to handle the manner in a way that allows the student to save face and not be humiliated. This type of reaction can only cause more problems in the long run. Should the student be embarrassed in front of their peers it can create highly damaging emotional issues and other various problems that can eventually undermine the learning process. By speaking to a student as a person in a calm, composed manner it allows them to save face in front of their friends and peers and shows them that they are respected within the classroom setting.

5) Maintain neutrality and do not jump to accusations.

            Most individuals are known to become defensive when accused of anything. By remaining neutral and asking open-ended questions it becomes possible to coax answers from students concerning their behavior and eventually reach the root cause of their actions. In this manner it becomes possible to alleviate the problem without any unneeded escalation.   

Benefits/ Drawbacks of Positive Discipline

            In order to place a set value upon education, students must be informed in one way or another that they do in fact matter to the system and those that exist within it. A student’s self-esteem has been discovered to be vital to the continuance of their education, and as a result can be severely damaged by negative punishment.  However, positive discipline also has its own drawbacks, which are far less than what is experienced by negative punishment but can still be seen as an impediment. The negative aspects of positive discipline are due largely to human error and not by a fault within the system, but it is still possible for such a system to be seen as less than effective.

            Such drawbacks would include:

1) Parents must adjust to the type of discipline used.

            While this might not be a traditional drawback to positive discipline, it represents a challenge that must be met by parents in order to remain consistent with the type of treatment a student receives while in a school setting. Should the student receive harsher punishments at home there are several ways in which positive punishment could be perceived in a school setting. Consistency must be maintained between school and home if the student is to fully adjust to this type of disciplinary setting.

2) Who is really at fault?

            While positive punishment is still a preferable method it remains an alternative to normal

schooling in an attempt to help the student learn the consequence for their behavior through a

positive and educational experience. The issue that must be resolved is whether the student is

truly at fault or if the teacher is somehow in error.  Despite the positive aspect of the disciplinary

action it might still be detrimental if the student is not in the wrong. This alludes to the need of

creating and maintaining class rules that are agreed upon by teachers and students alike, with an optional contract to make certain that both teacher and students will follow the rules as they are set.

3) Teachers have a great deal of control over the students.

            This type of issue is highly dependent upon the grade level of the students. From middle

school on control seems to become a very real issue as students begin to exert their own manner

of control in the classroom as they continue to learn and test their limits. Teachers can become overwhelmed, frustrated, and can become highly dependent on the rules to the point that they might begin to exert too much control.  This can and has caused issues as students continue to learn and develop, testing the boundaries of those rules that have been imposed upon them in an attempt to show that they do have a larger measure of control over their environment. In this case teachers tend to over-exert their authority and positive discipline becomes more of a traditional punishment than a learning experience.

4) This type of discipline is not scientifically proven to work.

            Despite being an innovative and highly effective method used to identify and properly handle negative behaviors, positive discipline is still not a universally-accepted technique. It has shown merit and that it can be used to create a positive influence upon students, but thus far its use is not widespread enough to be considered entirely effective. Whatever roadblocks still exist within its development have thus far served to stymie the overall success it seeks to create within the educational system.  It can be argued that traditional punishment seems to be favored in taking care of a problem in the short term, but what positive discipline has shown thus far is that it takes a great deal of time and effort to accomplish.

            Positive discipline is seen as a step forward in educating students as how their behavior and actions will shape their educational experience, but it has yet to take hold fully. Its innovation has thus far been seen to produce a positive effect that is only slightly hampered by the issues it produces. Many would insist that discipline is still punishment, citing that any time or effort taken away from regular studies is still to be considered a detriment from the expected development of a student. However, it has been seen in more than one school that positive discipline has in fact created a change in the overall educational environment that has allowed students to feel an increase in how much control they have in their school experience.


            Positive discipline is not a new idea, but it has yet to take full effect in many classrooms.

The goals of such a discipline are simple but still have several issues to be worked through in

order to make it truly effective as well as accepted nationwide. While its precepts are well-

developed it still relies heavily upon the agreement of those that it will affect, and as a result has

yet to be seen as a suitable replacement for traditional disciplinary actions. When compared to those punishments and consequences it seeks to replace, positive discipline is seen as rather unconventional despite its preferable treatment of students.  


Nelsen, J. Ed.D. (2017). About Positive Discipline. Positive Discipline. Retrieved from

Promote/Prevent (2013). What is Positive School Discipline? Education Development Center.

Retrieved from

Schibstead, E. (2009). How to Develop Positive Classroom Management. Edutopia.

Retrieved from

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