Staying In Control: Classroom Discipline

Staying In Control: Classroom Discipline
By Robert L. Bentley

Discipline Defined—and Refined

The Sunday morning heroine limps into the auditorium at eleven o’clock and wearily sags into a comfortable pew. Relieved that finally the hour-long martyrdom has ceased, she consoles herself behind a hymnal. Illusions of a quiet little classroom have disappeared. Idealism about “little souls for eternity” has tarnished weeks ago. Her resignation has been written and rewritten for the last month, but somehow commitment and guilt have thwarted the inevitable confrontation with Brother Pastor.

Sadly, this scenario is all too common. If there be any consolation, this continuing episode is happening through out evangelical Christendom. Even the public schools have virtually lost control over our nation’s children. A Gallup poll states that the public sees classroom management as the most pervasive problem in education.

Recurrent questions are asked by Sunday school teachers everywhere. Why doesn’t Johnny behave in Sunday school? Why is his behavior sometimes worse in Sunday school than in a public school setting? What can be done to control behavior in a church school?

Discipline is a much abused and misunderstood concept. Webster defines “discipline” as “to develop by instruction and exercise” and “disciplined” as “one who receives instruction from another.” Discipline is teaching and learning. There are two kinds: imposed discipline and self-discipline.

Discipline has often been mistaken for punishment. Horace Mann wrote in 1847: “In one of the schools of those to whom I ascribe the motto Force, Fear, Pain…consisting of about 250 scholars. . . there were 328 separate floggings in one week of five days, or the average of 65 3/5 each day. In another, 18 boys were flogged in two hours in the presence of a stranger. In another, 15 in one hour.”

Such practices have given the concept of discipline a bad name. Sunday school seminars have sometimes used the Old Testament penalty of death for disobedient children as a basis for classroom discipline. (See Exodus 21:15; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Proverbs 30:17.) These passages of Scripture certainly show the extremity of God’s displeasure toward rebellious and unruly children, but they are not meant as a philosophical premise for good classroom management.

Research reveals how the notion of discipline has developed into the more positive idea of classroom management and control. Hyman and D’Alessandro present a positive view: “Discipline in a democracy should spring from internal controls, not from fear of punishment. Successful approaches to discipline enhance self-esteem and encourage cooperation.”

Wayson defines discipline as “the ability to identify the character of a circumstance or situation to determine one’s most constructive role in it, to carry out that role directly, to sustain it as long as necessary, and to learn from the consequences of one’s actions. Such skill is learned. It is taught by people who are willing to demonstrate it in their own lives.”

Edmonds describes classrooms where students practice self-discipline and have strong leaders who create an atmosphere that is “orderly without being rigid, quiet without being oppressive, and generally conducive to the instructional business at hand.”

Wayson studied some common characteristics of five hundred well-disciplined schools in the United States and Canada. He found that the students themselves were given many opportunities to practice good self-discipline. The staffs of those outstanding schools
• viewed their schools as places in which to do valuable, successful, and productive work;
• focused on causes of discipline problems rather than on symptoms;
• emphasized positive and preventive practices, not punitive ones;
• adapted practices to meet their own needs and styles;
• had faith in their students and themselves—and ex pended unusual amounts of energy to make their ideals into realities.


Teaching Power

Sunday school children should think of their teachers as Very Important Persons. Imagine the impact when Johnny sees that the teacher is not an isolated person but part of a group. That group which meets together is referred to as a “faculty.” A certain bulletin board is dedicated to “Teacher of the Month.” Occasionally, a church bulletin runs a short biographical sketch of one of the teachers. The attitude that the teacher has, finally trickles down to the student. The teacher’s attitude says, “I am a vital component of an organism that teaches the Bible to people from the time of their birth to the time of their death. I am a well-trained specialist in my particular age group. Adults and fellow peers stand in solidarity behind my status as a teacher. My class will reach high spiritual objectives because of my dedication.” The students will often develop good behavior as they recognize that status. This is not a verbal reaction, but a behavioral result.

Along with higher teacher status and visibility should be an understanding of what constitutes legitimate power in the classroom. What are the kinds of authority? What kinds of power are valid and invalid?

Unfortunately, the kind of authority used in many Sunday schools is normative power. This relies on social and cultural norms that govern a situation and are presumed held in common between student and teacher. The dialogue goes something like this: “Tsk, tsk. Do you know where we are? How do you think God wants us to act in His house? Would you want someone to scatter paper and thump someone with a quarterly in your house?”

Sometimes this approach works, but often it turns in to a weekly nagging session. Many children, although they may not have to express it, do not accept this authority as valid in the Sunday school. The child’s norms are social, while the teacher’s tend to be spiritual. Unfortunately, no amount of “ought to be’s” or “should be’s” can make up the difference. Normative power is generally not useful.

Exchange power promises a reward in return for good behavior. There are two basic kinds of rewards—extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic offers a lollipop or candy bar for good behavior. Intrinsic offers, “If you listen, you will learn more of God’s Word. You will benefit by becoming a better person.” Of all the kinds of alternatives, exchange power using extrinsic rewards is the least effective. Rewards for behavior pin the value on the exchange rather than the great value of the Bible lesson taught. Further more these rewards tend to escalate until it is no longer practical for the teacher to give them.

An acceptable source of power used to a degree of success is referent power. Success depends upon the student’s identity with some person or group of people. Peer group pressure is commonly known as a primary source. The peer group is most effectively used in friendly rather than adverse relationships. Students can effectively control each other’s behavior. Peer pressure allows the students some power of choice.

The Sunday school teacher, using this technique, needs to let the class have a say in determining the rules and conduct of the class. This does not mean throwing out open decisions such as, “All right kids, what do you want to do today?” The teacher ought to plan ahead for some good alternatives, present them to the class, and let the pupils choose. They “buy” into the curriculum and conduct and participate in seeing it followed.

Another kind of referent power is called modeling. In this form of hero worship, the student is so strongly attracted to the teacher that he models his behavior after the teacher. Successful modeling depends upon the character and personality of the teacher. Hopefully, the teacher’s everyday living will be worth emulating.

Another effective kind of power is ecological power. The teacher’s success depends upon the manipulation of both the physical and social environment. The teacher who seats herself directly in front of the chronic talker is exercising ecological power. The teacher who will not hand out craft paper and paints until giving proper instructions as to their use, is using ecological power.

The last kind of power is expert power. It becomes apparent to the student that the instructor is vastly qualified in all the skills he presents. This is achieved through the teacher not only being able to convey his or her expertise, but being able to reproduce his skills in his pupils. One should be well qualified in the Bible before attempting to teach it.


Excerpted from:
Achieving Excellence in the Sunday School Vol. 1
By Robert Bentley

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”