Michigan Project Series

Topic 4Behavior Management Skills

Presentation – Study Unit

The LEAST Approach to Classroom Discipline


Robert R. Carkhuff


National Foundation for the Improvement of Education

National Education Association









Copyright 1981

The Michigan Project and Northern Michigan University

  Used with permission


The LEAST approach to classroom discipline is a simple survival strategy for the teacher.  It is a response to teachers’ urgent pleas for quick and easy methods they can use in the face of mounting discipline problems.  Succinctly stated in the words of one teacher, “We must survive before we can grow.”  It involves the “least” methods that should be employed to facilitate and maintain classroom control.  LEAST is an acronym for the following activities of the teacher: 

L- Leave things alone when no problems are likely to ensue
E- End the action indirectly when the behavior is disrupting classroom activities
A- Attend more fully when you need to obtain more information and/or communicate
S- Spell out directions when disruption and/or harm will occur
T- Track student progress when following through to evaluate and reinforce behavior.

The LEAST method evolved in five discrete phases:  (1) basic research, (2) development, (3) piloting, (4) refinement, and (5) applied research.

  1.  Basic Research.  The LEAST approach is based upon nearly two decades of research on the effective ingredients of teaching and learning.  This research is summarized in Helping and Human Relations, The Development of Human Resources, and Teaching as Treatment, all by Carkhuff;  and Kids Don’t Learn from People They Don’t Like, by Aspy and Roebuck.1

  2.  Development.  The LEAST approach was developed into a step-by-step method by the authors and the personnel of the Carkhuff Institute of Human Technology (CIHT), the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE), and the Instruction and Professional Development unit of the National Education Association (NEA/IPD) in conjunction with NEA teacher members.  It draws heavily on the skill-based approaches developed in The Skills of Teaching series. 2

  3.  Field Testing.  The LEAST method was field tested in several settings, including statewide demonstrations in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee under the direction of Dr. Griffin;  at the Sunnyside Junior High School, Tucson, Arizona, under the direction of Karen V. Unger and Alexander F. Douds;  and with teacher associations in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina by Richard Mallory.  The responses of the teachers were overwhelmingly positive, according to the teachers’ reports. 

  4.  Refinement.  The LEAST method was modified, based upon teachers and learner feedback.  Refinements were made by personnel of CIHT, NFIE, and NEA/IPD, incorporating the suggestions of teachers in the field in order to improve the delivery of survival discipline skills in the classroom.

  5.  Applied Research.  The LEAST method was field tested again in the same settings.  The response was again overwhelmingly positive.  In addition, longitudinal research in the Sunnyside Junior High School project indicated significant changes in all targeted student behaviors, including a reported 50 percent reduction in office discipline referrals.


The LEAST Method to Discipline:


What have you as a classroom teacher done in each of the following or similar situations?


1.  Although the bell to start class hasn’t rung yet, most of your students are in their seats and you’ve begun taking attendance.  Two students arrive at the last minute.  Instead of coming in quietly, they jostle each other in the doorway, both of them full of energy and in obvious good spirits.

2.  In the middle of one student’s thoughtful response to a discussion question, another student interrupts without bothering to raise her hand.

3.  Several students in one of your classes have established themselves as “wise guys.”  All they seem to do is crack jokes and make rude comments – despite the fact that you’ve told them before to knock it off.

4.  You’re writing something on the board when, without warning, the class breaks into uproar.  You turn and find that two students have begun a fistfight in the back of the room.

5.  There’s a lot of tension between the white and the black students in your class, tension which reflects the racial turmoil in the school in recent weeks. 

6.  During a laboratory period, when there is considerable student movement in the room, you become aware of a scuffle.  The other students are also aware and watching the mounting problem and you.  As you move toward the disturbance you see that Linda’s tongue is pointed toward Irene, as in ‘I dare you,” and Barbara’s knife is pointed toward Linda.  Linda is so intent on Irene that she doesn’t see Barbara.

The common concern in all these situations, of course, is classroom discipline.  The LEAST approach will help you examine what you have done, why some things worked well, and why in other cases you blew it. 

Every teacher knows that little can be accomplished in class unless students are willing to work constructively on their own and cooperatively together.  Yet in recent years many teachers have been caught up in disciplinary extremes:  either letting students have their own way or imposing rigid controls that never seem to work.  This report outlines an orderly approach to classroom discipline, avoiding the extremes.  Nothing is unique or new, but it provides an organized plan for dealing with problem situations in such a way that they do not become magnified. 

The fundamental principle out of which the LEAST approach has grown is as simple as it is profound:  If the teacher is to reach the goal of managing classroom behavior without creating an adversary relationship with students, he or she must use the least amount of guidance and control necessary to achieve the specific results desired.  No more disciplinary overkill.  No more “do your own things” helplessness.  No more forced decisions on the spur of the moment.  Just minimum teacher action for maximum class control. 

Four Basic Options and One “Must”

The LEAST approach to classroom discipline involves four options that allow the teacher to respond in a carefully measured way to different in-class situations and one “must” component that provides continuity of teacher behavior and the knowledge needed to select the appropriate option(s):


Option #1 – Leave things alone

Option #2 – End the action indirectly

Option #3 – Attend more fully

Option #4 – Spell out directions

A MUST! #5 – Track student progress

The four options are listed in order of increasing direct teacher involvement in a discipline situation.  In other words, the simplest (or least) and in many instances the best possible way the teacher can promote discipline is to leave things alone.  In doing so, the teacher is really saying, “The situation does not demand my intervention at the is time, so why risk escalating things by taking an active hand in it?”

If the teacher chooses to get involved, his or her next level of response is simply to end the action indirectly.  This is appropriate for any in-class disturbance that cannot be left alone. 

Ending the action may not be enough when severe or complex problems produce a situation that threatens to destroy the teacher’s control of the class.  Here the teacher can deal with the incident by first ending the action and then attending more fully to the students involved by responding to their apparent feelings and asking for more information. 

Finally, the teacher who has temporarily lost control of students’ behavior can restore order by ending the action, attending more fully and then spelling out directions, preferably with specific consequences. 

Whatever the teacher chooses to do in a particular situation, he or she should always track the progress of the students involved.  Only in this way can the teacher determine whether a given student’s behavior is improving or deteriorating. 

Each of the five components in the LEAST approach is treated in a separate section.  Within each section are answers to several basic questions:  When should the option be used?  What does it mean?  Why use it?  How should it be used?  Also included are several important guidelines to keep in mind as you exercise a particular option and examples of how the option can be employed in class.  Then you will have a chance to work on some sample situations based on your own experience.  Finally, you will learn how each fits the overall LEAST approach.

Two cautionary notes:  First, it should be emphasized that this document is not designed to help teachers deal with fundamental behavioral problems of a clinical nature.  It can, however, help them operate up to a “holding action” level until a disturbed student can be referred to the appropriate specialist. 

Second, remember that classroom problems are always relative to the teacher involved.  In other words, behaviors which trouble one teacher severely may seem like nothing at all to another.  Only you can decide what constitutes problem behavior in your classroom.  Once you have made this decision, the LEAST approach to classroom discipline will help you handle the problem simply and effectively. 



When Should You Leave Things Alone?

Leave a situation or a student behavior alone when all indications show there is no real problem.  This is generally the case with any situation which fulfills all three of the following conditions:

1.  The behavior will almost certainly go away without your getting involved.

2.  No one is harmed.

3.  There is no danger of a ‘ripple effect” (i.e., other students are unlikely to imitate or repeat the disruptive student’s behavior).


What Does “Leave Things Alone” Mean?

Leaving a situation alone does not mean ignoring or being unaware of it.  On the contrary, you have to be completely aware of what is going on so that you can decide whether or not to act.  “Leave things alone,” then, means taking no active part in a situation – not acting to correct things – just continuing with your regular routine. 

Even though you decide to leave the situation alone, you should track the student’s progress.  (See component #5).  You need to be able to recall what happened and the fact that you decided to leave things alone. 

Why Leave a Problem Alone?

As teachers, of course, we act to make things better.  Yet there are many times when action can only make a situation worse – by blowing it out of proportion, by focusing attention where it should not be, and so on.  The fact that you get involved may provide the disorderly student exactly the “reward” he or she is looking for.  Instead of stopping the disruptive behavior, you may be promoting it.  Learn to leave a behavior alone when it appears that nothing positive can be gained through action. 


How Can You Decide to Leave Things Alone?

In order to make this basic decision, you need to focus your attention on the student or students involved in the problem situation.  Observe what they are doing.  Listen to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.  Try to identify the type and intensity of their feelings (“strong anger” as opposed to “mild irritation,” for example).  Finally, think about the implications of ignoring the matter.  Given what you know about the present situation and the students, both those who are involved and those who are not, do you think the situation will improve or deteriorate if you leave it alone?  Here are a few guidelines which may help you make your decision:

1. Students often act up just to get attention.  By reacting you may reinforce their troublemaking behavior.  By ignoring them, on the other hand, you can often show such students that you cannot be baited.
2. Remember that students can act as reinforcers for one another.  Thus a behavior you choose to ignore may continue if the disruptive student senses the support of his or her peers.  Recognition of this fact of classroom life should play a part in your leave-it-alone / act decision. 
3.  Know which of your students are leaders and work especially hard to keep them in line so they can serve as models.  Here your leave-it-alone / act decision is crucial.  Ignoring trouble from a leader may encourage imitators, and acting impulsively may only earn the leader sympathy from the other students.
4. Keep classroom rules to a minimum.  By definition, problems increase in direct proportion to the number of rules that can be broken.  For example, do you want a rule against chewing gum and (since some will chew it anyway) against disposing of it improperly, or only the latter?

The leave-it-alone / act decision may sound complicated, but it quickly becomes habit and is usually made in a split second by the effective teacher who knows that the best action is often no action at all.



A good example of a situation which should be ignored or left alone is the case of the two students who jostle each other in the doorway.  While the teacher may at first feel nervous or apprehensive at this show of high spirits, the incident does not represent a serious problem.  The bell has not rung yet.  Unless these students continue to act up once class has started, the teacher should definitely leave things alone. 

Another Example:  Sandra has been at the front of the room.  Going back up the aisle to her desk, she trips over Nikki’s feet, which are in the aisle, and mutters “Dummy!” at the other girl.  The teacher sees what has happened and hears the irritation in Sandra’s voice.  He notes that Nikki’s expression is apologetic – brow furrowed, mouth turned down – rather than malicious.  The rest of the class pauses, looks up to see what has happened, then continues to work on a math test.  Realizing that the problem will disappear by itself, that no one is being harmed and that no one is likely to repeat the offense, the teacher wisely chooses to maintain discipline by leaving things alone.  The decision is a good one.  Had he spoken out – “Nikki, keep your feet under your desk!  And Sandra, please be more careful!” – he probably would have made a minor interruption much worse.   Sandra and Nikki both might have felt anger over his criticism.  And the rest of the class would have been needlessly distracted. 


Now It’s Your Turn

Think of and jot down notes on some possible disruptive situations in your own classroom where you probably would be wiser to leave things alone rather than take a hand.  What behaviors and feelings would you look for or listen for in making your decision?  What are the implications you would want to consider?  How could you be reasonably certain that the problem situation would fade away by itself, that no one would be hurt, and that no one would be likely to repeat the offense?  Then practice sizing up such situations in class and not acting on all those that fulfill the three conditions listed above.  Your aim should be to develop the skill to “leave things alone” as your first option in handling class disciplinary problems.  


So You Leave Things Alone, What Then?

A problem arises in class and you decide that your best option is to leave matters alone.  This doesn’t mean you should forget the incident.  Instead, you should plan to track the progress of the student or students involved.  This means checking to make sure his/her/their behavior remains satisfactory and perhaps developing some specific reinforcements to keep things moving in the direction you feel is best. 

Another advantage to tracking progress at this point is that it gives you something to do.  In most of the petty annoyance situations, you – the teacher – are one of the most affected, most disturbed by the situation and you will want to do something about it.  Putting the incident in the “track record” – date, time, etc. – may pay great dividends in the future, and it may be personally satisfying that even though you took no overt action, you did not ignore the incident.  There is great value in appropriate tension relief for you as the teacher.

The specific activities required to track students’ progress are discussed more fully under component #5.


Option #2:  End the Action Indirectly

When Should You End the Action Indirectly?

End the action whenever, in your judgment, a true disciplinary problem exists.  This will generally be the case in a situation that fulfills any one or more of the following conditions:

  1. The problem-related behavior is disrupting individual and/or group learning activities.
  2. The situation will, if left alone, deteriorate rather than improve.
  3. Someone may get hurt.

If the situation is only a minor disturbance which does not threaten your overall control of events, simply end the action and then track the progress of the students involved.  If the situation seems more severe, go on to exercise other options within the LEAST sequence.

What does “End the Action Indirectly” Mean?

The phrase is largely self-explanatory.  When you elect to end the action, you act to stop a problem at once; when you take action indirectly, you do so without telling the student explicitly what you want him or her to start or stop doing.  It is important to note that if what you do does end the action, you have accomplished what was needed.  Don’t criticize the student or outline consequences.  Simply nip matters in the bud by ending the action.  Again as with Option #1, you should ‘track’ what happened and what you did about it. 

Why End The Action Indirectly?

Whether a behavior problem in the classroom is fairly minor or quite serious, it is necessary to bring the disruption to a halt before you can chart the course you wish students to take.  Doing so in an indirect manner involves less chance of confrontation and resulting anger or hostility.

How Can You End the Action Indirectly?

There are three progressive steps you might take to end any disruptive classroom behavior indirectly.  In keeping with the LEAST principle of disciplinary action, the progression is from the simplest to the most demanding.

  1. You can ‘eyeball’ the student.  Let’s say a student in the back of the room is whispering to a friend while you’re presenting some important material.  The simplest way to end this action is to look right at the student, making eye contact if possible.  This often halts the disruption without the need to speak.
  2. You can reduce the distance between yourself and the student.  Disruptive behavior in the classroom often stops when the teacher approaches.  This is particularly true of minor disturbances.  Try ending the action by approaching the student involved while continuing your presentation to the class, or combine your approach with the eyeballing technique.  You could also have the student approach you, perhaps by calling him/her to your desk.  In coming forward, the student necessarily stops the problem behavior.  This is often the best approach in any situation where you feel it is important to speak privately to the student or for the rest of the class to keep working while you deal with the problem.
  3. You can call the student by name and perhaps specify the problem.  This does not have to be done in a thunderous voice that can be heard over all other noise in the room.  Like the rest of us, students can pick the sound of their own names out of a considerable amount of background noise.  Try ending the action simply by calling the involved student by name – “Harry” – in a quite voice, perhaps making eye contact as he looks up.  Extending this approach, you might call the student by name and indicate what the problem is: “Rose, your pencil-tapping is disturbing the class.” (note the difference between this and the direct, “Rose, stop tapping your pencil,” which may be too dictatorial.)  This approach is often the best when there is a chance the student is unaware of being involved in any troublesome behavior.

There isn’t a teacher in the world who hasn’t used these tested and effective techniques.  The only thing unique to the LEAST approach is that the teacher uses it in an orderly and planned fashion and does not ‘waste’ steps in cases where they are not needed or are apt to be ineffective.  The progression here is from simple to more complex, with verbal involvement being considered more active than nonverbal involvement.  Remember the LEAST principle and do no more than absolutely necessary to stop what is going on.  In other words, don’t approach a troublesome student if eyeballing him or her is enough; don’t specify the problem if calling the student’s name ends the action.

A word of caution about eyeballing and moving closer: These techniques will generally stop any behavior, so be sure you want to stop it.  When misused, they will disrupt good behavior – reading, test-taking, discussion, etc. – as quickly as they do bad behavior. 

Here are a few additional guidelines you may want to keep in mind as you exercise Option #2 and end the action indirectly:

  1. It is rarely if ever a good idea to embarrass a student.  In ending the action, therefore, try not to do anything that will highlight the disruptive student since this will probably make him/her feel you are being unfair.
  2. Be sure to focus action-ending attention on the right party or parties.  Avoid scapegoating or singling out one student when several are involved – and don’t spread the blame when only one individual is at fault.


The situation in which one student interrupts another is an example of one that is best served if the teacher simply ends the action.  A student butting into another student’s commentary is certainly disruptive and such behavior cannot be tolerated.  At the same time, the teacher who chooses to do more than end the action indirectly may create a worse problem than existed originally by blowing the whole matter out of proportion.

Another example: Jim is a student who has a particularly grating voice.  It’s not too bad when he talks quietly, but if he raises his voice, it sets everyone’s nerves on edge!  Today Jim’s teacher has told the students they can work quietly together on a science project.  Everything is fine until Jim, excited about some phase of the project, begins talking more and more loudly to his partner.  Finally the teacher decides that he must end the action.  He does so by catching Jim’s eye and then beckoning him to the front of the room.

Again, this is an excellent way to end the disruptive action.  The majority of the class does not even notice the interaction between Jim and the teacher.  The teacher can speak to Jim privately at the front of the room without fear of embarrassing him before the class.  How much better this is than, for example, “Jim can’t you keep your voice down?”  As in the earlier example, the LEAST approach to in-class discipline turns out to be the best.

Now It’s Your Turn

Once again, take a few minutes to write down some in-class situations where you would want to end the action indirectly.  What would be your reason for acting instead of leaving matters alone?  What would be the simplest way you could end the action in each case?  Try to be as concrete and specific as you can in dealing with these related questions.  Remember, your aim is to develop ‘end the action indirectly’ as your second option is maintaining classroom discipline. 

So You End the Action, What Then?

There are several further options you will want to consider once you have ended a particular problem behavior in class. 

If ending the immediate action has also ended the entire problem for the foreseeable future, you may need to do no more than track the progress of the student involved. (See component #5)

If the problem has been fairly severe, representing a potential threat to your overall control of the classroom, you probably will want to attend more fully. (See Option #3)

Finally, if the problem has actually cost you control of the classroom, however briefly, after assessing the situation and communicating your awareness, spell out directions for the students involved.  (See Option #4)



Option #3:  Attend More Fully

When Should You Attend More Fully?

Attend more fully in any situation where, by virtue of its severity or complexity, you need to communicate to students your awareness and empathy and perhaps to get additional information from them about what is going on.  In general, a situation requiring you to end the action and then attend more fully will fulfill any one of the three conditions listed below:

1.  A high level of emotion is evident in a student's behavior and/or appearance.

2.  A student needs to know that you are really 'hearing' him or her.

3.  You need to hear more from the student about what is going on.

What does “Attend More Fully” Mean?

As treated here, attending more fully involves two related activities on your part: asking questions to get information from the student (or students), and chiefly, responding to what the student is doing and saying in order to show that you understand.  This responsive dimension to your questioning can make all the difference between whether a student volunteers helpful information or remains silent.   

Why Attend More Fully?

The purpose of attending more fully is to understand the situation and to determine the most appropriate thing to do.  Here is where you avoid making premature decisions and giving unrealistic directions to a particular student or group of students.  Use the responding action in order to communicate your attention and concern to the student(s).  In doing so, you may increase the likelihood that the student(s) will prsent more of the information you need. 

How Can You Attend More Fully?

As noted, there are two procedures for getting information from students: responding to action or statements and asking questions.

  1. Responding
    You can respond to the content of what a student expresses or to the feeling evident in his or her action or statements, or to both the content and feeling.  And you can do so both before and after posing questions.  The aim in responding is to show the student that you are paying attention, that you are aware of what the student is saying and feeling.  A teacher skilled in responding can do a great deal to make a student want to talk things out.
    A.  Responding to content: The content is what you see and hear -- no more and no less.  A response to content shows the student that you are paying full attention.  Formats to use in responding to content include, "You're (paraphrased version of behavior)," or, "You're saying (paraphrased version of expression)."  In the latter case, you'll need to rephrase the important part of the student's own expression in new words he or she can still understand.  It is important not to parrot a student's words.  Thus you might respond to a student who calls another a jerk by saying, "You really don't like him at all."
    B.  Responding to feeling:  Responding at this level shows the student that you understand what he or she is going through.  To respond to feeling, look at the student and listen carefully to both the tone and the content of his or her words.  Decide whether the student is feeling happy, sad, angry, scared, or confused, and whether these feelings are strong, moderate, or weak.  (Almost all feelings can e characterized in this way.)  Then respond by saying, "You look (feeling word)," or "You feel (feeling word)."  Thus to a red-faced boy who keeps clenching his fists and darting sharp glances at a classroom 'enemy,' you might initially respond, "You look really furious!"  (feeling = anger;  intensity = strong).
  2. Questioning
    There are two basic types of questions: "5WH" questions (who/what/when/where/why/how), or those designed to get student sto give a full factual account of a particular situation;  and yes/no questions, designed to let students give information through a monosyllabic answer.
    A. 5WH:  Who/what/when/where/why/how questions can be asked to get necessary facts from students on what is going on: "What did he say to you?" and so on.  While they are often more effective than yes/no questions, they do put more pressure on a student and in certain situations the student will clam up.  If the student seems to be especially nervous it might be well to ask yes/no questions in order to get communications going even though the information you get will be limited.  After you have obtained some yes/no responses, it will be easier to return to the 5WH question and get the information you need.
    B.  Yes/No:  Such questions allow a shy or troubled student to give the information you need with a minimum of pressure.  They can also reflect your awareness of the student's probable feelings as well as his or her situation.  A typical question might be, "Are you mad at Jimmy because he did something to you?"  The risk here, of course, is that you might accidently put an incorrect answer into a student's mind.  Jimmy may not have done something, but the "yes" answer is too tempting to pass up.

Here are a few additional guidelines you may want to keep in mind:

  1. Once you decide to end the action and ask for information, don't take your eyes and ears off the student involved.  The more you see and hear, the better you'll understand that student's current situation.  And the better this understanding, the easier it will be to frame effective responses.
  2. It is almost always best to respond to a student in private rather than before the rest of the class.  This way he or she won't be needlessly embarrassed.
  3. Add new "feeling words" to your vocabulary.  Accurate responding is the key to effective questioning -- and responses to feeling are among the most powerful responses of all.
  4. Try not to weaken your effectiveness by sounding like a judge.  If you respond to content with, "So you're saying I'm not fair," for example, don't tack on, "But I'm really not."  Remember, your aim at this point is simply to show concern and get information by being responsive and asking questions.  


The example of the class wise guys is one in which the teacher should attend more fully -- after ending the action.  Here the teacher might end the action by walking down the aisle toward the wise-cracking students.  He or she could then attend more fully by responding to what the students have been doing and saying (e.g., "You guys really seem bored by what the rest of us are doing.") and then asking questions to get information about what the real problem is.

Another example: Class has been underway for about five minutes when Rita arrives and sees everyone hard at work on a writing assignment.  It is the first time she's ever been late.  The teacher notes her nervous expression and the agitated way in which she moves toward her seat.  The teacher's gut reaction is to say something which will let all the students know that tardiness will not be tolerated.  but Rita looks upset, so the teacher decides to get some further information.  She catches Rita's eyes and beckons her to her desk.

"You're late, Rita, and you look pretty worried," the teacher says, responding to both content and feeling.  Then she poses a simple yes/no question: "Did you last teacher keep you late?"

"Oh no, Ms. Larson, but I went to my locker and found that someone had broken into it and poured water all over everything!"

Wanting more information, the teacher resorts to a question of the 5WH variety: "What did you have in your locker?"

"My good coat, and all my books, and a book report -- just everything!"

The teacher responds again to Rita's feelings -- "So you're really upset because all your things got soaked" -- and then asks whether the girl has reported the incident.  The teacher's responsiveness and gentle questioning have served her, and Rita, well.

Now It’s Your Turn

What situations can you think of where you might need or want to attend more fully to a student?  What would keep you from merely issuing instructions on the spot?  What might a student do to show particular feelings?  How might you respond?  What questions might you ask?  By coming up with a variety of different situations and then answering questions about each, you'll learn the steps you need to take to ask students for information in the most effective way possible. 

So You End the Action, What Then?

Once you've responded to and obtained all the information you need from a student, you may choose to stop there if everything seems to be under control.  Alternatively, you may decide that you can only regain full control of the classroom by spelling out directions for future activity.  (see Option #4)

Finally, of course, you will again want to track the progress of the student..  (See component #5)




When Should You Spell Out Directions?

Spell out directions for a student or students in any situation that threatens loss of control or danger.  In general, this will be a situation that fulfills either one of the following conditions:

  1. The disruption is severe enough to make further learning impossible.
  2. Students are risking harm to themselves and/or to others.

In such a situation, you must first end the action (Option #2) and attend more fully (Option #3).  Then having as full an understanding as possible of what is going on, spell out directions for the students involved.

What does “Spell Out Directions” Mean?

There are two separate steps involved in spelling out directions for any troublesome student or students.  The first, of course, is to tell the student what you want him or her to do.  This may involve identifying the problem behavior (if the student is not already aware of it), and it should definitely involve outlining some specific, positive, and alternative behavior you want the student to undertake.  Make sure your directions are voiced in clear and concrete terms.  It is better to spell out directions positively, in terms of what students should do, rather than negatively, in terms of what they should not do.  The former approach avoids student denial ("I wasn't doing that ...") and has a more lasting effect.

The second step is to outline for the student the inevitable consequences of his or her continued problem-related behavior.  As will be seen, there is a fundamental difference between outlining consequences and threatening the student.

Why Spell Out Directions?

In most problem situations, you probably need to give the student a clear picture of the problem to forestall the traditional reaction.  "I didn't know I was doing anything wrong!"

You should specify a positive and alternative activity because merely telling a student to stop what he or she is doing is not effective.  It is far better to get the student involved in something else that will provide a constructive outlet for all that extra energy.  Thus, "Margie, no more fighting," is by no means as effective as, "Margie, please sit down and open your history book."

As far as consequences are concerned, these should be spelled out to help a student understand how his or her actions can have specific unhappy results.  Outlining consequences reminds the student that he or she is not an independent agent but is bound up with you and the rest of the class in a cooperative venture.  However, it is a "last resort" approach to discipline.  Taking such an approach risks alienating the student, who may feel that you are "coming down" too hard on him or her.

How Do You Spell Out Directions?

As noted, there are two elements involved in spelling out directions:  the directions themselves (i.e. telling students what you want them to do) and the consequences (i.e. telling students what will happen if they don't follow directions).  Let's look at each element in turn..

  1. Giving Directions
    If there is any doubt in your mind about whether a student is aware of a problem, you should identify it.  (In most cases you will have done so already by ending the action indirectly.)  The next step is to spell out your directions, preferably in positive terms.  As indicated above, giving positive directions ("I want you to start ...") is usually more effective than giving negative ones ("I want you to stop ..."); there is no debate involved, only a clear indication of what you want the student to do now.

    In specifying what you want the student to do, try to indicate an alternative behavior which will take the place of whatever the student has been doing.  Thus, "Tom, stop flicking the lights," is much less effective than "Tom, please sit down and start reading chapter 6 in your book."

    In telling students what you want them to do, it is important to be as polite and generally decent as possible.  No truly effective teacher ever confuses firmness with harshness or rudeness.

  2. Outlining Consequences
    There are often a few students in a class who do not respond to simple directions.  You can speak to them time and time again about troublesome behavior without really resolving the problem.  With such students, you may need to spell out the consequences of further disruption.  If you do this, be sure to state the consequences in terms that make the particular student (rather than you) responsible: not, "If you don't stop talking I'll keep you after school," but "Either you stop talking or you'll have to come in after school today."  While the meaning of both statements is the same, the former makes you the threatening party while the latter treats the student as the person responsible.  

    In selecting consequences, there are two things to keep in mind.  First, try to outline consequences which fit the problem behavior.  Thus, if a student has been talking during a test, you might have him or her come in after school and work quietly; or if a student has persisted in leaving his or her desk a mess, you might have the student come in after class and give the desk a good cleaning.  Second, of course, make sure you can follow through on the consequences you outline.  For example: Fred is a fighter.  You know it.  He fights in the halls, restroom, cafeteria, playground, off campus, and at home.  Fred likes to fight; he usually does well at it, and it is a good attention-getter.  You've learned all this by attending more fully.  There is no way you are going to get Fred to stop fighting, so what should your directions and consequences be?  They must be attainable.  You should certainly not indicate that you may have to call his parents if school policy allows only the administrator to make direct contact with parents.  In other words, don't say it if you can't or won't do it!  Perhaps the best you can do is say, "No more fighting in my room this period (the direction) or I will have to speak to you again (the consequence)."

Following are a few additional guidelines to keep in mind as you spell out directions (and possibly consequences) for your students:

  1. Keep "Grandma's rule" in mind: any behavior in which a student engages can be used to forestall any less desirable behavior; simply have the student perform the more desirable behavior first.  Thus if a student is clowning around out of his seat and you know he enjoys working at the board, you might say, "Jimmy, please come up and show us how you worked this problem."
  2. Don't expect to come up with an ideal solution to every discipline problem immediately.  Promoting consistently good classroom behavior is a lengthy process.  Be ready to accept a partial solution to a problem if it reflects behavior that is somewhat more constructive than the problem behavior.
  3. Watch out for the "criticism trap," i.e., criticizing what a student is doing without specifying what he or she would do and how to do it.  Instead of "You look sloppy!" say, "Try to come in tomorrow looking your very best."  Criticism by itself invariably produces an increase in negative behavior.


The fistfight situation would be a problem requiring the teacher to spell out directions.  The obvious first step must be to end the action.  The teacher can then attend more fully (responding to the students' anger and asking questions) in order to calm them down and get more information.  Finally, the teacher must specify what she or he wants these students to do -- and what not to do!

Another example: Rick arrives late for class, the third time this week.  His teacher ends the action by pointing out that by coming late, he not only misses part of the day's lesson but also interrupts the rest of the class.  She then responds to Rick: "You probably feel pretty embarrassed about getting here late" (Rick's face is red).  And she questions him, discovering in the process that he has been late because he keeps missing the school bus.  

Now the teacher spells out directions: "Rick, I'd like you to set your alarm for 6:30.  That's a half hour earlier than you have been setting it, right?"  If Rick fails to follow her directions, her next step will be to spell out the consequences of his tardiness -- perhaps, "If you're late again, you'll have to stay late that afternoon and write out a good strategy of your own for catching the bus!"

Now It’s Your Turn

Develop several imaginary situations in which you might need to spell out directions for students.  How would you exercise the other options before you spell out directions?  What positive and alternative behaviors could you specify in each case?  When would you need to outline consequences, and when would you avoid doing so?  The answers to these questions will help you master the specific steps involved in spelling out directions for students.  . 

You've Spelled Out Directions, Now What?

Once you've spelled out directions for students, you will need to track their progress.  (see component #5)  This will involve checking to see if they are doing as you asked, providing positive reinforcement whenever possible and (if necessary) following through on the consequences you have outlined.



When Should You Track Student Progress?

ALWAYS track students' progress.  For one thing, this is an excellent way to let students know that you're paying attention to them.  For another, tracking progress is the only way you can determine whether or not a specific disciplinary approach has been successful.

What does “Track Student Progress” Mean?

Tracking students' progress means seeing how students are behaving in the minutes, hours, and even days following their involvement in some type of disciplinary situation.  There are four different activities in which the teacher may engage here: evaluating new behavior of the students involved (Are they doing what you asked?", following through on previously outlined consequences (if the students are not doing as you requested); providing positive reinforcement in a direct (e.g., praising more constructive behavior) or indirect manner (e.g., giving the student a chance to lead a discussion); and keeping the "track record.".

Why Track Student Progress?

Handling disciplinary problems without checking out the results of your actions is like trying to carry on a conversation without being able to hear the other person's comments: after awhile you can no longer tell whether you're having any constructive impact.  Only by tracking the progress of students who have been involved in the problems can you learn how effective your disciplinary efforts are -- and how they must be modified to achieve better results..

How Can You Track Student Progress?

As indicated above, tracking students' progress may involve the teacher in as many as four different activities.  Let's consider each activity in turn.

  1. Evaluating New Behavior
    When you choose to ignore an undesirable behavior, you do so because you're convinced that behavior will disappear without your intervention.  When you act to resolve a problem, you expect the student or students involved to behave more constructively in the future.  In either case, you will need to follow up to make sure the situation really has improved.  The simplest way to do this is to observe and listen to the student and try to answer some questions.  If you either did not act on the original incident or merely stopped the action without giving directions for future behavior, you'll want to answer the question, "Is this student behaving better or worse than he/she was in the problem situation?"  If the student's behavior deteriorates or remains unsatisfactory, you will need to provide some firm guidance.  If the student's behavior has improved, even if only slightly, you will want to positively reinforce such improvement.

    If you deal with the original problem by issuing directions you will want to follow up by asking, "Is this student doing what I requested?"  If the problem recurs, you may need to outline some consequences.  If the student is not doing what you requested but is still performing in a generally improved manner, you'll need to decide whether you can live with the new situation.  If the student is doing as you requested, you will certainly want to reinforce this new behavior.
  2. Following Through on Consequences
    It is probably inevitable that you will encounter some students who cannot take direction.  Billy is flicking the lights on and off.  You as him to stop and take his seat.  He does, but five minutes later he's at the light switch again.  If you have outlined the consequences of his actions, you will now have to follow through: "Billy, I told you before that you would have to come in after class if you continued flicking the lights.  And now I'm afraid that's just what you'll have  to do."  Here again, it is important to help Billy understand that he is solely responsible for the consequences of his actions.
  3. Positively Reinforcing New Behaviors
    It is impossible to underrate the importance of rewarding students for constructive behavior.  We all would like to think that being polite or talking softly, for example, are to be expected and require no reward.  Yet the truth is, all of us have added most to our constructive behaviors when others have rewarded us for doing those things.  (Be honest: Doesn't a student chorus of, "You really look sharp today" encourage us to dress that way again?)

    As a general rule, you should find ways to reinforce any student's constructive  behavior in the classroom.  It is particularly important to do so when a student who has been involved in a problem situation develops some better activity.  Only by positively reinforcing the behaviors you want in the classroom can you hope to perpetuate and promote them -- and to avoid that familiar, mumbled criticism, "The teacher never pays any attention to me unless I'm doing something wrong!"

    You can positively reinforce students in two ways: directly and indirectly:
    a.  Direct reinforcement makes it clear to the student that you are pleased with a specific activity or accomplishment.  A comment on a paper -- "Good Job, Karen!" -- may mean more to the student than the grade itself.  Vocal praise also serves to reinforce behavior directly: "John, that was great.  You were really paying attention!"

    b.  Indirect reinforcement is more subtle, often rewarding the student without explicitly linking the reward with the constructive behavior.  Here you might reward a student who has overcome a problem by giving him or her a new responsibility such as leading a discussion or organizing a project.  Or you might simply give the student an extra smile and make sure you call on him or her for comments.

    Direct reinforcement will be translated by the student into a principle along the lines of, "If I act like this, I'll get that."  Indirect reinforcement, in contrast, often means, "When I'm doing well, good things tend to happen."

    Try to develop a list of as many direct and indirect means of reinforcing students in your class as possible.  A word of caution here: Remember that your reinforcements must be considered positive from the student's point of view.   You may think that collecting papers from the class is a rewarding task, but your post-problem student may see the reward as a "real drag."
  4. Keeping the Track Record

    This is a matter of selecting and/or developing a method of "tracking" that is adequate for your decision-making purposes but not so time-consuming that it interferes with normal classroom activities.  

    To do a good job of tracking you must know something about all your students.  This means you should plan ahead just as you would plan ahead to teach a lesson.  Keep some type of written record of student behaviors, your responses to these behaviors, and any pertinent information you have gained by "attending more fully."  A full anecdotal commentary on every student would be too time-consuming and therefore counterproductive, but the record does need to be such that you understand what you have recorded.  

    To make entries into the record quickly, have a list of all your students ready ahead of time -- in a notebook or card file, for example -- on which you can record events as they happen.  A listing of students by class would be useful.  Devise some coding that would suffice.  For example, in the case of Nikki tripping Sandra, put some coded notes about what happened after both names and the fact that you decided to "leave things alone."  It will become apparent through your "track record" whether this behavior is an isolated event or part of a pattern.  You may even find from the record that Sandra is more the source of the problem than Nikki.  The important thing is that you be able to make your entries quickly and with accuracy.  

Once again, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you begin tracking the progress of your students:

When you evaluate students' new behavior, try to avoid the "I'm watching you like a hawk to see if you mess up" approach.  If you get into the habit of observing and listening to each of your students every day, they won't decide that you care only about what's happening when there is trouble.

Do not apply consequences unless and until you have to, but then do it promptly, firmly, and fairly.  Your students have to see that you are consistent, both in following through on consequences and in rewarding constructive behavior.

Reward students frequently with small amounts of praise or similar reinforcements.  It  is a mistake to hold off while waiting for the "perfect" behavior -- you'll never get it.  Instead, make sure students are aware that you are pleased every time they function effectively.  


The situation involving racial tensions especially reflects the need for tracking student progress.  Here the effective teacher will exercise Option #1 and leave things alone, since there is little that can be done on a unilateral basis to relieve the tension.  However, the teacher will also track the progress of all students to see if any overt signs of this racial tension are threatening to disrupt the learning process.

Another example: Fred's school has no dress code, and Fred was one of the few students who tended to take advantage of this fact.  At first his homeroom teacher left things alone; there were more important problems to deal with.  Finally, however, Fred showed up in class looking like a walking disaster area and the teacher had to end the action.  He did so by speaking to Fred after class.  It was too late for Fred to change that day, but after responding to Fred's feelings, the teacher outlined quite clearly the minimal quality of dress and hygiene he expected from Fred the next day.  The directions were sufficient.  Fred "cleaned up his act" considerably, showing up the next day in fresh clothes and with a clean face.  The teacher noted this and reinforced Fred's new behavior: "Hey, Fred, now that's what I call sharp!"

No big deal here -- just a simple follow-up-and-reward procedure.  And the teacher will continue to reward Fred mildly for his positive appearance until this new behavior has become a confirmed part of Fred's daily life.

Now It’s Your Turn

You've spent some time noting sample classroom situations in which you might use one or more of the LEAST options.  Now brainstorm some ways in which you would need to follow through in such situations.  What things would you look and listen for?  When would you invoke consequences and why?  And most important, when and how would you reinforce students' new behaviors?  All of these things are critical parts of the one activity which must accompany a teacher's approach to discipline: tracking the progress of students.