By: David Moadel
Lee and Marlene Canter’s Assertive Discipline has withstood the test of time as one of the classic texts on classroom behavior management. After reading the book, I can easily see why it is still utilized by so many educators as a guiding force in their classroom management systems. This book provides teachers, both new and experienced, with ideas and principles that can be used in practically any classroom. It can make the difference between a well-run class in which students are on-task and learning, and a class in which the students are disruptive and the students feel distracted and unsafe. In a disruptive classroom environment, students will not learn much, if at all. Thus, effective behavior management is a necessary condition of student learning and achievement. Assertive Discipline makes this possible. It is not the only approach to classroom management, but it is one of the best approaches, in my opinion. Moreover, I feel that some of the “newer” approaches to behavior management are, in reality, modifications or updates of Assertive Discipline. Indeed, so-called “modern” approaches owe an enormous debt of gratitude to this book.
Assertive Discipline is not a lengthy book, but as Shakespeare once said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”; thus, much of the book’s appeal lies in its succinct, practical approach. Many education-related texts, in my experience as a reader, contain a lot of theory but not much practical value for classroom teachers. All of the theoretical knowledge in the world won’t help a new classroom teacher who is confronted with misbehavior on the first day of school. I recall learning the concepts of Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson, and even Freud in some of my university courses. Please do not misunderstand — learning such concepts was an important experience in my development as an educator. However, when I first found myself standing in front of a classroom full of students — some of them ready to put my classroom management skills to the test — the theoretical ideas of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Erikson were not of much use at that moment. What I needed was a practical, step-by-step, immediately useful guide to managing student behavior. Assertive Discipline fits that description quite well.
In actuality, the useful application of Assertive Discipline begins even before the first day of the school year. The authors suggest that teachers should formulate their behavior management plan before the first day of school. The truth of the matter is that too many teachers improvise solutions to misbehavior as they occur in the classroom. This is a recipe for potential disaster because it is not conducive to consistency. Pre-planning the teacher’s responses to misbehavior in the classroom is key to consistent enforcement of rules (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 16). This is because the rules, as well as the consequences for misbehavior, are predetermined. Teachers are not advised to be inflexible, but should stick to the behavior plan whenever possible. I have found from experience that students behave better when they know exactly what to expect, starting from the first day of school.
Although Assertive Discipline does discuss penalties for misbehavior, it is not merely focused on negative consequences. In fact, the authors make it clear that positive reinforcement of appropriate, on-task student behavior is an integral part of an effective behavior management system (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 42). We are not talking about bribery here; rather, we are referring to specific, behavior-targeted praise and other rewards. This is not a new concept, as it dates back to the psychological concept of classical conditioning. The idea is to point out the particular appropriate behaviors exhibited by the student, and then use verbal (and/or tangible) acknowledgment to reinforce such behaviors. For example, the instructor could say, “Susan, I like the way you are working.” This not only encourages Susan to continue this appropriate behavior, but it also encourages other students to engage in the same behavior. I have used this technique with much success. If one student began to misbehave, I would verbally point out how a nearby student is behaving appropriately. This would often correct the behavior of the misbehaving student.
When giving praise, it is essential to follow the guidelines mentioned in Assertive Discipline. Praise should be delivered with a smile. Body language should be friendly, not aggressive. Older students, such as high school students, often prefer to be praised privately. This is because they usually do not wish to be considered a “teacher’s pet” by their peers (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 123). It is also a good idea to praise each student at least once per school day, if this is feasible. However, I have found that it is possible to praise a student too often, which can have the consequence of devaluing the praise. Possibly the most important guideline is to make sure that the praise is sincere and meaningful to the student (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 122).
Unfortunately, praise, even when delivered effectively, is not always sufficient to correct a student’s misbehavior. In fact, some students don’t respond to praise at all. Assertive Discipline addresses this issue. The concept of supportive feedback involves rewards beyond praise (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 115-130). Such rewards differ from class to class, and from student to student. I have found that it is a great idea to have students write down suggestions for class rewards and individual rewards for good behavior. I have tried this, and I discovered that I was totally wrong about what would motivate the students. One class might prefer “free time” after doing their work, while another class may prefer certificates, ribbons, or other special awards.
One of the most popular reward systems is the “marbles-in-a-jar” system (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 57). This works great with younger students. Throughout the school day, whenever the instructor sees that the class is on-task and behaving well, he or she would drop a marble into a jar. This sound can easily be heard by the students, and it signals to them that their appropriate behavior is bringing them closer to the jar filling up, which would mean a class reward. This reward could be a party for the class, a raffle, free time, or even a field trip. The excitement of the jar gradually filling up causes students to encourage each other to behave well in class. This idea is well-known among educators due to the popularity of Assertive Discipline.
Yet another concept that teachers can learn from Assertive Discipline is the idea of monitoring one’s own responses to student misbehavior. Each teacher should ask himself or herself, “What type of responses am I giving to student misbehavior — reactive (unassertive, unprepared, or hostile), or assertive?” If the students are not taking our requests and demands seriously, then the answer is probably reactive. If the students are afraid of us, then the answer is also likely to be reactive. The best approach, according to Assertive Discipline, is a proactive approach (Canter & Canter, 2001, p. 11-17). With this approach, the students know that the teacher will address misbehavior quickly and firmly, without resorting to threats or humiliation, and with the confidence that comes from pre-planning. I have found that students need to know that you will deal with their inappropriate misbehavior fairly and consistently. This concept is one of the foundations of the book.
Nowadays, the principles explained in Assertive Discipline might seem obvious to some experienced teachers. However, we should not take this book, and its ideas, for granted. What the authors have achieved is, in my opinion, a milestone in the history of education. The book still sells well, and it is considered by many to be a classic. I believe that the book and its authors have earned this distinction.
Canter, L., and Canter, M. (2001). Assertive Discipline (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.