Character-based Discipline

Character-based discipline: Using rules and consequences to develop moral reasoning, self-control, and a generalized respect for others.

Key Ideas

  1. Discipline must be a tool for moral growth, helping students to develop self-control and a generalized respect for others. Discipline without moral education is merely crowd control — managing behavior without teaching morality.
  2. Rules should be established in a way that develops moral reasoning by helping students see the values (e.g., courtesy and caring) behind the rules. The emphasis should be not on extrinsic rewards and punishment but on following the rules because it's the right thing to do — respectful of self and others. Research shows that emphasis on external incentives undermines intrinsic motivation.
  3. Consequences of rule-breaking should contribute to character development, helping students understand why the rule is needed and increasing their feeling of moral obligation to respect it.
  4. The teacher is the central moral authority in the classroom, responsible for students' moral and academic learning, safety, and general welfare. While exercising authority, however, the teacher can invite students to share responsibility for classroom order.


  1. Especially at the elementary level, children need the experience of helping to construct good rules for the classroom, so that they develop moral insight into the necessity of rules (groups can't function without them) and develop a commitment to following them.
  2. Students also benefit from helping to create at least some of the consequences of rule-breaking. For example, what is a fair and educational consequence for putting someone down? (Restitution is needed to repair the damage done to the relationship.) The teacher can guide students to see that good consequences do not have the purpose of making someone suffer but are designed to help them gain control over their behavior so they can participate effectively in the group.
  3. Time-out, like other character-building consequences, works best when it helps students make a connection between their behavior and the relevant rule or value, and make a plan to improve their behavior in the future.