Discipline in Education, Past and Present

“Discipline in Education, Past and Present”

Throughout the history of classroom education, many different types of disciplinary systems have been applied by teachers and other authority figures in schools for the sole purpose of controlling student behaviour. These systems include corporal punishment, psychological abuse or neglect, and assertive discipline. Although two of these three topics are illegal at this time, they were all widely used in schools across the country a short time ago.

Corporal punishment in general can be defined as the infliction of pain or confinement as a penalty for an offense committed by a student. During the time that corporal punishment was used by schools all over the United States and Canada, parents did not have any say in school discipline. It was completely up to the school authority figures on the type of punishment and the severity of the punishment given to the student. The classroom teacher had the most say in the matter since it was the teacher who usually administered the punishment to the students. Because of this, some teachers (who especially liked the idea of physical punishment) took advantage of the minor guidelines set by the principal to protect students from excessive physical beatings. These guidelines varied from school to school, but often included length, width and thickness of the paddle or any other weapon used, the amount of times the student may be struck by the weapon, and other minor details about other types of physical punishment. The list of weapons that were acceptable for teachers to use include long: rubber hoses, leather straps and belts, sticks, rods, straight pins, hard plastic baseball bats, and arrows. If at the time a teacher did not have his/her weapon, they would often resort to punching, kicking, slapping and shaking as ways to “get children’s attention”. Besides these common manoeuvres of punishment, other and often more painful techniques were used by teachers. Children in a class for the learning disabled claimed that their teacher, and her aide banged their heads into their desks until some students were unconscious, twisted their arms, and even tried strangulation. Another teacher shook hot tabasco sauce in the mouths of the troublesome student and smeared it in their faces. When parents found out about this specific act of cruelty, they were outraged and took their case to state officials. The final verdict on this case was that they saw nothing wrong with forcing kids to eat something they did not like (Butterfield 1983). In the Christian schools, this kind of punishment was related to the concept of original sin and the need to combat Satan by beating the devil out of children. This same idea was used in other religions as well, and children were beaten because of mental illness, or disease. One of the most common arguments for corporal punishment is that its abolition would leave teachers powerless to control students, especially those who might be a threat to the teacher. Despite this, it has been proven that most corporal punishment is inflicted against relatively defenceless students who are too small or weak to strike back. Now that corporal punishment is illegal in almost all areas including the Unites States and

Canada, the only physical force that can be used by teachers is in specific situations (with the unintentional of inflicting pain) such as to quell a disturbance, to protect oneself, property, or another person.

When a child is physically abused, absence from the abuser results in a relatively quick healing of the physical wounds, but the emotional scars left by the abuse last a lifetime. For this reason, many psychologists believe that when a child is psychologically abused in schools, it will have a far worse effect on children all throughout their lifetime, and quite often lead to stress related diseases (ulcer, depression etc.) and may even lead to suicide. It is a common mistake that a child cannot be psychologically abused unless they are physically beaten, or abused. This could not be farther from the truth. Physical abuse accounts for only 20% of the total psychological damage left on abused children. There were many things that were done to children by their classroom teachers that had a far worse result on the student than any physical abuse would ever have. The most common of these is constant humiliation. It was not uncommon for teachers in the past to repeatedly criticize and laugh at a particular student’s disability, or even creativity for the main reason of punishing the student for a minor offense. Teachers did this by often reading a student’s personal journal to the whole class, reading a student’s grades, and most often apprehending and degrading the student about his or her appearance, family, or school work in front of the whole class. This kind of humiliation is difficult to take even as an adult, never mind a ten year old child. As a result of this so called “punishment”, many students who were constantly embarrassed and degraded over a long period of time suffered from psychological abnormalities such as insomnia, nightmares, and even schizophrenia. Another such psychological “punishment” used by teachers was seclusion. This is not to be confused with the idea of suspension, or removal from class. Seclusion often meant locking misbehaved children up in to small dark closets, or damp dark basements for long periods of time. In one specific case, an eleven year old child who slipped and fell while walking down the hall, was put into a small, dark, wet almost cubby hole where janitorial supplies were kept. He ended up spending an incredible twenty-eight hours in this closet before the teacher remembered that he had locked him in with a pad lock the day before. The boy was able to drink water because there was a running hose in the room. The parents of the child were so scared and outraged that authorities were notified, but once again it was decided that only the teachers can decide the severity of the punishment.

Assertive discipline is a very broad term, and can be achieved by using many different techniques. The main idea of assertive discipline is that it forces a student to do or carry out an unpleasant task as a punishment for a wrongdoing. Assertive discipline is used in schools today, and does not include any physical, or emotional harm that may damage a student’s ability to learn. This does not mean that teachers cannot apprehend and punish a student for intolerable behaviour, but they cannot do it by any means of inflicting students with fear of possible abuse, or maltreatment. In this day and age, teachers must watch carefully how they discipline their students because one slip of the tongue, or hand for that matter may lead to criminal charges of assault, or other related charges. Many teachers have now been stripped of their right to teach just for a small comment to a student that may have been interpreted the wrong way by the student. It is recommended now that teachers always have a witness present while speaking privately, or a tape recorder to avoid such devastating mishaps. Every public and secondary school teacher in the world has their own discipline system.

Some teachers are more lenient than others, but each teacher should ensure that the consequences for a misbehaving student is great enough to persuade students to think again before breaking any rules. There are many different systems a teacher can use. Still being used most of all is the traditional detention. In this system, if a student misbehaves, he/she must spend a certain amount of their own free time in the class after school or during lunch. The only problem with this is that there are the few student who don’t care if they spend the rest of their life in the class and may brake rules on purpose just to achieve this. This is often due to unpleasant home or social situations. Another system that is still being widely used is the “Write Out” punishment. This includes writing certain things out 1000 times, to copying a page of a dictionary for homework. This is an all-around unpleasant thing to do, and is probably one of the better systems used. Throughout all the different discipline plans, each teacher must be positive but stern while punishing students. Verbal apprehensions in private also may have a positive effect on misbehaving students.

Of all the different types of discipline studied, Assertive discipline has the most positive results on students. It has been proven to be better at stopping students from unacceptable behaviour, as well as not damaging them emotionally, or physically. Both Physical and emotional abuse have a very negative effect on students at the time, and the emotional scars created last a life time.


Canter, Lee and Marlene Canter. Assertive Discipline. Santa Monica, CA: Lee Canter and Associates, 1992

Hyman, Irwin A. Reading Writing and the Hickory Stick. Toronto: Lexington Books, 1990.

McManus, Mick. Troublesome Behaviour in the Classroom. New York: Nichols Publishing, 1989.

“World Book Encyclopedia”. Toronto: World Book Inc, 1991 edition. Pp.88-89