Assertive Discipline: More Than Names on the Board and Marbles in a Jar

Mr. Canter explains the background of the program and addresses some of the issues that are frequently raised about Assertive Discipline.



(Lee Canter is president of Lee Canter & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif. He is the author of many books on behavior management and is the developer of the Assertive Disc0fine program)


ABOUT A YEAR ago I was on an airline flight, seated next to a university professor. When he found out that I had developed the Assertive Discipline program, he said, 'Oh, that's where all you do is write the kids' names on the board when they’re bad and drop marbles in the jar when they're good


The university professor's response disturbed me. For some time I've been concerned about a small percentage of educators ­- this professor apparently among them ‑ who have interpreted my Program in a way that makes behavior management sound simplistic. More important, I'm concerned with their misguided emphasis on providing only negative consequences when students misbehave. The key to dealing effectively with student behavior is not negative ‑ but positive ‑ consequences. To clarify my views for Kappan readers, I would like to explain the background of the program and address some of the issues that are often raised about Assertive Discipline.


I developed the program about 14 years ago, when I first became aware that teachers were not trained to deal with student behavior. Teachers were taught such concepts as "Don't smile until Christmas” or "If your curriculum is good enough, you will have no behavior problems." Those concepts were out of step with the reality of student behavior in the 1970s.


When I discovered this lack of training, I began to study how effective teachers dealt with student behavior. I found that, above all, the master teachers were assertive; that is, they taught students how to behave. They established clear rules for the classroom, they communicated those rules to the students, and they taught the students how to follow them. These effective teachers had also mastered skills in positive reinforcement, and they praised every student at least once a day. Finally, when students chose to break the rules, these teachers used firm and consistent negative consequences ‑ but only as a last resort.


It troubles me to find my work interpreted as suggesting that teachers need only provide negative consequences ‑ check marks or demerits ‑when students misbehave. That interpretation is wrong. The key to Assertive Discipline is catching students being good: recognizing and supporting them when they behave appropriately and letting them know you like it, day in and day out.




It is vital for classroom teachers to have a systematic discipline plan that explains exactly what will happen when students choose to misbehave. By telling the students at the beginning of the school year what the consequences will be, teachers insure that all students know what to expect in the classroom. Without a plan, teachers must choose an appropriate consequence at the moment when a student misbehaves. They must stop the lesson, talk to the misbehaving student, and do whatever else the situation requires, while 25 to 30 students look on. That is not an effective way to teach ‑ or to deal with misbehavior.


Most important, without a plan teachers tend to be inconsistent. One day they may ignore students who are talking, yelling, or disrupting the class. The next day they may severely discipline students for the same behaviors. In addition, teachers may respond differently to students from different socioeconomic, ethnic, or racial backgrounds.


An effective discipline plan is applied fairly to all students. Every student who willfully disrupts the classroom and stops the teacher from teaching suffers the same consequence. And a written plan can be sent home to parents, who then know beforehand what the teacher's standards are and what will be done when students choose to misbehave. When a teacher calls a parent, there should be no surprises.




I suggest that a discipline plan include a maximum of five consequences for misbehavior, but teachers must choose consequences with which they are comfortable. For example, the first time a student breaks a rule, the student is warned. The second infraction brings a 10‑minute timeout; the third infraction, a 15‑minute timeout. The fourth time a student breaks a rule, the teacher calls the parents; the fifth time, the student goes to the principal.


No teacher should have a plan that is not appropriate for his or her needs and that is not in the best interests of the students. Most important, the consequences should never be psychologically or physically harmful to the students. Students should never be made to stand in front of the class as objects of ridicule or be degraded in any other way. Nor should they be given consequences that are inappropriate for their grade levels. I also feel strongly that corporal punishment should never be administered. There are more effective ways of dealing with students than hitting them.


Names and checks on the board are sometimes said to be essential to an Assertive Discipline program, but they are not. I originally suggested this particular practice because I had seen teachers interrupt their lessons to make such negative comments to misbehaving students as, “You talked out again. I’ve had it. You're impossible. That's 20 minutes after school." I wanted to eliminate the need to stop the lesson and issue reprimands. Writing a students name on the board should warn the student in a calm, non-grading manner. It would also provide a record‑keeping system for the teacher.


Unfortunately, some parents have misinterpreted the use of names and checks on the board as a way of humiliating students. I now suggest that teachers instead write an offending student's name on a clipboard or in the roll book and say to the student, “You talked out, you disrupted the class, you broke a rule. That's a warning. That's a check."


In addition to parents, some teachers have misinterpreted elements of the Assertive Discipline program. The vast majority of teachers ‑ my staff and I have probably trained close to 750,000 teachers ‑ have used the program to dramatically increase their reliance on positive reinforcement and verbal praise. But a small percentage of teachers have interpreted the program in a negative manner.


There are several reasons for this. First, Assertive Discipline has become a generic term, like Xerox or Kleenex. A number of educators are now conducting training in what they call Assertive Discipline without teaching all the competencies essential to my program. For example, I have heard reports of teachers who were taught that they had only to stand in front of their students, tell them that there were rules and consequences, display a chart listing those rules and consequences, and write the names of misbehaving students on the board. That was it. Those teachers were never introduced to the concept that positive reinforcement is the key to dealing with students. Such programs are not in the best interests of students.


Negative interpretations have also come from burned‑out, overwhelmed teachers who feel they do not get the support that they need from parents or administrators and who take out their frustrations on students. Assertive Discipline is not a negative program, but it can be misused by negative teachers. The answer is not to change the program, but to change the teachers. We need to train administrators, mentor teachers, and staff developers to coach negative teachers in the use of positive reinforcement. If these teachers cannot become more positive, they should not be teaching.




I recommend a three‑step cycle of behavior management to establish a positive discipline system.


First, whenever teachers want students to follow certain directions, they must teach the specific behaviors. Teachers too often assume that students know how they are expected to behave. Teachers first need to establish specific directions for each activity during the day ‑ lectures, small‑group work, transitions between activities, and so forth. For each situation, teachers must determine the exact behaviors they expect from the students.


For example, teachers may want students to stay in their seats during a lecture, focusing their eyes on the lecturer, clearing their desks of all materials except paper and pencil, raising their hands when they have questions or comments, and waiting to be called on before speaking. Once teachers have determined the specific behaviors for each situation, they must teach the students how to follow the directions. They must first state the directions and, with younger students, write the behaviors on the board or on a flip chart. Then they must model the behaviors, ask the students restate the directions, question the students to make sure they understand the directions, and immediately engage the students in the activity to make sure that they understand the directions.


Second, after teaching the specific directions, teachers ‑ especially at the elementary level ‑ must use positive repetition to reinforce the students when they follow the directions. Typically, teachers give directions to the students and then focus attention only on those students who do not obey. ("Bobby, you didn't go back to your seat. Teddy, what's wrong with you? Get back to work.") Instead, teachers should focus on those students who do follow the directions, rephrasing the original directions as a positive comment. For example, "Jason went back to his seat and got right to work."


Third, if a student is still misbehaving after a teacher has taught specific directions and has used positive repetition, only then should the teacher use the negative consequences outlined in his or her Assertive Discipline plan. As a general rule, a teacher shouldn't administer a disciplinary consequence to a student until the teacher has reinforced at least two students for the appropriate behavior. Effective teachers are always positive first. Focusing on negative behavior teaches students that negative behavior gets attention, that the teacher is a negative per­son, and that the classroom is a negative place.


An effective behavior management pro­gram must be built on choice. Students must know beforehand what is expected of them in the classroom, what will hap­pen if they choose to behave, and what will happen if they choose not to be­have. Students learn self‑discipline and responsible behavior by being given clear, consistent choices. They learn that their actions have an impact and that they themselves control the consequences.


I wish teachers did not need to use negative consequences at all. I wish all students came to school motivated to learn. I wish all parents supported teachers and administrators. But that's not the reality today. Many children do not come to school intrinsically motivated to be­have. Their parents have never taken the time or don't have the knowledge or skills to teach them how to behave. Given these circumstances, teachers need to set firm and consistent limits in their classrooms. However, those limits must be fair, and the consequences must be seen as out­comes of behaviors that students have chosen.


Students need teachers who can create classroom environments in which teaching and learning can take place. Every student has the right to a learning environment that is free from disruption. Students also need teachers who help them learn how to behave appropriately in school. Many students who are categorized as behavior problems would not be so labeled if their teachers had taught them how to behave appropriately in the classroom and had raised their self­ esteem.




The average teacher never receives in‑depth, competency‑based training in managing the behavior of 30 students . No one teaches teachers how to keep students in their seats long enough for teachers to make good use of the skills they learned in their education classes. In most instances, behavior management is taught through a smorgasbord approach ‑ a little bit of William Glasser, a little bit of Thomas Gordon, a little bit of Rudolf Dreikurs, a little bit of Lee Canter. The teachers are told to find an approach that works for them.


Such an approach to training teachers in behavior management is analogous to a swimming class in which nonswimmers are briefly introduced ‑ without practice ‑ to the crawl stroke, the breast stroke, the back stroke, and the side stroke; then they are rowed to the middle of a lake, tossed overboard, and told to swim to shore, using whatever stroke works for them. In effect, we're telling teachers to sink or swim, and too many teachers are sinking.


The lack of ability to manage student behavior is one of the key reasons why beginning teachers drop out of teaching. Teachers must be trained thoroughly in classroom management skills. It is not sufficient for them to know how to teach content. They will never get to the content unless they know how to create a positive environment in which students know how to behave.


Assertive Discipline is not a cure‑all. It is a starting point. Every teacher should also know how to use counseling skills, how to use group process skills, and how to help students with behavioral deficits learn appropriate classroom behaviors. In addition, classroom management must be part of an educator's continuing professional development. Teachers routinely attend workshops, enroll in college courses, receive feedback from administrators, and take part in regular inservice training to refine their teaching skills. Classroom management skills deserve the same attention. Unfortunately, some educators view training in Assertive Discipline as a one‑shot process; they attend a one‑day workshop, and that's supposed to take care of their training needs for the rest of their careers.


One day is not enough. It takes a great deal of effort and continuing training for a teacher to master the skills of classroom management. A teacher a1sc needs support from the building administrator. Without an administrator backing a teacher's efforts to improve behavior management, without an administrator to coach and clinically supervise a teacher's behavior management skills, that teacher is not going to receive the necessary feedback and assistance to master those skills.


Parental support for teachers' disciplinary efforts is equally important. Many teachers become frustrated and give up when they don't receive such support. We must train teachers to guarantee the support of parents by teaching teachers how to communicate effectively with parents. In teacher training programs, participants are led to believe that today's parents will act as parents did in the past and give absolute support to the school. That is rarely the case. Today's teachers call parents and are told, "He's your problem at school. You handle it. You're the professional. You take care of him. I don't know what to do. Leave me alone."




0ver the last several years, a number of dissertations, master's theses, and research projects have dealt with Assertive Discipline. The results have consistently, shown that teachers dramatically improve student behavior when they use the skills as prescribed. Teachers who use Assertive Discipline reduce the frequency of disruptive behavior in their classrooms, greatly reduce the number of students they refer to administrators, and dramatically increase their students' time-on-task.1 Other research has demonstrated that student teachers trained in Assertive Discipline are evaluated by their master teachers as more effective in classroom management.2 Research conducted in school districts in California, Oregon, Ohio, and Arizona has shown that an overwhelming majority of teachers believe that Assertive Discipline helps to improve the climate in the schools and the behavior of students.3


No one should be surprised that research has verified the success of the program when teachers use the skills properly. Numerous research studies have shown that teachers need to teach students the specific behaviors that they expect from them. Research also shows that student behavior improves when teachers use positive reinforcement effectively and that the pairing of positive reinforcement with consistent disciplinary consequences effectively motivates students to behave appropriately.4


Any behavior management program that is taught to teachers today must have a solid foundation in research. Many so-called "experts" advocate programs that are based solely on their own opinions regarding what constitutes a proper classroom environment. When pressed, many of these experts have no research validating their opinions or perceptions, and many of their programs have never been validated for effectiveness in classrooms. We can't afford to train educators in programs based only on whim or untested theory. We have an obligation to insure that any training program in behavior management be based solidly on techniques that have been validated by research and that have been shown to work in the classroom.


Research has demonstrated that Assertive Discipline works and that it isn't just a quick‑fix solution. In school districts in Lennox, California, and Troy, Ohio, teachers who were trained 10 years ago still use the program effectively.5 The program works because it is based on practices that effective teachers have followed instinctively for a long time. It's not new to have rules in a classroom. It's not new to use positive reinforcement. It's not new to have disciplinary consequences.


Teachers who are effective year after year take the basic Assertive Discipline competencies and mold them to their individual teaching styles. They may stop using certain techniques, such as putting marbles in a jar or writing names on the board. That's fine. I don't want the legacy of Assertive Discipline to be ‑ and I don’t want teachers to believe they have to use ‑ names and checks on the board or marbles in a jar. I want teachers to learn that they have to take charge, explain their expectations, be positive with students, and consistently employ both positive reinforcement and negative consequences. These are the skills that form the basis of Assertive Discipline and of any effective program of classroom management.


1. Linda H. Mandlebaurn et al., "Assertive Discipline: An Effective Behavior Management Program. Behavioral Disorders Journal. vol. 8, 1983, pp. 258‑64; Carl L. Fereira, "A Positive Approach to Assertive Discipline,” Martinez (Calif.) Unified School District, ERIC ED 240 058, 1993; and Sammie McCormack, “Students' Off‑Task Behavior and Assertive Discipline” (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon, 1985).


2. Susan Smith, "The Effects of Assertive Discipline Training on Student Teachers' Self Concept and Classroom Management Skills" (Doctoral dissertation, University of South Carolina, 1983).


3. Kenneth L. Moffett et al., "Assertive Discipline.' California School Board Journal, June/July/August 1992, pp. 24‑27; Mark Y. Swanson, "Assessment of the Assertive Discipline Program," Compton (Calif.) Unified School District, Spring 1994; “Discipline Report," Cartwright (Ariz.) Elementary School District, 10 February 1992; and Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, personal letter, 28 April 1980.


4. Helen Hair et al., “Development of Internal Structure in Elementary Students: A System of Classroom Management and Class Control," ERIC ED 199 067, 1980; Edmund Emmer and Carolyn Everson, “Effective Management: At the Beginning of the School Year in Junior High Classes," Research and Development Center for Teacher Education, University of Texas, Austin, 1980; Marcia Braden at al., “Effects of Teacher Attention on Attending Behavior of Two Boys at Adjacent Desks," Journal Applied Behavioral Analysis, vol. 3, 1970, pp. 205‑11; Hill Walker et al., "The Use of Normative Peer Data as a Standard for Evaluating Treatment Effects.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, vol. 37, 1976, pp. 145‑55; Jere Brophy, “Classroom Organization and Management," Elementary School Journal, vol. 83, 1993, pp. 265‑85; Hill Walker ct al., “Experiments with Response Cost in Playground and Classroom Settings,” Center for Research in Behavioral Education of the Handicapped, University of Oregon, Eugene, 1977; Thomas McLaughlin and John Malaby, “Reducing and Measuring Inappropriate Verbalizations,” Journal of Behavior Analysis, vol. 5, 1972, pp. 329‑33; Charles Madsen et al., "Rides, Praise, and Ignoring: Elements of Elementary Classroom Control," Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, vol. 1, 1968, pp. 139‑50; Charles Greenwood et al., "Group Contingencies for Group Consequences in Classroom Management: A Further Analysis," Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, vol. 7, 1974, pp. 413‑25, and K. Daniel O'Leary et al., "A Token Reinforcement Program in a Public School: A Replication and Systematic Analysis," Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, vol. 2, 1969, pp. 3‑13. 5. Kenneth L. Moffett et al., 'Training and Coaching Beginning Teachers: An Antidote to Reality {?}” Educational Leadership, February 1987, pp. 34‑46; and Bob Murphy, "Troy High School: An Assertive Model," Miami Valley Sunday News, Troy, Ohio, 12 March 1989, p. 1.