Order In The Classroom

By David Hill — April 01, 1990 19 min read

Linda Darling-Hammond had never heard of Assertive Discipline until her daughter, Elena, entered kindergarten two years ago. When she came home from school, Elena had plenty of stories to tell her mother, but they weren’t the kind of stories Darling-Hammond expected to hear. Instead of being about new friends and new things to learn, Elena’s accounts of her first days at Takoma Park (Md.) Elementary School focused on which kids in her class were being punished--and how. The teacher, Elena told her mother, wrote the names of “bad” kids on the blackboard, which meant they could have certain privileges taken away from them. Elena wasn’t among the “bad” kids; in fact, she brought home happy-face stickers because she had been “good.” Yet she was frightened of what could happen if she played with the kids who had been punished.

“She was so terrified by the prospect of having her named placed on the board, being held in from recess, or being excluded from class activities that she stopped participating in class,” says Darling-Hammond, an educational researcher for the RAND Corporation at the time and now a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

When Darling-Hammond went to observe her daughter’s classroom, she learned that the teacher was using a system called Assertive Discipline, developed in the 1970’s by Lee and Marlene Canter and now used in many schools across the country. The highly structured system, a mixture of common sense and behavior-modification techniques, stresses rewards and punishments as a way for teachers to “take charge” of their classrooms. Many teachers and administrators swear by it, but Darling-Hammond was appalled by what she witnessed:

“I saw a group of small children trying hard not to move or speak; a young, inexperienced, and unmentored teacher trying religiously to apply rewards and consequences. The list of names on the board grew whenever someone wiggled or spoke. The children appeared unhappy and confused. The stickers did not do much to offset their distress, since many of the children who got them felt bad about the children who didn’t. Virtually all of the ‘offenders’ that day were boys; most of them were black. None of them had done anything that I could term ‘misbehaving’ during my visit. But they had broken rules forbidding talking and moving; i.e., normal 5-year-old behavior.”

Takoma Park Elementary School no longer uses Assertive Discipline. And Lee Canter no longer advocates the discipline technique of writing down names on the blackboard. “People such as Linda Darling-Hammond interpret that as something that could be psychologically harmful to the kids,” says Canter. “Personally, I don’t think it is, but I have come out in all my latest materials saying that teachers should not use it. I think especially with kindergarten kids, I would not write their names on the board.”

Darling-Hammond isn’t the only critic of Assertive Discipline. In recent years, many educators and child psychologists have spoken out against the technique, calling it, among other things, “dehumanizing,” “humiliating,” and “dangerous.” Yet it remains popular; Canter says that more than 750,000 teachers have been trained in Assertive Discipline during the last 15 years, and his company, Lee Canter & Associates, has grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a multimillion-dollar enterprise, with 75 full- and part-time employees. Proponents of Assertive Discipline speak of it as if it were the greatest thing since sliced bread. The bottom line, they say, is that it works. One middle school principal who recently began using Assertive Discipline at his school goes so far as to call it “a godsend.”

IN A MODEST, WINDOWLESS office in Santa Monica, Calif., Lee Canter is explaining to a visitor the genesis of Assertive Discipline. If Canter were a student, he would no doubt get a happy-face sticker, his office is so tidy. On one wall, between two shelves of neatly arranged books, is a cartoon that depicts the kind of fantasy a teacher might have after an especially bad day. In it, a plump, innocent-looking teacher with glasses faces her wide-eyed students and says: “Good morning, children. My name is Miss Applegate. One false move and I’ll kill you.”

Despite waking up with a stomach virus, Canter, 43, is animated and energetic, constantly emphasizing his points with his hands. He often gives motivational speeches to teachers and principals, and his speaking experience shows, even in a one-on-one situation.

Canter received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California in 1970, and says he got most of the ideas for Assertive Discipline while working as a guidance counselor, helping parents and teachers deal with problem children. “I saw what was going on in the classroom,” he says. “I saw teachers coming home every night so frustrated, kids not getting the opportunity they needed to learn, and I just sat down with my wife and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about it.’ And we came up with ideas that obviously worked.

“I think they probably worked because they’re based upon nothing really new. I get a lot of credit for Assertive Discipline, and I get a lot of blame for it from people who don’t like it. But there’s nothing really brand new in this program. Throughout history, teachers have told kids what they wanted them to do, have had rules for the classroom, have established consequences if you break the rules, and have had positive consequences when you’re good. All I really did was to put it together in a package.

“I watched a lot of effective teachers. I went into classrooms, and I sat down and watched teachers who did not have discipline problems. Number one, they were assertive. That meant they clearly and firmly told their kids what they wanted. They were positive with the kids, very straightforward. When the kids were good, the teachers would give them a lot of positive support. If the kids chose not to behave, the teachers would discipline them.”

Canter and his wife, Marlene, a former special-education teacher, published Assertive Discipline: A Take-Charge Approach For Today’s Educator in 1976. The book, now in its 26th printing, remains the basic text for the discipline technique, but Canter’s company also publishes a number of other materials for teachers and parents, such as Positive Reinforcement Activities, Homework Without Tears, and Assertive Discipline For Parents. Canter’s 25 instructors offer Assertive Discipline workshops all over the country, and there’s something for everyone: teachers (K-12), administrators, parents, paraprofessionals, even bus drivers.

Canter says that, in the past, most of the training was done on a schoolwide or districtwide basis, usually in one-day, inservice seminars. (Teachers at Takoma Park Elementary, in fact, were required to be trained in the Assertive Discipline method.) But recently, he says, there has been increased interest in his five-day graduate-level course called “Beyond Assertive Discipline,” for which teachers may earn college credit.

Canter promises results, too. Teachers who take the basic one-day training (at an average cost of $28 per person) are told that they will see “an 80 percent reduction in classroom disruptions,” “fewer students in the principal’s office,” “a calm, positive classroom climate conducive to teaching and learning,” and “more success in dealing with parents on behavior problems.”

Here’s how Assertive Discipline works: “Assertive” teachers should (in Canter’s words) establish a “systematic discipline plan that explains exactly what will happen when students choose to misbehave.” The key, says Canter, is consistency: “An effective discipline is applied fairly to all students.”

Canter suggests that the plan include a maximum of five consequences for misbehavior. “For example, the first time a student breaks a rule, the student is warned. The second infraction brings a 10-minute time out [isolation]; the third infraction, a 15-minute time out. The fourth time a student breaks a rule, the teacher calls the parents; the fifth time, the student goes to the principal.” Canter says he initially suggested that teachers write students’ names on the board because he wanted to eliminate their need to stop the lesson and issue reprimands.

“Writing a student’s name on the board would warn the student in a calm, nondegrading manner,” Canter says. “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.’”

At the same time, Canter says that teachers should reward those students who obey the rules. He suggests, for example, that teachers drop marbles into a jar every time a student does something positive; when the jar is full, the entire class is rewarded by, say, 10 minutes of free time at the end of the day. Canter suggests that students be rewarded with material objects, such as cookies, ice cream, or even a hamburger from McDonald’s.

“An effective behavior-management program must be built on choice,” Canter has written. “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.”

Canter often makes the point that Assertive Discipline is not a cure-all. “This is not a perfect program,” he says. “This is not the answer. And I keep saying that, because there are people out there who say, ‘This is the answer.’”

Teachers and administrators who use Assertive Discipline do tend to gush about its benefits. Charles Warner, principal of Jackie Robinson Middle School in New Haven, Conn., has nothing but praise for the system. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “We’re looking at it as a godsend for us.”

Warner says that Jackie Robinson and two New Haven elementary schools (which “feed” students into Jackie Robinson) began using Assertive Discipline last September. The middle school, he says, is located in a neighborhood with a lot of drug activity, an atmosphere that created “a fair amount of discipline problems” and “hostile children.” Teachers at the school used to have their own individual discipline plans. “But we felt that we needed to do something different,” says Warner.

Now, students at all three schools know exactly what is expected of them--and what will happen to them if they disobey the rules. “Assertive Discipline gave us consistency,” Warner says. “That’s one of its highlights.” He says there has been “a drastic decrease” in discipline problems since the plan was implemented. “I’m sold on it. I had my reservations at first. I thought it was just another thing to spend money on. But once we had our first training session, I realized it was worth doing.”

Henry Rhodes, who teaches 7th grade social studies at Jackie Robinson, agrees. “I couldn’t wait to try it,” he says. “It’s easy to use. It’s all spelled out for you.”

Critics, however, contend that Assertive Discipline is harmful--to students and to teachers--precisely because of its apparent simplicity. “It totally dehumanizes the teacher by putting the control into a system,” says educator Richard Curwin, co-author (along with Allen Mendler) of Discipline with Dignity. “Where’s the teacher’s judgment? For teachers who are insecure, it has a lot to offer.”

Assertive Discipline’s main objective, say Curwin and Mendler, is to teach kids to be obedient, not to be responsible for their actions. In their book, they write: “We define obedience as following rules without question, regardless of philosophical beliefs, ideas of right and wrong, instincts and experiences, or values. A student ‘does it’ because he is told to do it. In the short term, obedience offers teachers relief, a sense of power and control, and an oasis from the constant bombardment of defiance. In the long run, however, obedience leads to student immaturity, a lack of responsibility, an inability to think clearly and critically, and a feeling of helplessness that is manifested by withdrawal, aggressiveness, or power struggles....Obedience models are far more interested in keeping students in line rather than maintaining their dignity.”

(Curwin also says that the use of Assertive Discipline is “dying out,” a charge that Canter disputes. “Every year, more and more teachers go through the program,” Canter says. He estimates that his company will train 85,000 teachers this year; 50,000 of them will take the one-day seminar, while 35,000 of them will take the five-day graduate-level course.)

Linda Darling-Hammond believes that Assertive Discipline is especially harmful to children in the early grades, when they are still developing self-regulatory behavior and social skills. For one thing, she says, the rules Canter recommends are “inappropriate for young children” because “they suggest a curriculum in which conversing and moving about in the classroom are inappropriate and punishable activities.” In addition, she says, “Designating children’s behavior as ‘bad’ results for young children in them believing they themselves are bad. Under the age of 11, children cannot generally separate attributions about their behavior from attributions about themselves.”

Darling-Hammond also cites research showing that the use of rewards actually decreases intrinsic motivation among students. Assertive Discipline, she concludes, “replaces the teaching of values and the development of intrinsic motivation for learning with a control-oriented system of rules and penalties stressing compliance, sanctions, and external motivation.”

Canter is accustomed to such criticism. “The whole point of Assertive Discipline,” he says, “is teaching children responsibility. The way you teach kids to be responsible is by telling them exactly what is expected of them and then giving them a choice. One thing that I’ve always talked about in my work is that children need to be given a choice.” He pauses, assumes the role of an assertive teacher, and addresses me as a student. “Dave, you have a choice. If you choose to yell and stop me from teaching someone else, you choose to have this consequence. On the other hand, if you choose to behave, I will recognize that behavior.”

He continues: “So Assertive Discipline is based upon choice. Curwin can say that he views it as an obedience model, but I think it’s clearly spelling out to kids what’s expected and then giving them a choice. Because how else do you learn responsibility but by making choices, and realizing there are choices in life, and that we have to be responsible for our actions?”

The concept of student choice in Assertive Discipline, contends Vincent Crockenberg, professor of education at the University of California-Davis, is “utterly muddled. It is fraudulent.” In a 1982 article in the California Journal of Teacher Education titled “Assertive Discipline: A Dissent,” Crockenberg pointed out that the notion of “choice” is distorted when children have only two options. “The Canters simply stack the deck in favor of the teachers. They give teachers a simple way out of their difficulties, but at the price of miseducating children by deeply misrepresenting to them what it means to choose to do something which affects others, what it means to act morally.”

Crockenberg concluded: “Assertive Discipline is too simple. It ‘works,’ if it works at all, only by distorting moral language, by pandering to the defensiveness of teachers about their work, and by ignoring or even denying that children have any significant rights or needs that are independent of the needs of the adults who are their teachers. That is just too high a price to pay for order in the classroom.”

“The thing that I’ve found,” responds Canter, “is that kids need limits. It’s not like you’re doing something to harm a child when you give him some structure. We’re not talking about hitting kids. We’re not talking about verbally degrading kids. We’re not talking about saying to kindergarten kids, ‘You’re going to sit on the rug for an hour.’ We’re saying there should be some general rules so the kids know there’s an adult there who really cares about them. That’s what we’re after.”

Canter claims that Assertive Discipline is “based solidly on techniques that have been shown to work in the classroom,” and he even distributes a publication titled Abstracts of Research Validating Effectiveness of Assertive Discipline. One study cited, for example, surveyed 129 teachers and 12 principals at three Indiana schools during the 1982-83 school year. Of the respondents, 86 percent said that they liked using Assertive Discipline, and 82 percent said that student behavior at the schools had improved. Yet critics contend that such evidence is scant and, further, that Canter has selectively reported it.

Gary Render, a professor of education at the University of Wyoming, along with Ph.D. candidates Je Nell Padilla and Mark Krank, conducted a study of the existing research on Assertive Discipline and found “a surprising lack of investigation of a program that is being so widely used. The literature supporting Assertive Discipline is not strong or generalizable. Much of it is based on perceptions of teachers, students, parents, and administrators.” Their conclusion: “We can find no evidence that Assertive Discipline is an effective approach deserving schoolwide or districtwide adoption.”

One of the most troubling aspects of Assertive Discipline is its abuse by some teachers and school districts. In 1983, parents of five children attending Germantown Elementary School in Annapolis, Md., sued the Anne Arundel County Board of Education for $17.3 million, claiming that their children’s civil rights were violated when they were placed in solitary confinement for misconduct in 1980 and 1981. One student, 11-year-old Michyle Davis, testified that she was confined for five consecutive days during school hours in a “storage room” with a desk, after she was accused of laughing in class and throwing a chair. The suit also alleged that the children, aged 7 to 12, were discriminated against because they are black.

Ralph McCann Jr., the elementary school’s principal at the time, testified that his policy of confining unruly children in isolation rooms was part of Canter’s Assertive Discipline program, implemented in 1980 to stem runaway discipline problems at the school. Canter, however, said at the time that Assertive Discipline does not recommend isolating students without adult supervision. When an attorney for the children asked the principal, “Didn’t you know that Lee Canter recommended no more than two consecutive hours of in-school suspension for elementary school students?” McCann replied, “No, sir.” He also said that he had used Canter’s basic concepts but had modified them to “suit our particular needs.”

A $30,000 out-of-court settlement was reached in 1984. As part of the settlement, school officials agreed that students placed on in-school suspension would be supervised by an adult at all times.

Milton Shore, a Silver Spring, Md., child psychologist who testified on behalf of the five children, says that he asked Canter to testify in court that the Maryland school was using a “distortion” of his system, but Canter said his lawyer had told him he had “nothing to gain” by doing so. “His comment to me was, ‘I wouldn’t have approved it,’” Shore says. “Why he wouldn’t say it in court is something I’ve never been able to understand.”

Canter says that both sides wanted him to testify in the case, and that he was ready and willing to testify on behalf of the children. “Absolutely,” he says. “What went on in that district was unconscionable.” His lawyer, however, told him not to get involved. “He said, ‘Don’t get caught in the middle of this thing. You are being set up.’”

Canter admits that Assertive Discipline has taken on a life of its own. “It has become a generic term, like Xerox or Kleenex,” he says. “A number of educators are now conducting training in what they call Assertive Discipline without teaching all the competencies essential to the 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.”

To Canter, the problem isn’t with the system; rather, it’s with the people who don’t understand how to use it: “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.”

At the same time, Canter insists that the teachers who most effectively use Assertive Discipline are the ones who mold the system to their individual teaching styles. “That’s fine,” he says. “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”’ Or, as he also has said: “The children must know that something will happen when they break a rule. The form it takes is not as important as the reality of a negative consequence.”

In other words, don’t take Canter’s suggestions too literally. When Canter’s son, Josh, was 13, his father sent him to his room after he had misbehaved. “An hour later,” Canter says, “he comes out reading Assertive Discipline for Parents, and he says, ‘Dad, how many times did you warn me about yelling and screaming?’ And I said, ‘Two.’ And he said, ‘But in your book, it says two warnings, maximum half-hour in the room. You sent me in for an hour! You can’t even follow your own program!’” Canter laughs about the incident: “It’s very hard to practice what you preach.”

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND wasn’t the only parent upset over the use of Assertive Discipline at Takoma Park Elementary and other schools in the Montgomery County (Md.) school district. When a group of them began voicing their concerns about the system, they found an ally in school board member Blair Ewing, who had done some research of his own. “I thought [Canter’s] materials were dreadful,” he says. “Assertive Discipline doesn’t examine the reasons why children are misbehaving. It values conformity above everything, and that’s dangerous.”

Ewing says he raised the issue “over and over” with School Superintendent Harry Pitt, who eventually issued a policy statement recommending that prepackaged discipline systems not be accepted wholesale by the district. “Assertive Discipline is not prohibited, but it’s understood that it’s not to be used,” says Ewing. “I haven’t seen it rear its ugly head again.”

Darling-Hammond didn’t wait around to see what would happen; she removed her daughter from the school. When she took her to look at another school, one that didn’t use Assertive Discipline, Elena said, “Mom, I want to stay in this school, because they don’t punish the kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Order In The Classroom