Teaching Opinion

Stop Disciplining, Start Diagnosing

By David Ginsburg — January 16, 2012 1 min read
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Doctors don’t prescribe drugs or reach for a scalpel the moment a patient reports symptoms. Doctors diagnose first, and treat second.

Coaches don’t cut players from the team every time they’re in a slump. Coaches determine what’s wrong with a player’s shot or swing or stroke, and then work with that player to fix it.

In myriad other settings, experts similarly identify the sources of problems before deciding how to address those problems. One place, however, where this doesn’t always happen is school, especially when it comes to students’ misbehavior.

Writing students’ names on the board. Moving their seats. Giving them detention. Calling their parents. Suspending them. These and other common punitive responses rarely if ever improve students’ behavior. And a big reason for this is that they fail to assess--much less address--the causes of students’ behavior.

Martin Haberman spoke to this in his book, Star Teachers, when he wrote, “Star teachers act only in terms of the most appropriate response to a particular child, after they determine his motive. They never respond as if there is a universally correct teacher response to a child’s misbehavior without first knowing that child’s motivation.”

As for what that motivation may be, Haberman cited the work of Rudolph Dreikurs, who identified four goals of children’s misbehavior: attention, power, revenge, and avoidance of failure. And based on my experience--as a teacher, sports coach, instructional coach, school leader, and parent--these are indeed main motives of children’s misbehavior.

I’ve provided illustrations in previous posts that can help you identify three of these four motives--attention, power, and avoidance of failure--along with suggestions for addressing them proactively. Still, kids are going to misbehave at times no matter how proactive you are, so be sure to determine why they’re misbehaving before you decide what to do about it. To discipline students before diagnosing the causes of their behavior would be like operating on patients before diagnosing the causes of their symptoms.

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.