CYC-Online 104 SEPTEMBER 2007
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Six strategies for helping youth move from rage to responsibility

Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler

Effective discipline is less about punishing and more about teaching responsibility. The authors provide six strategies for helping youth learn the most important R: responsibility.

The purpose of school has been defined in many ways. School prepares students for college, jobs, and citizenship. School keeps students off the streets until they grow up. School teaches students how to think and socializes them. School teaches the three “Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. But difficult students cannot learn the three Rs until they learn the most important, first R: responsibility.

Perhaps the most fundamental and important goal of schooling is teaching the tools of responsible behavior. Every school mission statement includes this concept. Unfortunately, the day-today process of discipline in most schools focuses far more on creating obedience. Although obedience is necessary for children to learn, it is in many ways the opposite of responsibility. Obedience requires students to do what they are told. Responsibility requires students to make their own decisions. When people behave responsibly, they make the best decisions they can with their ability and understanding of the consequences.

Teaching responsibility requires motivating students to want to change, teaching them decision-making skills, and providing them with new skills for better behavior. They also need role models who can show these new behaviors in action. Students cannot do what they have never seen or do what they do not know how to do. Interventions work best when students are taught what to do instead of simply being told that what they did was wrong.

Responsibility is taught within a structure that can be created with the following six strategies:

1. Establish sensible limits.
2. Confront misbehavior with dignity.
3. Provide healthy, viable choices.
4. Help students learn from the consequences of their choices.
5. Elicit a commitment to change.
6. Develop a sense of remorse.

Establish Sensible Limits
Limits without choices (i.e., Assertive Discipline, Canter & Canter, 1992) teach obedience. Choices without limits (i.e., Kohn, 1996) teach chaos. There can be no true choice if there are no limits. More important, students cannot learn from the natural consequences of their actions when they are allowed to make choices without limits. Consider the following examples. A teacher intervenes with a student who hit another student.

Without limits, there can be no responsibility. Limits draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not. They provide safe boundaries that allow students to explore and define themselves. In school, limits are rules. These rules must be selected carefully, based on values, and reflect what most faculty and students believe. Most importantly, the rules must support and be compatible with the goal of promoting student learning.

Confront Misbehavior With Dignity
Along with clearly defined limits, students must be confronted in a dignified way when they step beyond the boundaries. In successful programs for troubled students, adults and youth hold each other accountable for their behavior and are more likely to call each other on moves designed to manipulate or “get over.” Youth in these programs note that others did not let them “get away with stuff.”

Positive confrontation can be facilitated by having a mentoring process in place. This strategy can also help prevent an us-versus-them polarization. For example, a mentoring program entitled “tagging” was used effectively at a coed facility for 13- to 18-year-old adjudicated youth. When a new youth arrived, he or she would spend two weeks “tagging” with someone who had been in program for a substantial period of time. The pair roomed together, ate together, went to school together, and essentially did everything together. It was expected that the established youth would help acclimate the new arrival not only to the rules and protocol but to the more subtle nuances of the facility as well.

A similar program is used by an inner-city elementary school that has established a “student ambassador” program that pairs new students with “ambassadors” who show them “the ropes,” including the school’s do’s and don'ts. The school discovered that some of its best ambassadors were its most difficult students.

Provide Healthy, Viable Choices
Choices are different than limits in that we can expand the number of choices while holding firm on the limits. Choices are often replacements for unacceptable behavior: “You cannot throw your books on the floor, but you can be angry in other ways. You can calm yourself by talking, writing, or coloring.” Choices must also be real. A threat presented as a choice is not a real choice because it does not improve a student’s ability to make decisions. Instead, it is simply a more sophisticated form of bullying. Telling a student to “either stop interrupting or receive a detention” is a threat.

The difference between a threat and a choice is control. When the teacher knows which answer is correct or there is only one way to respond (the teacher’s way), then there is no choice, only a threat. By contrast, real choices have at least two alternatives that are acceptable, and a teacher will have no preconceived preference for one or more of the alternatives. If the teacher does have a preference, he or she takes responsibility by sharing it: “I want you in class on time because I miss you when you aren’t here and I’d prefer to avoid the hassle of writing a referral:” The following examples illustrate the difference between threatening a student and giving him or her a choice.

The student must see the choices as viable. If we offer a choice that a student would never select, then it is not a real choice. Asking a student to “either tell me which of your friends did it or face the consequence yourself” is a choice most students would never make. Sometimes it is difficult to predict what might be a viable choice for a student, but common sense can help. Students rarely see as viable any choice that they perceive as a violation of their values or culture or of the values or culture of their friends (especially boy- and girlfriends), parents, or other teachers.

Help Students Learn From the Consequences of Their Choices
Consequences are the results of our choices. Consequences should be based on rules (limits) and guided by principles (values) that directly relate to and reinforce the reason for the rules. It is much more effective, for example, to ask a student to do something nice for the person he or she offended (a consequence based on the principle of making amends) than to make the student take a timeout and sit quietly for 10 minutes (a punishment). As long as consequences do not involve danger or other unacceptable outcomes, they are superior to external punishments.

Without consequences, students learn that their choices are irrelevant, that their behavior has no influence on themselves or others. The reality is, however, that our choices always have consequences even though they may be hidden or subtle. Some other consequences may be unacceptable in a school setting.

One consequence for hitting another student is that the student might not like the attacker any longer. That consequence will probably do little to prevent the misbehaving student from hitting again. Another consequence, such as having the student write a behavior plan or practice appropriate behavior, may teach that hitting is wrong and that there are better ways to express negative feelings.

Elicit a Commitment to Change
Anyone who has tried to lose weight, save money, or become more organized knows how difficult it is to change behavior. We believe that changing our own behavior is the most difficult of life’s challenges. If we have trouble changing our own behavior when we want to change, imagine how difficult it is to change a child's behavior when he or she does not want to change. Without a commitment to change from the child, there is little hope that any intervention will have lasting results.

Developing a commitment to change in students is not easy because it requires that students not only agree that what they did was inappropriate, but also be willing to change even if it requires hard work. We can facilitate commitment to change by

Adding our generous encouragement and support will increase the possibility of long-term change.

Develop a Sense of Remorse
Many educators we have met have commented on the general lack of remorse in today’s students. When disciplining students, a teacher is as likely to hear “who cares?” as “I’m sorry.” This lack of remorse is as serious a problem as the student’s misbehavior. Remorse is an essential emotion for long-term behavior change. Without remorse, students are unlikely to have the will or commitment necessary for the sustained effort to change their behavior whether someone is watching or not.

For children to learn remorse, they must see others demonstrate it publicly and learn the value of remorse. In addition, remorse must be expected of them. One of the most effective lessons you can give is to show genuine remorse when you make a mistake. Students can see through phony attempts at contrition, just as adults can when they hear public figures say what is right but not mean it.

Teaching remorse is not easy because it is based on values. Asking students how they feel about what they have done is a first step in getting students to think about what they value and to feel remorse. Examples of such questions are

We can follow this line of inquiry with a question that requires the student to think about making amends: “What are you going to do to fix things for Jamie so that she feels better?”

Continually stressing the concept of remorse when involved in discipline situations will have an impact. Having the class develop statements of values to be used for establishing rules can also make a difference. A statement of value would be “School is a place where we learn that my way is not the only way.” A rule developed from this value would be “Settle disagreements with words, not fists” (Curwin & Mendler, 1997). All disciplinary decisions and discussions could then be based on the values the violator helped to develop. Rules would carry more weight because they would be based on class values. In addition, the violator would be encouraged to feel remorse through consequences when he or she is asked to identify ways to make amends: “How are you going to fix it to make it right?”

Even more influential in the decline of remorse is the increasing use of short-term discipline interventions that provide an easy, “escalator” approach to handling misbehavior. Many educators rely on rewards and punishments for discipline, but these methods do not teach remorse. Instead, they teach students to think of misbehavior as a game. They teach students to make excuses, blame others, and hide their misbehavior or grandstand. Punishments may be effective as a deterrent with “good” students who have already developed the value of caring for others, but they are ineffective with difficult students who have likely received too many punishments from harsh, neglectful, or abusive parents and misguided educators.

Remorse comes from values, and values should be a major part of any model of behavior change. The following methods and practices will help you develop remorse in your students by creating within them the desire to change.

Use welcoming techniques. Help the child feel that he or she is part of the group or class. The more the student feels part of the group, the more likely the student will feel remorse for disrupting the group and will want to change from within. Welcoming means more than just greeting. It means letting the student know how glad you are that he or she is part of your group. For example, when a student is removed, you can say that you are sorry he will be gone, that you will miss him, and that you look forward to a better time when he returns. When disciplining a student, you can tell her that you will not give up on her or on trying to find a way to improve your relationship with her.

Remember that your words mean little if you are not sincere. Be a role model who shows remorse by apologizing and correcting yourself when you have done something you regret, even if it has not hurt someone else. Show genuine remorse when you break a promise, lose your temper, or make a mistake. Being a role model for how to behave in other difficult situations as well is the most effective lesson you can give your students. When a student is disrespectful to you, demonstrate to everyone how to respond to disrespect. If you are called a jerk or worse, respond the same way you want students to respond when they are offended.

Teach rather than tell. Students rarely feel remorse for not doing what they do not know how to do. Yet most of us tell children what to do when they break rules, rather than teach them what to do differently in the future. We never say “add better” when a student makes a mistake in math. Instead, we teach the student how to understand a problem and solve it correctly. The same approach should be used in interventions. When a student is disrespectful, you might respond by saying, “Next time you are upset, try telling how you feel instead of calling names. It sounds like this: 'I get very upset when you take my things without asking. Please stop doing it.' Why don’t you try saying that to me so I can be sure you know how to do it.”

Provide support for slippage (regressions). Imagine you have been on a diet for two weeks. In a moment of temptation, you eat an entire chocolate cream pie instead of one small piece. What kind of comment from a friend would help you return to the diet?

"I thought you were on a diet! That’s not dieting – that’s pigging out. There’s no hope for you!”
"Diets are hard sometimes. You had a small backslide and that’s normal. Don’t give up now. If you go back to what you were doing, this pie won’t make any difference. I hope you enjoyed the pie. Maybe in a couple of months you can have another one.”

Students need the same encouragement and support when they suddenly slide back into old patterns of behavior. This is a normal part of the process for long-term change. What happens next will determine how successful this process will be. If you respond to a student’s slippage with messages of disappointment or failure, the student will most likely give up and believe he or she is incapable of continuing. If you only support without some prodding, the student might falsely think that the goal is not important and that it is OK to give it up. If you respond with understanding, encouragement, and a gentle but firm push to keep trying, the student will most likely see the reversal as temporary and continue to work toward lasting change.

Responsibility Is Not Easy
The first R is more difficult to achieve than obedience and often harder to live with when we get it from students. The independent thinking developed by responsibility is more likely to lead to challenges from our students than the compliant behavior developed by obedience. However, most teachers prefer students who challenge classroom ideas related to content than those who simply take notes and regurgitate information on exams. Nevertheless, students who challenge behaviorally do create more discomfort in a classroom. But some of our most gratifying moments as educators will come when we see students monitor themselves, realize that they have choices, show concern for others, and assume responsibility for their behavior at school.

Drs. Curwin and Mendler are authors of several books, including Discipline with Dignity and As Tough as Necessary. This article is adapted from Discipline With Dignity for Challenging Youth, published by the National Educational Service in 1999.


Canter, L., & Canter, M. (1992). Lee Canter’s assertive discipline: Positive behavior management for today’s classroom. Santa Monica, CA: Lee Canter and Associates.

Curwin, R., & Mendler, A. (1997). As tough as necessary. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kohn, A. (1996). What to look for in a classroom. Educational Leadership, 54(1), 54-55.

This feature: Curwin, Richard and Mendler, Alllen. Six Strategies for Helping Youth Move From Rage to Responsibility. Reaching Today's Youth, 4 (2) Winter 2000

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