Assertive discipline theory is a teacher-centered classroom management approach founded by Lee and Marlene Canter.
The approach believes in the rights of students and teachers to work in a safe, calm and professional environment.
These rights must be enforced by an assertive but calm teacher who enforces order and structure within the classroom.
Eleven Key Features of Assertive Discipline Theory
The 11 key features of assertive discipline theory are:
- The Right To Learn. Canter introduced the concept of students’ rights to classroom discipline theory. According to Canter, well-behaved students have the right to learn in a classroom without distraction. This means that the teacher must discipline poorly behaved students in the best interests of the rest of the class. Canter also notes that students have the right to learn from a caring teacher who has their students’ best interests at heart.
- The Right to Teach. Teachers should be given the same right to a peaceful working environment as other professionals. Students who misbehave or are rude undermine a teacher’s rights at work. Teachers also deserve the support of their administration and managers as well as their students’ parents.
- Teachers must be in Control. Canter is critical of behavior management approaches that dilute the control of the teacher. The teacher, as the adult in the room, has the responsibility and duty to control the classroom environment. This is the only way the students’ safety and educational development can be guaranteed.
- Clear Boundaries must be Set. A teacher needs to develop a clear discipline plan. This plan should unambiguously state the boundaries of appropriate vs. inappropriate behaviors in the classroom. It should also state for students the exact corrective actions that will occur if students do not respect those boundaries. Students and parents need to understand and consent to the rules.
- Positive Reinforcement. Teachers should ‘catch’ students who are behaving well within the classroom and provide rewards and praise for that positive behavior. Teachers should publicly acknowledge positive behaviors of one student in front of the whole class. Recognition and acknowledgement of everyday positive behaviors will show students who respect class rules that their compliance and respectful manners are appreciated.
- Positive Repetition. Like positive reinforcement, positive repetition involves publicly acknowledging positive behaviors. Furthermore, it involves repeating instructions and explicitly stating the positive behavior in the statement of recognition. Examples of restating rules in acknowledgement include: “James waited at the door before getting permission to enter. Great job, James!” The rule in this case would have been to “Wait at the door to get permission before entering.”
- Firm Consequences. While the Canters highlight that proactive and positive discipline are ideal, when students overstep boundaries, consequences must follow. These consequences must be written down in advance (on the discipline plan), followed-through in all instances, and applied equally to all students. By following-through with your consequences plan, students learn that the rules are serious and must be respected.
- Behaviors should be taught through Modelled and Direct Instruction. It is not enough to simply enforce rules with rewards and punishments. To earn the respect and trust of students, teachers should always behave within the guidelines of the rules they have set out for students. This includes modelling positive and respectful behavior at all times so students see how it’s done. Furthermore, teachers need to directly instruct students on how to behave by explicitly repeating the roles and insting upon them being followed.
- It is possible to Teach Difficult Students. Canter’s original research in classroom management took place with students with special needs. Based on his work, Canter argued that most students will react well to an assertive discipline approach, including more ‘difficult’ students.
- Proactive Discipline is better than Reactive Discipline. Proactive discipline involves anticipating poor behavior and making a plan on how to prevent it. Reactive discipline involves waiting until a student has misbehaved before coming up with a disciplinary response. Assertive discipline prioritizes proactive strategies such as setting up classroom rules and praising positive behavior.
- Teachers should build Relationships with their Students. Canter and Canter (1996) place strong emphasis on trust. They believe that discipline in the classroom is easiest to achieve when students trust and respect their teacher. When students have this trust, they will follow the teacher’s lead and acknowledge their moral authority to set rules. Canter and Canter state that trust can be built through getting to know students, greeting them by name, learning about their interests, having personal one-to-one conversations with them, acknowledging birthdays and special events, and getting to know their parents well.
Strengths and Weaknesses
- Creates a calm and positive learning environment which benefits student learning.
- Canter (1978) argues it will lead to an 80% drop in classroom disruptions.
- Canter also argues that there will be less elevated behavior issues (such as sending a student to the principal’s office).
- The focus on structure could be beneficial to students with autism who often crave order and certainty.
- Students have very clear behavioral guidelines which minimizes ambiguity.
- Students’ individual differences and individualized plans for students with special needs are often ignored.
- The underlying cause of misbehavior is often overlooked by the teacher who has a rigid and unwavering discipline policy. Alternatives, such as humanism and the peer mediation model, focus on identifying and addressing root causes of misbehavior rather than forcing students to just ‘get over it’.
- Students are expected to be passive learners when it comes to behavior rather than actively involved in discussing and negotiating rules.
Assertive vs. Non-Assertive vs. Hostile Discipline
Canter and Canter (2001) argue there are only 3 types of teacher. They are the assertive, non-assertive and hostile teacher. In outlining these three types of teacher, they show that the assertive educator is their preferred type. This teacher is firm but not hostile to their students.
Here are the three types explained:
- Non-Assertive Teachers: A non-assertive teacher finds that their students regularly break rules because the teacher inconsistently applies rules, does not employ proactive disciplinary strategies and fails to show their students that they are serious about the boundaries they have set. Their behavior expectations are often vague, such as “act like an adult” or do not have escalating consequences, such as “this is the seventh time I’ve asked you to stop talking.”
- Hostile Teachers: A hostile teacher embraces the negative aspects of assertive discipline without taking into account the positive aspects. This teacher sets clear rules and disciplines students who overstep the rules. However, they are also too quick to punish and do not use praise and warmth regularly in the classroom. This sort of teacher may see students as their adversaries rather than people they are there to help.
- Assertive Teachers: An assertive teacher regularly talks with their students about why their rules exist. This teacher talks about how rules help achieve fairness, balance and a positive atmosphere in the classroom. They understand that students need praise and warmth so they actively work to catch positive behavior and reward it. They understand that rules are fundamentally designed to support students’ learning and development and secure their safety. This teacher hopes to use disciplinary action rarely, but applies it consistently so that boundaries are not broken.
Practical Examples of Assertive Discipline
Canter and Canter have provided many practical examples to help guide teachers on how to use their approach. Below are a few.
Approach 1: Discipline Hierarchy
A discipline hierarchy is also known as an ‘escalating severity procedure’. It involves starting with small disciplinary actions such as warnings for first-time offences. If students continue to break rules, the severity of the discipline will escalate.
The teacher should have the discipline hierarchy written down in their discipline plan and students should be aware of the procedure in advance. For example, a teacher may present it to the students in the first week of school during a ‘class ground rules’ discussion.
- First Infraction (Warning): The first time the student breaks the rules, the teacher issues a warning. The teacher explicitly says that it is a warning and reminds the student of the correct behavior. “This is your warning. You have been asked not to enter the cloak room during class time.”
- Second and Third Infractions (Moderate consequence): The second and third infractions require small but definite consequences. This may be a 5-minute then 15-minute time out or withdrawal of a privilege later in the day. The teacher should let the student know that the punishment is a direct consequence of their behavior. Furthermore, the teacher can note that the student chose to misbehave, which highlights the student’s agency. For example: “You have chosen to continue to misbehave, so you have chosen this 5-minute time out.”
- Third Infraction (Escalated assertive action): The third infraction involves escalation of the issue, such as sending the student to the head teacher or calling the student’s parents. If the parents are called, Canter and Canter (1992) suggest that the student should place the call and explain themselves on the call.
- Severe Clause: Teachers should include within their discipline plans a ‘severe clause’. This clause means that misbehavior is so severe that no warnings will be put in place and the issue will be escalated immediately. Examples may include fighting, bullying or intentionally putting other students in physical danger.
Approach 2: Discipline Plans
Canter and Canter argue that a discipline plan is an absolute necessity in the classroom. Teachers should create the discipline plans and present them to students and parents at the start of the year.
The discipline plan should have the following aspects:
- Classroom Rules List: A short list of achievable classroom rules should be set out for the students. The rules should cover all eventualities. This list should be visible to students in the classroom throughout the year.
- Positive Recognition: The teacher should note down examples of positive recognition that they will provide to students as a part of their regular daily teaching strategy.
- Corrective Actions on a Discipline Hierarchy. The teacher should create a list of corrective actions that will be used as part of their discipline hierarchy. This should be shown to students so they are aware of consequences of actions.
- Severity Clause. Students should know that severe behaviors that violate the rights and safety of others may be escalated to parents or the principal without the use of the discipline hierarchy.
Approach 3: Regular Classroom Procedures
Regular classroom procedures involve teaching strategies that educators can use to help them keep control of the class.
- Modelling and Direct Instruction. Modelling and direct instruction of behaviors are central to Canter and Canter’s approach. They suggest providing clear and unambiguous behavior procedures (such as how to enter a classroom appropriately) prior to getting students to practice that behavior. They also suggest explaining the rationale for this direction, giving students the opportunity to ask questions, and checking for understanding via questioning techniques.
- Gestures are powerful ways to communicate with students. A gesture may be obvious like a wave or point, or simple sideways glances so students are aware that they’re under surveillance.
- Scanning and Circulating the Classroom. Scanning the classroom involves regularly looking around the classroom to ensure you have a bird’s-eye overview of everything that’s happening in the room. Circulating the room involves physically moving around the room. This is more effective because the students feel your presence as you walk past them, which reminds them that you are keeping an eye on their behavior.
- Table Layouts. A teacher can seat misbehaving students apart from one another, move misbehaving students closer to the teacher’s desk, and seat them apart from other students in the class to ensure other students are not distracted.
- When students are misbehaving in ways that do not distract the rest of the class (such as doodling instead of doing their work), the teacher can use positive reinforcement to support them. Canter and Canter argue that teachers should talk to the students about why their behavior is inappropriate and guide the student back onto track. This redirection prevents the need for negative disciplinary action. Redirection is useful in circumstances where the student is not being directly rude or disrespectful to others.
- Diffusing Confrontation. When students break rules, confrontation may occur. Canter and Canter state that confrontation should be diffused by the teacher in order to maintain a calm and professional environment. They suggest remaining calm, repeating requests, acknowledging a student’s emotions, and re-addressing issues at a later time when the temperature has come out of the situation a little. While a teacher can re-engage with an issue and provide negative consequences at a later time to prevent hostile confrontation, they should never let a student get away with breaking the rules without facing the consequences laid out in the discipline plan.
Assertive discipline is closely linked to behaviorist theory in education. The behaviorist theory holds that students’ behaviors can be effectively managed through a series of rewards and punishments.
However, this approach has also been challenged by other learning theories. Paolo Friere argues that assertive teaching reinforces unfair power hierarchies and creates a ‘banking approach to education’ where students are taught not to think but to simply comply. If a teacher is cruel or unfair, there is no avenues for students to achieve justice. Friere advocates instead for a problem posing approach to education.
This behavior management strategy is a very effective strategy for educators. Many early career teachers quickly learn that it has great benefits for managing a classroom and achieving a positive learning environment.
However, critics believe it disempowers students and leaves them passive and frustrated in the classroom.
In the end, all teachers need to come to a strategy that works well for them and their own students. The strategy should be compassionate and caring while also achieving the goal of creating a positive learning environment.
Canter, L. & Canter, M. (1976). A take-charge approach for today’s educator. Seal Beach: Lee Canter & Associates.
Canter, L. & Canter, M. (1993). Succeeding with difficult students: New strategies for reaching your most challenging students. Santa Monica: Lee Canter & Associates.
Canter, L. (1996). First, the rapport – then, the rules. Learning 24(5), 12-14.
Canter, L. & Canter, M. (2001). Positive behavior management for today’s classroom. Seal Beach: Lee Canter & Associates.
Charles, C. & Senter, G. (2005). Building classroom discipline. Boston: Pearson.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]