Creating the Conditions: Student Discipline

“The proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ ” — Edward Deci

In the past number of years we have gone through a very positive and significant transition at our school.  Through the work of the staff (current and previous), we have moved from a punish and reward mentality to one that is focused on creating the conditions for students to learn the skills to be successful. We have gone from long line ups of students at the office at the end of lunch to maybe one or two students ‘arriving’ at the office during an entire day.  Most of the issues we now deal with are minor and dealt with in the moment in a learning manner, away from “the office”.

So how has the staff of our school worked to create these conditions?

A few teachers and special education assistants often talk about “backing up to where they are” when working with kids.  When we discuss student discipline or “behaviour plans” we do not discuss what needs to be done TO the child but rather what can be done FOR the child.  Appropriate behaviour is full of self-regulation and social skills that needs to be taught; punishment and rewards do not teach.  There is no standardized boxed program (or one in a big white binder) that we can buy that will solve our discipline issues.  Students are individuals and the conditions need to be created that not only help school culture but also help the student.  At our school,  staff work hard to create the conditions so we can back up to where the student is and help him/her develop the self-confidence and social skills needed to be more successful in a school setting.

For about the past 4 years, we have had a group of boys that are the rough and tough jock type.  They have turned every square inch of our school and field into some sort of hockey rink at some point. I love these guys… I coached them at recess times when mini-hockey sticks were almost regular sticks to them; however, their drive  and ultra competitive nature often gets the best of them.  Last year, their aggressive play came to a head as we seemed to be dealing with some sort of minor altercation almost every day.  We banned hockey for a few days and then the game of choice became “touch” football (their definition of touch turned out to be different than mine).  It seemed like any activity they played turned into a physical battle. I met with a Special Education Assistant (who is also a supervisor at recess/lunch) as well as a few teachers (and phoned a parent who has a similar perspective on student discipline) and we asked the question, “what conditions can we create for these students to be successful?”.  The answer came to us: they needed a coach.  They needed someone nearby that could bring them into a huddle every now and then to have some reflective discussions so they could come up with their own rules to create more fair play in the games.  Also, this coach would help some students to understand when they needed a break to regulate their emotions.  We decided we would decrease the area in which they could play – not as a punishment but but to create the conditions for them to have an adult closer if/when needed.  This small group of boys decided they wanted to play soccer and have the supervisor nearby to help them with any disputes.  They came up with some rules together and then began the games.  What happened next was one that made me sit back and smile.  What started out as a game of 8-10 boys turned into a game of 12…. then a game of 16.  A week later there were over 30 students – of all genders, skill levels, needs, and ages – playing soccer in this small area.  The game had the conditions – a level of intensity coupled with a sense of fairness – that made these students all want to play.

The start of something special – a few more students join the reflective huddle with the recess “coach”.

Of course we still have students that struggle with behaviours and some learn much faster than others; however, when we change the lens of discipline from one of punishment and rewards to a lens of skill development and self-regulation, we see students begin to develop and actually shine in an area of their life in which they once struggled.  There is not one main thing that can be pinpointed as something that changed the culture of discipline at our school.  Through the years before and during my time at the school, there has been dialogue on restitution, strength-based teaching, growth mindset, mediation, First Nation culture, awards ceremonies, leadership/mentorship, relationships, etc… all with a focus on kids.  All of these conversations have pushed us forward and provided us with more tools in our toolbox so we can work together to create the conditions for more student success.  We still have a lot to learn but I believe we are definitely on the right track.

All students are good kids – some come to school with more skills than others in certain areas.  When we have a student struggling with reading, we find ways to create a support network to teach the skills; this support network also must be developed when children struggle with behaviours.

Create the conditions for students to be successful: back up to where they are, support them through coaching, be patient… and watch them flourish.



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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Great post Chris. The “touch” football scenario described most of my last year’s supervision. I did experience success in another situation though when I ended up being player/coach with a group of energetic grade 2/3 students who loved playing soccer. I could work with even the most aggressive/out of control kids. The key though was being able to spend the time with them. Looking back now I think I didn’t do it long enough to establish the good habits. But it definitely works when you teach/show them what to do as opposed to punishment and telling them what not to do.

    • Sometimes being a player/coach on the field can be the best part of our days… and have the longest impact too. Thanks for adding to the dialogue.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for a great post. We’ve enjoyed a similar reframing of how we support children’ developing behaviors and understand disciplinary policy. With the children, we’ve stopped laying out the endless ‘behavior contract’ with a list of eleventy-seven ‘Don’t’ rules and, instead, invited and empowered them to ask three simple questions of their choices (“Is it safe? Is it fair? Is it friendly”) to have a sense of behaviors that are encouraged or questionable. This has led to some great conversations, reflections, etc., about the principles on which our school culture’s covenants are based.

    Also over the last few, when those situations emerge that do require consequences, we abide by the Responsive Classroom credo that these consequences should be (1) logical, (2) respectful, and (3) related. (Great stuff on punishment v ‘logical consequences’ at http://ow.ly/e3UKE). The culture has shifted as a result: as you say it so well, “we do not discuss what needs to be done TO the child but rather what can be done FOR the child.”

    Chris Thinnes, Curtis School

    • Hey Chris – thanks for pushing this further with your insights and link. One thing that my previous principal taught me was to include the student in “making it right” (I think this is like logical consequences). The younger the student, the more coaching that is needed but it can be very powerful and generally results in both parties feeling better in the end. Thanks again!

  3. I first came to your blog when searching for information on PBIS about three weeks ago. I have since found myself waiting anxiously for new posts from you. I read your blog as a parent and as a paraeducator. I am constantly shaking my head in agreement and wishing more voices like yours would be heard. Here in the US and in my home state I find myself felling like we are setting our children up for future failure with some of the policies we put in place (ie an external reward system for things they should want to do for an internal “reward.”) I really enjoy your blog and look forward to future posts from you. I would consider myself lucky to work for and with you.
    PS I love that you are reading books your students are reading, Kissing Hand was a great recommendation!

    • Hey Abbie! Thanks for taking the time to comment… PBIS is a great example of a program with the best of intentions that can place the focus on the wrong thing. There are many parts of PBIS that are very valuable but it is often bastardized by the rewards system as that often becomes the focus. Schools proudly state “We are a PBIS school”. What does this mean? Is this a good thing? The better conversation is what are you doing to support kids… if the answer appears to be about tickets for good behaviour, then I see a problem.

      Thanks for your kind words. If you are on Twitter, please let me and others know your handle. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for this Chris, as at our school we constantly struggle with a similar group of boys playing soccer. When I took the soccer ball away last year, they ended up playing soccer with a juice box. As you can imagine,his became even more physical.

    I see their soccer game as a chance for them to develop the social skills of teamwork and self-regulation. I’ve tried using older student referees, but now I’ll try a coach.

  5. Hey Kyle – your comment reminds me of the value of experience as a coach and PE teacher. Playing and coaching kids in a safe environment can lead to some very powerful conversations.

  6. ‘Coaching’ is a word I started using when my kids entered the public school system. As a parent, dealing with squabbles and emotional difficulties at school and at home has required a lot of coaching over the years. We’ve tried to create a climate for our kids of empowering them to learn so discipline and regulate themselves, and when they learn those skills, wonderful things begin to happen, as you illustrate in this post.They just need to feel they are supported and that guidance if needed is standing by at the ready.

  7. Hi Chris,
    I read your comments during the Leadership 2.0 on Tuesday. Thank you for this post as it is exactly what I believe and what I beleive should happen for our students. Tomorrow, I will share your blog with our staff as we are all trying to make our school a place where everyone is willing to include everyone and will do whatever it takes. If our kids don’t have the skills, we need to teach them not exclude them. Thanks for the encouraging words.

    • Thanks Gail – focusing on skills is so key. We do this with almost everything… except behaviour. Once we do this, we see that, although it takes longer, more long term benefits result.

  8. Hi Chris! Thanks for this post. It is sometimes a simple solution that will resolve a problem. Having a coach call them in for a moment will do wonders. Funny how kids have a very different definition of touch football than we do!

    • Haha… yup. I still have back and neck problems from a “touch football” game in grade 5!

  9. Hey Chris. Thanks for the post. It rings deep with me, especially in my move to the middle school (6-8) environment this year. What I am finding hardest is the mindset shift that needs to happen… We are also a PBIS school with a heavy focus on the reward, and until we get away from this; until we can get away from the “reward and punishment” mindset and begin thinking along the lines of what you are writing about here, we are never going to create in students the confidence they need to go out into the world and act the right way just because it’s the right thing to do.

    • Well said – the layers of PBIS are full of great practices but I question the tickets, gotchas, and prizes. I think that schools would be surprised that if they removed them but still provided the kids with feedback – they may see even better gains in student behaviour.

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