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Is Your Classroom Under Control?
Discipline in the non-teacher's classroom

Note: This article was written jointly with Alison Miyake and was first published in Snakes and Ladders in two parts - Summer 2003 and Winter 2003. Here it is presented whole and has been edited slightly to reflect this.
What kind of discipline problems do you have in your classroom?

Chris Hunt: Once upon a time the sun and the wind had an argument about a man wearing a coat. The sun shone and shone but the man would not put on the coat. Then the wind blew like crazy and the man jumped into the coat quicker than you can say, “That’s not the story I know!” while I understand the concerns that prompt this kind of question (kids running wild, not listening, jabbering on in Japanese, arguing and fighting etc.), I feel that it is looking at things the wrong way round. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this kind of question creates more problems than it solves. It presupposes that there are certain norms that children should follow and certain standards of behaviour. Built into the question is the acceptance of a power hierarchy.

The teacher instructs and the children obey.

Having said this, the other week I had one of the worst classroom experiences of my life. The class consisted of near on 60 five-year-olds. I was at a nursery school I go to once a month. It was only the second time and the first time had gone well. I had boys trying to punch me in the groin and both girls and boys trying to insert fingers up my behind. Other kids were intent on ransacking my bags. It was a teacher’s worst nightmare!

Alison Miyake: I went to a meeting of all the Assistant English Teachers (AETs) from Yamaguchi-ken in March, and fingers up the bum was the first problem mentioned. I think being very clear on any behaviour that you like or don’t like, especially with regard to your own person is important. I would try to grab the kid, hold him by the arms so that I could look him in the eyes and say in a firm voice, “No” or “Stop” or “Don’t do that”. I have been surprised to hear that the Japanese teachers(s) will often just stand back and watch and do nothing to assist the poor victim. I think it is important that the AET isn’t forced to deal with the situation n his own, and if the teachers are standing watching, I would ask them to help you. I would also take it up with the principal. Teaching kids powerful English like this will also help them when they get into a situation where they don’t like what is being done to them.

CH: Yes, control language like “Don’t” is some of the first language I teach. It’s imperative that everybody agrees to respect such language, especially teachers! I agree it’s important to face children and tell them clearly and firmly when you don’t like something. Recently in another kindergarten class I had a four-year-old boy spitting at me. He ignored me when I stood and told him “Don’t”. After the third time, I sat on the floor and took him firmly by the shoulders so that we were abruptly face to face. I started to talk to him in English saying I didn’t like spitting. Suddenly it seemed he realised what he had been doing, which was antagonising a being much larger and stronger than himself.

He demanded to be let go. I said, “Sure”, and let him go but told him again not to spit. He stopped. Of course one can wonder why he had started in the first place.

AM: Yes, what about the kids who are acting up? In my elementary school classes there have been two kinds. There are the ones who LOVE English and know a little bit, so are eager to shout out the answers. I usually find them a good stimulus for the rest of the students and say “Great!” or you know a lot of English”. (Once, I tried a “Sh...” so that other kids would have a chance to answer, but I felt it backfired, since I was speaking only English and he probably didn’t know why he was shushed - you should always work within your own comfort level)

There are also kids who act out because they DON’T want to be there, or because they feel their needs aren’t being met. In a big classroom, it is hard for the teacher to give attention to everyone, and I sometimes find that the stricter the Japanese teacher is, the more kids there are who refuse to participate in my classroom. Let’s face it, the English class goes by different rules and many kids see this as an opportunity to play with their freedom. I think this is one of the main reasons why kids tend to physically mob the foreign teacher: it is partly wanting to test what the rules are in this new situation. It is also partly a testing of how much freedom they really have. I have had kids who would refuse to take part in an activity. I usually acknowledge them by saying, “Come and join us” or “It’s fun!”, but then let them choose whether or not to participate. People don’t learn when they are in rebellion mode.

CH: I think it’s important to give children choice. For years my general rule of thumb was simple. A child has a right not to participate in any activity but does not have the right to disrupt the activity. Now I’m questioning this idea even though it has served me well. I’m increasingly concerned with issues of democracy in the classroom and I hope we’ll return to this later, but right now I’d like to ask you for your thoughts and feelings on being mobbed.

AM: I haven’t had many experiences of that, except maybe in cases with 3-5-year-olds. I think it is partly because I have been going to my schools for many years and they know I live in Japan, and I have eaten lunch in the cafeteria and played on the playground, so many of the students know me. It also helps, of course, that I can speak Japanese.

I sometimes wonder how much of the mobbing and difference in attitude can be attributed to the fact that kids know the rules are different outside of Japan, but don’t know what he rules are. When I have been in a situation like that, I usually try to step sideways or backwards to prevent myself from being surrounded. One thing I have noticed, is that elementary and younger kids in Japan do tend to have a somewhat closer (parent-substitute) relationship with their teachers, and therefore there is more touching and less personal space than I am used to or, sometimes, prefer.

CH: It’s true that people have a different sense of personal pace. I don’t mind physical contact with children. They can even hit me and that’s OK. What I look at is attitude. If a child is trying to be friendly or play tag or something I have no problem with being hit. But I dislike being treated as some object to be disposed of by a TV super-hero. I usually disdain such behaviour, but it’s important to develop a feeling or the mood of the group. Children, especially young children, are very sensitive to the energy levels in a room. Even the weather can affect patterns of behaviour.

AM: That was another good question at the AET workshop: what do you do with a class of 50 or 100 students that are totally wound up about the AET coming? What ideas do you have for calming activities to help people settle down and get into thinking mode? We talked about helping the kids let off steam at the beginning of class by using a song or dance that gets them moving and that they can sing in a loud voice, but that involves the group working together. Breaking into groups or pairs for an activity so everyone gets a chance to talk is good. The last thing you want to do when kids are already bouncing off the walls is to give them a real running around activity. Such an activity is better for when the kids need some energy injected into them. Feeling and reacting to the pace of the classroom can be one of the most difficult things for a new teacher.

CH: I think it’s important to develop the skill of pacing and leading. Go where the kids are first and then bring them to where you would like them to be. So if the kids are being noisy, be noisy and then perhaps make a game of it. Use your arms to indicate the volume of noise to aim at. Say, “Be noisy” and be noisy, then say, “Be quiet” and as the noise subsides, whisper “Be quiet”. Hold the silence for a second or two and then get them to be noisy again. Repeat as desired and then move onto something else. At all times, if possible turn problems of simple disruption into a game.

Actually games are difficult to over-rate. With large classes start out by teaching classroom management phrases through games. For example, play a command game and time how long it takes the class to respond. Kids like to compete against their previous time. Typical commands include: “Make a circle”, “Make a line”, “Make two lines”, five lines”, “Go there”, “Come here”, “Mingle” etc.

The last command is especially interesting. Never assume anything! Have an activity that relies on children moving around talking to each other? You can bet that when you introduce it, the kids will stand in clumps or not move at all. But if they already know how to mingle you can use that command to start the game, “Ready, steady, mingle!” physical structures are worth thinking about. Very young children may not be able to make a circle. So you could put stickers down on the floor or give them a rope to hold onto.

In kindergarten one class took almost a year to be able to make a circle, hold hands and not charge backwards and forwards. We just kept working at it. Perseverance without expectation. Some classes may be able to make a circle at the beginning of a class but not be able to keep it. In such circumstances I structure activities so that once the circle is lost I don’t need to remake it.

With large classes having the active support of the children’s regular teachers is important. The more they participate and are willing to use English, the more things will go smoothly.

AM: This brings up a problem that I have had. My discipline is “looser” than that of my Japanese teachers. I had a teacher walk out of class once and end up in tears. She started the class with the kids in tight rows, everyone standing at attention. They said “Good afternoon” and then she was waiting for them to say something else. No-one, including myself, could figure out what she was getting at. It turned out to be “How are you?” since that is the way I usually start my classes, but it was really ironic to have 35 people shouting it out and me responding. A good example of why choral repetition is not real conversation!

Then some of the kids were restless (rebelling) and she tried to get them back into proper order again (the silent, “I’m waiting” routine) and the kids got even more restless. Eventually she ended up moving some of the kids in the front row, and someone backed into someone else who fell and accused her of pushing him. She got really upset and left the room.

So what to do in this situation? First, I have to respect that it is her classroom and she is the one that works with the students all the time, so I need to show consideration for her way of doing things. As a parent, I have been in situations where I have needed a time-out myself. (There are lots of times where you get locked into a position and lose sight of the big issue or principle.) I started the class and we did our activities, the whole time with me trying to think of what I was going to do. I left a few minutes at the end and said (in Japanese) “We have a problem”. I let them try to guess what it was, and one of them said that their teacher wasn’t there. I then acknowledged the teacher’s feelings, saying that she probably felt mad or sad, and asked them what they thought they could do. We agreed that they should apologise. I wanted to show the group that they should take responsibility for one of their members being missing.

What happened was that three of the (quiet, well-behaved) girls came down to the staff room to apologise and the teacher (who was crying) said “No, it’s not you”. The principal came out and asked what was going on and the teacher explained, with the principal immediately trying to pick out names of students to call into his office. I talked with him afterwards and explained the situation and said that I thought it was important that no one be singled out since it was a genuine misunderstanding. Any “punishment” or “lecture” I'd focus on the group as a whole, and show that they all have responsibility for what goes on in the classroom.

CH: It’s important to realise that these things can happen. It’s usually worth analysing a situation afterwards and thinking bout what could have been done differently. Looking back on my experience of the other week, I identified several things I’d done that probably contributed to my being mobbed. Several of the children were saying, “Yummy, yummy” to me, and I didn’t really take the time to find out why. I was too intent on pursuing my lesson plan, which is probably the single greatest cause of problems. As soon as we get locked into our own agendas and start ignoring the here and now we are inviting trouble. Essentially what we are doing is failing to treat the children with respect. Respect must be mutual or there is no real respect at all.

AM: Yes: I think “discipline” should be more about modelling behaviour by showing respect for students and giving them individual attention to understand where they are coming from, and not about punishment. This is as true for parenting as it is for “teaching”.

CH: Yes, it is a universal.

wise line

AM: So the question is “Should we even be thinking in terms of discipline? Is discipline necessary?” I agree that as teachers, we should really be aiming for self-discipline on the part of our students. By this, I don’t mean, “By now you should know the rules, so I don’t have to tell you.” or, “I’ll let you students police each other and tell each other when you have broken a rule.” as I often see being used in the Japanese elementary schools where I have taught.

Fundamentally, the idea of having peers agree on what is good behaviour with the power to tell people when they don’t like something someone’s doing, rather than always having (or using) the teacher as authority figure who does the enforcing, is extremely important. What is often missing though is that the students aren’t the ones who get to decide the rules in the first place. (See Adele and Mazlish, 1995, for a way of involving students in rule-making and problem solving.) Self-discipline should really mean, “I am interested in what I am studying, it is important to me, and therefore I feel a stake in being here and making sure that everyone’s needs are met in our learning environment.”

CH: Yes, as Maria Montessori said, “Discipline must come through liberty.”

AM: I have just finished an excellent book called, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (Owen, 1997). One very important point that the author makes right at the beginning is that the typical way of proceeding in companies, or organisations in general, is to wait for the boss to order something and then the person whose job it is has to do the work. As the author says, “Very quickly, conventional wisdom creates a negative self-fulfilling prophecy where the only way that a job gets done is when we don’t care enough to do it”, but are told to do it. What is missing from this is the will, a personal interest or stake in doing something. In other words, we should let people initiate more, do the things that they really think need to be done and we’d likely be surprised by how much ends up getting done anyway.

Maybe this is a bit of a leap, but this is what I feel is missing in public school classrooms and it has led me to look into things like free schooling (where students are able to decide the rules of the school and whether or not they attend classes, like at Summerhill School in the UK and the Sudbury Valley schools in the US) and unschooling, where all learning is self-initiated. Part of the homeschooling, and influenced by John Holt, these parents believe that kids don’t need to be “taught” to learn something, rather should be free at all times to pursue what interests them. Parents don’t provide a “curriculum”, but stimulation in the form of materials and guidance as to where to find answers and more information.

Why do we think that teachers have to tell students what to study and enforce rules of behaviour for them to learn what they need to know in life, including how to interact with peers and teachers at school?

CH: I think fear plays a large part. Teachers fear losing control. There’s also the empty vessel philosophy that suggests hat children require filling with knowledge supplied by the adult. There’s often an assumption that if children aren’t focused on the teacher then they either can’t learn anything or won’t learn what they should learn.

AM: I agree on both points. When I started teaching in elementary schools (with no experience in teaching kids), I wanted my Japanese teachers to give me ideas on how to organise activities and introduce them so kids would be interested (age-appropriate and similar to what they have done before so they would understand how to do the activity) and the whole thing would proceed smoothly: kids walking around the room in an orderly fashion repeating after me… .That’s taking it to an extreme, of course, but I do think it is common for nervous new teachers to worry and check that students are on task or “doing things the way the teacher expected them to happen”, and ignore the moving-toward-chaos effect that a lot of people with different interests and ability levels doing an activity can have.

CH: I don’t quite follow this. What is the moving-toward-chaos effect?

AM: It’s what happens in an elementary classroom when you play a game. When we don’t leave students room to complete a task in their own individual, creative way, we are essentially telling them not to get involved or invest themselves in the task. It’s much more than just taking the fun out of it. I see this happening in the language classroom often, when the task gets so structured that there is only one possible correct response and, even worse, we are timing the response, expecting it to happen quickly. This is not what natural language is about at all.

We should be teaching kids to express themselves freely and creatively, without worrying about correct grammar, by simply offering them the words or structures to say what they want to say. This is, after all, how kids learn their first language, not by being “taught”. I often think out how kids would continue to learn things by imitating the world around them without having to go to school if we would let them freely explore and learn in their own way(s). In parenting, the norm is not to think of disciplining as punishing or rewarding. Kids need to participate in rule-making and to understand the reasoning behind the rules in order to see how the rules are applied. No enforcer needed.

A parent knows that every child is different and our job is to see and build on each child’s unique abilities to give them self-esteem and the confidence to go after their dreams. If you take the time to observe, it is pretty easy to figure out why someone is “acting out”, with the most common reasons being as simple as being hungry, tired or bored. Now that my daughter is four, having no say or being told what to do or being ignored are the most common reasons. I always felt it very challenging to only spend 45 minutes every two weeks with my students and to try to understand their needs, their feelings of the day, their home situation and how it might be impacting on their day at school, but these are all the things that help you figure out the problem behind the behaviour, as I know in my heart as a parent.

Fig. 1: Examples of Kagan structures

Talking Chips

This is a Kagan Structure to equalise participation within groups. The preferred group size is four. Within groups the students are asked to discuss something. Each student uses a talking chip - these could be counters but pens will do just as well. After making a statement, a student places his or her chip on the table. The student must now be quiet until all the chips are on the table. Chips are then retrieved and the process continues. Note that this is very different from speaking in turn. Students are free to contribute in any order. All students are required to contribute so no student within the group can dominate and no student can freeload.

Talking Chips is a structure. Since the discussion can be about anything it is content free. In fact, it need not actually be a discussion. Returnees may well be able to hold a discussion but many children cannot. However, rather than “discuss” students could be making statements and practising patterns. For example, they could be making “I like...” or “I can…” statements (or “You have…”, “She plays…”, “He is…” etc). They could be looking at a picture and making sentences about it, or they could even simply be naming vocabulary within an agreed category.

Talking Chips is one of 200 Kagan Structures. For resources describing the structures and how to apply them, or for information regarding training in the structures, log on to: www.kaganonline.com

All Sit Down

This is a variant of Talking Chips. With this structure rather than using pens or counters, students use their whole bodies. The group starts by standing up. When a student makes a contribution he or she sits down. When all students are sitting, the group scores one point and all stand up again. This works especially well for reviewing vocabulary but could be used for other tasks. Use a time limit and each group can see how many points they can get while performing the task.

As these examples demonstrate, any game which is content free is essentially a structure.

CH: This is why generally I favour small classes and team teaching. Two teachers can be much more flexible in addressing individual needs than one. I think flexibility is key. Very young learners are great teachers of this.

Recently, for example, I was having a class when a two year-old boy began swinging a fishing rod wildly. It was rather dangerous. I asked him to stop but he wouldn’t. His mother tried to take the rod away from him and he began to get angry. I asked him again firmly to stop but he wouldn’t. I too started to use force, but quickly realised that to do so would mean either damaging his fingers or breaking the rod. Suddenly, inspiration came. I picked him up and took him out of the classroom. I put him down on the couch in the waiting room and told him that if he wanted to swing the rod he could do so but not where he might hurt people. I went back into the classroom but as soon as the next activity started, put my head out of the door and asked him if he wanted to join in. He came back into the room to join in and actually handed the rod to me! I had managed to find a way to respect his feelings and at the same time maintain a safe learning environment for everyone. I should say that the whole time I communicated with him in English.

AM: I want to come back to what you said about flexibility and control. It’s really true (something I learned from our presentations) that the teacher cannot control what learning goes on in the room.

Unfortunately, because we are confined to meeting at a certain time and place for a given number of minutes, there is control being put on the learning and teachers feel they have to accomplish something in that given time frame. I agree with you that what the teacher wants to “control” only the environment, allowing for a safe, teamwork approach to what gets done and how. I think your use of non-competitive games is really important for creating safety and continual learning: learning doesn’t stop when someone wins, which can be so frustrating with traditional games. I also think that Co-operative Learning is important. Maybe, Chris, you could give us some ideas of how to create this environment in the classroom through some specific activity ideas?

CH: I thought you’d never ask! Seriously though, it’s not just using particular types of activities but more the whole approach. Using non-competitive and co-operative games can get children learning together but giving them as much choice as possible and avoiding false authority (I’m the teacher so what I say goes) are equally important. Anyway, here are a few suggestions:

1. Make your lesson plan transparent. Write it up on the board in simple English even if the children can’t read. Where and whenever possible let the children choose the order of activities.

2. Give time. It shouldn’t be imperative to complete a whole lesson plan in one lesson. Activities not completed in one lesson can be done first in the next. Teachers sometimes have a tendency to put completing a plan ahead of giving children the time to absorb learning or play with new language.

3. Have choices of activities that fulfil the same learning point and allow the children to choose which activity to do. One reason I like the book Co-operative Learning by Spencer Kagan (1992) is that he clearly shows how content and activity can be separated by using structures. Find structures that a group likes and use them with different content. (see fig.1 for examples)

4. Use different kinds of activities that stimulate different intelligences. Present the same learning point in more than one way.

5. Get feedback on activities, especially when introducing them for the first time. You could use a feedback slip (see fig.2). The box is for the number of the activity (taken from the board). The children circle one of the faces rating the activity (Great, fine, so-so or terrible) and then put the slip into a post box (a regular box with a slit cut into it). After class the papers can be sorted and assessed.

Feedback Slip

6. Conduct occasional questionnaires and/or interviews and get feedback on what children think about what they are doing and what you are doing. Concentrate on ways of making the lessons more useful and more fun.

7. Consider setting aside part of every lesson for discussion about the lesson. Get children to identify any problems, brainstorm solutions with them and draw up action plans. Realise though that most children will only be able to use Japanese. Realise also that finding solutions is ongoing. What works now might not work in future. There are no fixed answers and what is right for one class might be wrong for another. Let the children decide.

AM: Maybe I can add one more?

8. Stretch yourself by experimenting with a free classroom. Put lots of materials (videos, books, cards, props) on the board and let students choose what they want to do. The teacher can always tie these into to whatever grammar point they want to teach, but allowing kids to choose what vocabulary they want to learn and the medium they learn it through can be very powerful for both students and teacher.


Faber, A. and E. Mazlish (1995) How To Talk So Kids Can Learn At Home and In School. New York: Rawson Associates.

Kagan, S. (1992) Co-operative Learning . San Clemente: Kagan publishing.
Montesorri, M. (2000) The Montessori Method . 2nd ed. New Haven: The Montessori Teachers Collective. Available at http://www.moteaco.com/method/method-V.html

Owen, H (1997) Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide . 2nd ed. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Suggested Reading

Bartlett, A. (2003) Unschooling in Japan. Available at http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~ja8i-brtl/unschooling_index.htm

Holt, John (1997) Teach Your Own . Norfolk, UK: Lighthouse Books. Holt Associates. Growing Without Schooling.Wakefield, Massachusetts: Holt Associates, Inc. (newsletter)

Kagan, S. (1994) Co-operative Learning . San Clemente, CA: Resources for teachers available at www.kaganonline.com.

Neill, A.S. (1993) Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood . New York: St. Martin’s Press

Alison Miyake is not teaching in a traditional classroom very much at all at the moment. In this light, if you think the content of this article is irrelevant to your classroom situation, she encourages you to write to her anytime. She can be reached via the Wise Contact Page. Please put her name in the subject line.

Chris Hunt is interested in non-competition, non-teaching and democracy in the classroom. These and other ideas are discussed in his erratic newsletter Wise Hat News .

See http://www.wisehat.com/newsletter/subscribe.php for details.

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