Three Strikes and You're Out
In almost every school and every classroom you visit you will see a certain type of behaviour management. For example a student, let’s say Craig starts to talk out of turn; his name is written on the board. A short time later he throws something at another student and the teacher puts a tick beside his name. Craig gets angry and pushes his chair over, another tick and then he swears at the teacher, a final tick and he is removed! Now he is out of the room and no longer that teacher’s responsibility. This non-verbal system of control is potentially an effective intervention but there is much more that needs to be considered before it is just introduced!
In 1976 Marlene and Lee Canter published a book called ‘Assertive Discipline: A Take Charge Approach for Today’s Educator’. Like other programmes of that era such as Rogers’ ‘Decisive Discipline’ and Glasser’s ‘Reality Therapy’ this program was a response to the disruptive environments in the modern classroom. The feature that made Canter’s approach was the promise to put the teacher in charge again. A close examination of the program would reveal this has the potential to be an appropriate approach to classroom management. However, there is one feature of the program that has been embraced without reference to all the necessary groundwork that has to be done prior to its use and that is the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ procedures.
It must be accepted that the approach was promoted as ‘putting the teacher back in charge’ and I hope those who have followed our essays would be wondering why this would be a problem. There is a subtle difference in that many of the fans of Assertive Discipline interpreted this as being in charge of the students. One of the most liberating truths you can have is that you can’t make anyone do anything. All you can do is offer them choices of consequences and they will choose. In our work we know that the teacher must be in charge of the choices, which is the behavioural expectations and the structured consequences!
The Canters understood what needed to be put in place before the non-verbal cues were used and their advice is well worth reiterating. They have identified four competencies teachers need to possess in order to successfully manage classroom behaviour.
- Identifying appropriate behaviours that form the basis for classroom rules
- Systematically setting limits for inappropriate behaviour
- Consistently reinforcing appropriate behaviour
- Working cooperatively with parents and principals
In our model these points would be:
- Establishing expectations
- Designing structure, that is consequences for various behaviours
- Applying the reinforcement consistently and persistently
As for their Point 4, this would be part of the structure.
We would not be so controlling to state the following steps Canter prescribes for the first day in class. He recommends the following be asserted:
- “None of you will stop me from teaching”
- “None of you will engage in any behaviour that stops someone from learning”
- “None of you will engage in any behaviour that is not in your interest or the best interest of others”
It is this insistent approach that appeals to teachers who struggle with control of their class. Canter’s warning to the students is a promise to the teacher that can’t be achieved in every case.
There are two issues here that I would disagree with granted that they are not critical. The first is I know you can’t make anyone do anything. This is extremely liberating for the teacher as eventually you can’t be responsible for their choices, nor should you want to be. The second problem is, for the extreme kids that we focus on, this threat is also a challenge.
Canter strongly focuses on classroom rules which the teacher dictates. In a broad sense this is the only difference between his approach and ours which, where ever possible the rules are made by the class (see Newsletter 96 - Creating Structure - 12 August 2019 for a full description of how we generate rules). Our preference on the class designing the rules is that this develops their self-reliance rather than the expectation that they must comply. To develop unquestioned obedience is a direct threat to democracy and it is possible for rules to be developed with a sense of representative ownership by the students.
To finalise this short examination of Canter’s Assertive Discipline the concept is dependent on the teacher taking charge of the classroom, this is at the heart of its popularity. Some scholars have likened the teacher to the alpha male in a wolf pack. Someone who controls behaviour, directs activities and ensures the well-being of the pack. As far as a wolf pack is concerned this alpha position is always envied and up and coming challengers are constantly emerging and the right to have the power is fought over. Control is power over others and this is inappropriate for the development of our society.
Further, for every alpha there is an omega wolf, one who lacks the qualities that would allow them to challenge and really has no power. In a democratic society this is not such a problem, we are all of equal value we just have different abilities.
Canter puts a great deal of emphasis on the use of I-messaging, that is when he is correcting student’s behaviour he is directing the student on what to do. This can be at the level we describe in boundary setting:
- When you … - describe the students behaviour
- I feel … - let them know the impact their behaviour is having on you
In our model:
- Because … - explain the impact the behaviour is having on their environment, that is the effect on others and their own learning.
In Canter’s model this last step is:
- I would like … tell the student what to do.
When students are not complying, maybe they are angry or distressed or just defiant then Canter will use statements like ‘I understand’ or ‘that’s not the point’ to get some movement towards compliance. What he advocates is that you should take control. So when a student doesn’t want to do an assignment you would say something like ‘I understand you do not like this subject but it will be examined in the test’ or ‘that’s not the point, you need to understand this’. However, this verbal intervention has a limit and non-compliance soon attracts a behaviour check. We discuss these issues in Newsletter 144. Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult times (30 November 2020).
There is much to admire about Canter’s model however, the teacher needs to be of a certain personality type to make it work most of the time. To do this you must be an assertive teacher by nature. There are a range of personality types in teaching and all need to introduce into the classroom what both Canter and us insist on and that is expectations and structure and these are to be administered consistently and persistently. Unlike Canter we hold that the most important characteristic is a relationship between the student and the child that is equal in importance. The difference is in their responsibilities.