From education to employment

The case for a positive approach to disciplinary

Consider an occasion from your childhood when you misbehaved or did something wrong which, having been addressed by someone, in terms of consequences, had a positive effect on you, possibly in the long term, in terms of feelings, learning and behaviour change. Secondly, think of another occasion when you misbehaved or did something wrong and, this having been addressed, you experienced none of those positive effects.

These are situations which are individual and highly context-dependent of course but it is likely that the effect on your feelings, learning and future behaviour had much to do with the approach of the person(s) who addressed the poor behaviour with you and your relationship with them. Moreover, we can summarise that the former was likely to be a process of rehabilitation and the latter, one of retribution. The more punitive approach may have resulted in you never repeating the misbehaviour but we need to ask the questions:

  • is not repeating the action the only measure of success?
  • which approach is most likely to prevent repetition of the behaviour for the majority of people?

What do we mean by ‘consequences’ and ‘poor behaviour’?

Bringing it back to learners, it’s important to briefly consider what we mean by certain terms. We’ve already used ‘consequences’ in the positive sense which often it isn’t, or, is used as synonymous with punishment. How often have you heard “there aren’t any consequences” when actually there are but the consequence is something like a learning conversation (more of which later) rather than a punitive action?

In terms of behaviour, Wallace (2013) helpfully draws out the subtle differences between the following three terms.

  • ‘Disengagement’ – where a learner has detached him or herself from the idea of formal learning.
  • ‘Non-compliance’ – examples include:
    • frequent absence from lessons;
    • lack of punctuality;
    • failure to complete or hand in work;
    • refusal to contribute usefully to discussions or activities;
    • failure to listen to what the teacher or others are saying.
  • Challenging behaviour’ – for example, a point blank refusal to obey an instruction from a teacher to do something like to sit down, put their phone away or turn their chair to face the front.

(adapted from Wallace, 2013, p 88)

She makes the important point that these three are not synonymous but, rather, ‘represent a sequence of escalating cause and effect’ (Wallace, 2013, p 88). Thinking about which you are faced with, and the connections between them, will help you in addressing them.

Does research say a positive approach works?

Cotton (2010) researched alternatives to detentions in schools to address incidents of poor behaviour. Two schools with children experiencing social emotional behavioural difficulties (SEBD) used the ‘3 Ls’ approach:

  • listen to the learner’s point of view;
  • link the feelings to the behaviour;
  • learn better reactions for the next time you have that feeling

as an alternative to detentions (adapted from Cotton, 2010, p 28).

Both schools saw a reduction in incidents over a 12 week period with one school experiencing a reduction of 51% (Cotton, 2013, p 17). In a further study, Cotton (2013) designed an app for learners to use, based on the 3 Ls approach, ‘to help learners recognise that feelings drive behaviour and more appropriate behaviours can be exhibited to show how the learner is feeling‘ (Cotton, 2013, p 24). A 64.5% reduction in behaviour incidents was seen during the research (Cotton, 2013, p 43). The research showed that rather than staff and institutions seeking to control behaviour, it is much more effective to enable learners to learn to control their own behaviour using positive listening and learning techniques.

Interestingly, Wallace (2013, p 355) found that a positive teacher-learner relationship and the attitude and demeanour of the teacher had more success in encouraging positive behaviour than any other prescribed strategies. Specific observed situations included the following descriptions: ‘chatted with him in a freindly [sic] way‘; ‘didn’t get mad but showed he was concerned in a nice way‘; ‘firm but made it obvious she was being kind and caring’ (Wallace, 2013, p 355).

Learners may describe you in the same way if you use structured positive learning conversations as the ‘go-to’ strategy for addressing poor behaviour.


Along with uncovering underlying reasons, the rationale for the positive approach is to provide positive reinforcement to learners (some of whom may have never experienced this before). As Wallace (2013, p 95) states, ‘What looks like simply a lack of respect may be a signal that something more complex needs addressing in terms of the learner’s needs‘. Reading and interpreting learner behaviour and seeing it as a way of communicating in order to understand what it’s telling us (Wallace, 2013) is key.

It is important to emphasise that this goes hand in hand with the aim of encouraging the learner to take ownership and responsibility.

So, the aim is not for us to control learner behaviour but for learners to eventually take ownership and control it themselves. As Cotton states ‘negative consequences drive negative feelings which in turn drive negative behaviours’ (Cotton, 2013, p 3). A positive approach to learners seeks to change each of these negatives into positives.

Good practice tips

We suggest the following good practice tips for approaching disciplinary issues in your teaching and personal tutoring role:

  1. Before acting, consider whether there are different types of poor behaviour being exhibited by the learner and whether they may be related.
  2. Practice and use positive learning conversations which focus on uncovering underlying reasons (this will also help you with the first tip) and, in which, targets for improvement are set.
  3. Review whether targets have been met, and the conversation generally, with the learner approximately two weeks after the conversation.


Discuss with a trusted colleague the extent to which you both think your educational institution’s disciplinary procedure integrates a positive approach? If improvements are needed, how could you contribute to this?

Andrew Stork (right) is a marketing lecturer and teacher trainer who has co-responsibility for the personal tutoring and coaching of learners at The Sheffield College. He has a wide range of experience training, mentoring and supporting teachers and personal tutors as module leader on PGCE and certificate of education courses, as well as undertaking various curriculum leadership and quality roles.

Ben Walker has co-responsibility for the personal tutoring and coaching of learners at The Sheffield College and also teaches on PGCE and certificate of education courses. Prior to this he was a lecturer in English for several years before becoming head of department and an observer and has significant experience in supporting and training teachers and personal tutors.

The authors can be contacted via their websites: and


Cotton, D. (2010) The Effect Structured Listening and Learning has on Pupils and Schools Following Incidents Involving Physical Intervention.

Cotton, D. (2013) What is the Impact of Implementing an IT based Post-Incident Learning APP as an Alternative to After School Detentions in a Mainstream Secondary School?

Available: [30 May 2015].
Cotton, D. (2013) PIL Presentation.

Available [30 May 2015].

Wallace, S. (2013) When You’re Smiling: Exploring How Teachers Motivate and Engage Learners in the Further Education sector. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 38 (3): 346-360.

Wallace, S. (2013), Understanding the Further Education Sector: A Critical Guide to Policies and Practices. Northwich: Critical Publishing.

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