In part 2 of this 4 part series I made the case that limits can be enforced without resorting to harsh methods. If you missed either of the first 2 parts, you can read part 1 here and part 2 here. You can also download the entire article as a PDF file here.

I know that enforcing limits with “soft” discipline can be done, because I used to be somewhat heavy handed in my classroom discipline.

But as I’ve grown older and worked through various classroom situations, it’s become clear to me how limits can be enforced while taking a soft but firm approach to handling inappropriate behavior.

I’ll give you an example of a technique I sometimes use. It’s something I do when I’m helping out in the classroom of another teacher.

Let’s say there are two boys sitting next to each other who are being a distraction. They are whispering, showing things to each other, handing stuff back and forth, and laughing. To say they are ignoring what the other teacher is doing is an understatement.

The Goals for This Situation

To handle a situation like this, I have several goals in mind:

1. The distraction needs to be mostly or completely eliminated. Ideally I want the boys to focus their attention on the material being taught, though I don’t necessarily expect to be able to make this latter part happen.

2. If possible I want the boys to end up sitting next to each other in their same seats. This is the end goal. In between I may end up temporarily moving them from their seats.

3. I want to minimize how much my actions disrupt the whole classroom. Not only do I want to disrupt — as little as possible — what is being taught while I interact with the boys, I want to avoid creating a prolonged bad mood among the other children. If I end the distraction of the boys but leave the other children unable to focus, the result will defeat the purpose of my actions.

With those goals in mind, my first step is to approach the boys and quietly tell them something like, “You guys are being very distracting. You need to settle down and stop talking.”

Then I might move back from them to give them some “space” to either settle down on their own or to continue to act up. But I also keep a close eye on them.

If their distracting behavior continues, I decide which boy I think is the primary instigator. I then approach him and make him come and sit by me. I do all of this discreetly to avoid unnecessary embarrassment. Being discreet also minimizes how much I disrupt the class.

With this step I have ended the distraction. But I have not done much to encourage either boy to take responsibility to control his own behavior. At this point the boys are kept from distracting behavior only because they are physically separated.

So my next step is to let the boy sit next to me for a few minutes. Then I attempt to “strike a deal with him” (though I don’t actually say that). I ask, “Would you like to go back and sit by your friend?”

Almost always the boy nods an anxious “yes.”

Then I say, “OK. I’ll let you go back. But … if you start talking or messing around again, you’ll have to come back here and sit here by me again — for the rest of the class time. Do you want try that?

Assuming he agrees, I send him back to his original seat. And I’ve been surprised how well this “deal” works. Every once in awhile it makes no difference. But often the two children will stay acceptably still for at least 15 to 20 minutes and many times for the rest of class.

Of course if the distracting behavior starts up again, the boy ends up sitting with me for the rest of the class.

Enforcement without Being Harsh

With this method I’ve avoided harsh measures while still setting and enforcing limits. Further I’ve provided a positive reward for good behavior: keep from messing around and you can sit by your friend. This has also challenged the boy to develop a little more self-control while in a challenging situation — keeping acceptably still and quiet while sitting next to his friend.

Now I’d like to tell you that the practice of gentle, determined consistency is easy. That once you’ve become aware of it, there’s nothing hard to doing it.

But it’s just not that easy. Unless you are a person who naturally is used to enforcing limits consistently (and if you were, I bet you wouldn’t be reading this article), the fact is that it will take time and concerted effort to learn to do this.

In part 4 (the final portion) of this series we’ll look at challenges you may face as you start enforcing limits more consistently.

In a hurry? You can download this entire article as a PDF file here. Or you can read ahead to part 4

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