“Discipline Policy & Behaviour Plans”

POLICY AND PRACTICE series  for ‘Managing Schools Today’ February/March 2006


In this the first of our series about managing behaviour in our schools we begin by considering some of the uses of  “policy” in the management of school behaviour.  Schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelandwill all have received instruction, guidance or advice (in varying amounts depending on which part of the UK you live in) from their respective government bodies as to what a Discipline Policy should contain.  Most school behaviour policies, at the most basic level, are based upon the prescription of a clear set of rules, rewards and sanctions meant to govern teacher-student interactions. Over the years we have become increasingly aware of the way those simple behaviour plans need to become more collective teaching-learning plans, and connect with other support systems if they are to be part of a School Policy that leads to successful practice.  In our own work we have developed the Assertive Discipline® method [1] so that it is not limited to classroom behaviour but informs the teaching and learning of responsible behaviour throughout the school system, applied to adults as well as students.  So teaching staff do more than teach and review the behaviour plan with students, but as part of curriculum delivery also teach students the day-to-day routines needed for successful learning in their classrooms. Increasingly the management of learning and the management of behaviour become one and the same thing. [2]  In this article we therefore reflect on some aspects of school practice which can promote or undermine a successful behaviour policy using that expanded Assertive Discipline® perspective.

At the beginning of the Key Stage 3 Behaviour & Attendance strategy is a list of items to be included in a Discipline Policy:

  • Teaching and Learning
  • Roles & responsibilities
  • Code of Conduct
  • Rewards and Sanctions
  • Student Support Systems
  • Staff Support Systems
  • Parent Support Systems
  • Monitoring and Evaluation

Most recent advice has emphasised the importance of using an audit approach. Audits not only tell us what is going on in our school but they can also unite staff in their attributions about students’ behaviour.

Effective policy governs behaviour in organisations – and so does ineffective policy. Where staff are divided or the mission is unclear it is reflected in children’s behaviour. In schools where behaviour is good there are open lines of communication between staff members and an agreement that they are responsible for student behaviour. In troubled schools there is often an undercurrent of staff disagreement and discontent [3].  In a sense, we can say that  student behaviour starts in the staffroom. The attribution theorists underline this point [4] by reminding us that in schools where behaviour is poor student behaviour is often attributed to their characteristics or circumstances as in the phrase “What can you expect with kids like ours….” rather than to the practices of the school.

These considerations are important because the day-to-day experience of many adults in the classroom and elsewhere is dominated by the stress of dealing with a range of difficult, sometimes challenging behaviours. These in turn give rise to those stress reactions which are neither good for our health nor for our clear thinking. Staff need the support of effective policy that will sustain the emotional, cognitive and behavioural skills they as adults need – students’ needs apart.


In schools and in the wider society there is considerable discussion and anxiety about young people’s behaviour.  Many teaching and non-teaching staff are of the opinion that behaviour has got worse. It is worth looking as some of the factors that may be shaping that change.

Children’s Rights

Firstly, Children’s Rights have moved to the centre of the stage in the past twenty years since the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990, the Salamanca Statement 1994, Human Rights legislation 2000 and the Disability and Discrimination Act 2001.  This conception of rights has led to a change in our thinking about ‘discipline’.  Increasingly the idea of ‘rules’ that students must obey is being replaced by the concept of ‘rights and responsibilities’ that affect us all.  There is greater realisation, too, of the rights of children to be more involved in many of the decisions that involve their lives. We now expect to consult with students when we conduct special needs reviews.  School Councils are being given substantial resources and it is quite common to find students represented on governing bodies, and in some schools acting as observers at senior management meetings. Students may even be involved in the appointment of staff. All this reflects an increasingly ‘rights-based consciousness’ in society at large. Some adults find it difficult to adjust to this shift in relationships between adult and child.  Some Discipline Policies seem to have been written as if nothing has changed.

Teaching Approaches

Secondly, approaches to teaching have changed. We live in a post-Vygotskian world where teachers and students are expected to collaborate together in the classroom.  Differences in teaching strategy together with a change in our students’ self concept means, for example, that we are less likely to teach children to be quiet and passive. This has an effect on our view of behaviour management.  For instance  we are less likely to be teaching children not to talk and to put their hand up when they want to speak, and more likely to want them to talk at appropriate sound levels and keep their hands down so we can ensure that everyone participates. In some schools students have been trained as observers to give feedback to staff on their teaching performance. Just imagine the profound change in teacher-student relationships that such a practice involves! So a prime objective of any Discipline Policy is to create the positive conditions for a new style of teaching and learning, in which ultimately self-directed learning may flourish.

Changing Childhood

Thirdly, the nature of childhood is changing. The technocultural revolution of the last decade has created a society where children and adults share much more of a common culture so that many of  the distinctions between adult and child roles have blurred.  On the positive side children are more inclined to question, to be more assertive, and to present with a kind of “digital intelligence” not available to the older generation. On the other hand, they can become more individualistic and less inclined to make effort at the behest of an adult.  Some children at the extreme end of this spectrum can seem impossible to manage.  So we may often see in our schools a mismatch between the teachers’ expectations of what they believe a child should behave like and the students’ self concept – their actual beliefs and attitudes about their role as learners.


We need a central concept to help us understand these changes, and to give purpose to our Discipline Policy. What we are experiencing in some of today’s schools is that ‘traditional’ approaches to discipline, where we tell children what behaviour we require and then expect them to follow those rules, just doesn’t work too well.  As well as keeping order in our schools and teaching the curriculum, teachers are having to face the challenge of teaching and negotiating  responsible social and learning behaviour. Within the English context at least, the Primary National Strategy has recently introduced the ideas of teaching social, emotional and behavioural skills (next to be piloted in the secondary curriculum).  How are we to achieve this? What we have seen is that the teaching of behavioural skills without the underlying understanding (what often appears to be happening with so-called ‘Positive Behaviour Management’ approaches) will not transform the mind sets of disillusioned students. Meanwhile exploring the underlying cognitive and emotional processes for their unacceptable behaviour with them (when so-called  Relationship-Listening techniques are employed), but without deliberate instruction in the application of those behavioural abilities, won’t skill the student in what to actually do.  Neither approaches on their own provide the repertoire of cognitive, emotional and behavioural understanding necessary to create the social competence that allows these children to engage positively in the classroom.

Our own approach has been to adapt the best of all these approaches into a more flexible methodology that we call ‘Social Mediation’ [5].  In this the teacher assumes the role of the behaviour coach, and like the coach is not only instructing, but also modelling, encouraging, explaining, correcting and instructing all over again.  Social Mediation, then, is a deliberate and careful means of transmitting appropriate and effective social values in the classroom through a teaching and coaching process.

The process of Social Mediation requires that

  • adults develop a behaviour curriculum composed of those behaviours and procedures necessary for social and academic learning to take place
  • adults are specific about what those behaviours are, and then carefully teach them in the situations where they are needed
  • adults negotiate and mediate with those students who find these behaviours hard to learn, using a flexible range of Assertive Discipline®strategies
  • adults provide immediate and appropriately coded feedback to support the development of responsible behaviour and to correct inappropriate behaviour
  • adults take a developmental perspective of these skills; they are engaged in a sometimes long journey from external to internal locus of control
  • adults employ formative assessment rather than summative to guide future action.

At the classroom level, Social Mediation thus requires a learning environment which is ‘psychologically’ attuned to the thinking-feeling-doing interaction.  At the organisational level, adults reflect on and negotiate the power relations within the school or college, sometimes in respect of the whole body of students, as when we get students to give us feedback on teaching. Or it may be in respect of specific groups of children as when we look at the position of different groups in the school in terms of race or gender.

Authentic Social Mediation involves the development of values together with the refinement of the behavioural skill in performing social acts – sometimes through justifying reasons which may contradict the child’s previous experiences and mind set.  “The goal of teaching behaviour is not to have compliant students who dutifully sit quietly and follow their teacher’s directions.  It is to teach students to manage their own behaviour so that learning can take place – to make positive choices about how they behave, whether or not a teacher is watching.” [6 ]


Social Mediation puts a name to a process that we have been developing for a long time, recognizing that the work and training of teachers and schools has to be much broader than the formal curriculum and extends to some of the socialization tasks that used to belong in the home. It leads to changes in everything from the adults conception of their job across to really detailed practices like the micro-teaching of routines. Many teaching staff are sceptical of this point of view and indeed it must seem like pie in the sky in stressed schools. However, it does reflect a change that is going on throughout the Western world.  The drive towards social inclusion, the extended school and the need for an increasingly broad curriculum is starting to transform schools. Very soon we will no longer see the school as a grouping of teachers with a handful of support staff. Instead there will be a large community of practitioners working with children in a variety of ways both within the formal curriculum and outside it. This is starting to change everything from our idea of school geography, rooming and lay-out right across to the structure of the curriculum and the combinations of people who deliver it. And it cannot fail to affect our view of behaviour management.  The development of Discipline Policy needs to be aligned with these changes in school culture.

School Culture and School Policy

‘Culture’ in a social context is that system of understandings, values and practices that a group uses to define, maintain and advance itself.  The ‘culture’ that defines an organisation has been characterised as the product of a transaction between four interrelated factors – the structural form of the organisation, its core tasks, the diverse skills and attitudes of its people, and the methods or technology it draws on to accomplish its tasks [7].  We can adapted this model to consider the policy implications of our Social Mediation approach.

Structure refers to the way that roles are organised, the ‘lines of command’, the systems for decision-making, monitoring and  evaluating  . What are some of the structural tensions we commonly observe in respect of behaviour policy? The role relationship between teaching and non-teaching staff can often be problematic. Differences in pay and conditions lead to differences in status, which can be a block to effective co-operation. Yet this is a critical relationship at classroom level. At the very least, we need to be clear about the role of teacher and teaching assistant in implementing and carrying out the behaviour plan at classroom level. In one school we worked in recently, a teacher and a T.A. turned around a difficult class by printing a behaviour plan with both their photographs on it announcing their expectations and took it in turns to run the good behaviour raffle and make the positive phone-calls at the end of the week.   In many schools the relation between special needs support and inclusion is still strained or ambiguous. Some staff are deployed looking after individual children with  statements of special need, while others are employed as mentors or playground assistants. In some schools this can add up to a small army of staff whose relationship to each and to the behaviour plan is unclear. The role of middle managers is expanding greatly. Whether they are Heads of Year, Heads of department or principal teachers, if they are to be effectively supporting the Social Mediation process in school they will be expected to maintain contact with a large number of parents and to be the back-up managers for patrols, merit systems, and detentions. Many of them have a task that is simply impossible. In some schools we have seen this problem solved by providing middle managers with deputies, or with T.A. or secretarial support.  Lack of clear role definition on the Senior Management team can lead to inconsistent decision making, especially in the area of sanctions. It can be useful to ensure that there is a lead manager for the behaviour policy. It is important to ensure that the right people are represented on the senior management team (it is still not uncommon to find that key players in pastoral policy are not represented on the SMT). This opens the way to regular and effective review of behaviour policy. For example, we know of a number of schools that have successfully moved from external to internal exclusion. Not only does this reduce pointless home exclusions, it also focuses more attention on the children who do not “fit in” and sometimes opens the door to consideration of alternative curriculum opportunities for students who do not respond to the academic curriculum.

The tasks for any school may seem apparent enough, but when we get down to the detail, there may be many differences of opinion about who does what.  Is it really the job of each teacher to teach social, emotional and behavioural skills? Is that not only understood by all but also agreed by all? The concept of Social Mediation implies  an emotionally alert and responsive school. This in turn imposes new tasks. The first of these is regular re-teaching and review of the behaviour plan. In our experience, a behaviour plan needs to be discussed and re-taught with students every half term. We will go into the reasons for this in subsequent articles, but the main idea is that there are some students in every school who need this constant reinforcement and that it is best done in a whole-class context. This is often not done because for the majority of staff and students it is not necessary. However, in the absence of repeated reinforcement of the plan, the behaviour of some students starts to slip and we quickly get a growing consensus that the plan “does not work”.  Assertive Discipline® has always focussed strongly on the idea of changing the behaviour of adults in order to effect change in the behaviour of children. This calls for regular training. We are used to doing “one-off” training sessions in schools and these are invaluable for “kick-starting” a new approach to behaviour or to assist in a review. However, real change comes from mentoring and coaching over a period of time. We are seeing more and more schools involving teachers as researcher-practitioners, working in pairs or small groups to tackle issues of behaviour or inclusion. In other schools we see staff using video and audio-feedback to analyse and develop their practice in the classroom.  We have already mentioned the idea of training students to give feedback to staff on their performance as teachers. Increasingly schools are involving students in managing and assisting the school community as big brothers or sisters, guardian angels and mediators.  It will be difficult to accomplish these tasks effectively unless we have accurate information on what is happening and what students as well as colleagues are currently thinking. We will be looking at auditing processes in future articles but it is clear that regular auditing will underpin effective behaviour management.

Methods in a schools’ context refers to the strategies and tactics that make up the technology of teaching – the pedagogical science and the teaching art. Just as, within the last decade, our students have changed so has our pedagogy – we have experienced an explosion of teaching-learning methodologies. When Assertive Discipline® was first introduced into the UKat the beginning of the ’90’s it brought with it a realisation that the teacher skills for managing classroom behaviour could be defined and taught. We may sometimes see in schools Discipline Policy driven by method (“In our school we like Circle Time” “We are introducing Restorative Justice” “We use Solution Focus” etc.)  In the present decade in England via DfES we have witnessed a huge increase in the number of such ‘behaviour programmes’ being promoted (although not all evidence-based and not necessarily defining the teaching skills needed to put ideas into practice).  Assertive Discipline®provides a robust framework for the management of behaviour, especially once we have grasped the wider conception of Social Mediation. As we shall be explaining in a later article, this expanded vision allows us to incorporate a range of behaviourist, cognitive and counselling approaches to the management of behaviour. This helps us to understand the importance of the audit of staff and student opinion about behaviour and community and especially the importance of mapping the existing skills that staff deploy in supporting students’ emotional well-being – we need all the skills available.

People– We may have worked long and hard on clarifying the structure, tasks and methods of our Discipline Policy (and these are important considerations), but unless it is primarily a ‘people-led’ policy it will stand little chance of success.  We need to ensure that as a collective we share the same core values about the purpose of our Discipline Policy. Increasingly, emotional intelligence is being recognised as a prime requisite for effective strategic management, and of all the EI attributes, empathy is often singled out as the most important  We referred at the outset to the idea that open and constructive relations between staff are a key factor in promoting positive student behaviour. In schools where the level of rewarding behaviour towards children is low, the level of corresponding rewarding behaviour between colleagues is low as well. Often in training sessions we invite staff to tell us the last time someone congratulated them on a job well done, or gave them an effective and useful assessment of their performance. The responses to this question are highly variable. So when policy deals with issues of staff development a key element in this must include “leadership” – and in this context that more often means “coaching”.  Staff will be at varying levels of professional development when it comes to enacting the Discipline Policy. Thus the CPD programme needs to be differentiated. That means leadership style needs adjusting for the varying people needs.  For this reason in our follow-up work with schools we apply Situational Leadership training [8] to help staff understand and utilise instructing, coaching, and empowering techniques at appropriate times. Such training helps managers to focus and work on inter staff relations – to put a ‘Positive Discipline’ policy into a positive CPD context. Of course, while we are aiming for those collective core values, we need to appreciate the variety of talents within our staff.  Within that diversity we will need the visionaries (as long as they are not unworldly), the zealots (as long as they don’t lose empathy with other realities), the analysts (as long as they don’t intellectualise the whole process into inertia),and the rank and file (as long as not too many are the tired and worn, or the cynical and resistant).


We have looked at the idea of policy in relation to behaviour management using key Assertive Discipline® concepts as well as introducing the notion of Social Mediation. Our aim has been to reflect on the long road travelled since a behaviour policy was little more than an elaboration of a behaviour plan and we have used a simple model of school culture to generate some thinking about policy. In future articles we will elaborate on the development of policy in the day to day practice of the school. In the text box below we have shown some of the questions that have arisen from this approach. The list is not at all exhaustive but you may find this a useful model to generate discussion within your school.

We need to ensure that the structures we have in place for managing our discipline strategy are people-friendly.  We will need in place –

  • key roles with the time and resources to get the job done (Responsible manager on SMT? Right people on SMT? Sufficiently resourced middle managers?
  • communication systems  that keep everyone informed
  • procedures for referral of problem behaviour that give respite to classrooms but that don’t end up disempowering teachers
  • integration of teaching and non-teaching staff
  • relationship between inclusion and special needs
We need to ensure that tasks are clearly identified, understood and agreed. We need to identify what is to be done

  • key staff will do to carry out policy
  • what everyone will do to support the teaching of responsible learning behaviours
  • the use we will we make of audits
  • re-teaching & review of policy
  • involve students
  • provide training
  • develop teacher-researchers
We need behaviour methods that are both robust and flexible to meet the changing needs of today’s pupils and to promote collaborative teaching and independent learning

  • explicit use of a continuum of skills
  • behaviour coaching within the Social Mediation context
  • auditing of staff skills
We need systems for supporting staff in the course of acquiring new skills and for recognising staff achievement

  • ongoing support and coaching for staff
  • a differentiated CPD programme
  • training for middle managers in leadership of these approaches
  • people talk honestly with each other about coping with change

references: –

[1]. Canter, L. & Canter, M. (2001) Assertive Discipline : Positive Behaviour Management for Today’s Classroom (3rd. Edition) Canter & Associates

[2]. Moss, G. & Bayley, J (2006) The New Assertive Discipline : A Master Class  CD Resource Pack, Behaviour & Learning Management

[3]. Hewitt R., Epstein D., Leonard D., Mauthner M., & Watkins C.  (1998) “The violence-resilient school: a comparative study of schools and their environments” (1998-2000 ESRC)

[4]. Millar, A. (2003)Teachers, Parents and Classroom Behaviour  Open University Press

[5]. Moss, G. (2004) Social Mediation, cultural disruption and disruptive children.  Managing Schools Today March/ April 2004

[6]. Canter, L. (2002) Responsible Behaviour Curriculum Guide  Canter & Associates

[7]. Leavitt, H (1965) Applied organisational change In J.G.March (Ed)Handbook of Organisations Rand McNally Chicago

[8]. Blanchard, K. (2000) Situational Leadership II  Blanchard Co., San Diego

© Geoff Moss and John Bayley