Student-Centered Discipline Promotes Social Emotional Learning 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

Student-centered discipline is the classroom management strategies that a teacher uses that are developmentally appropriate for their students and motivate their students to want to behave in the classroom. It is one of the 10 key teaching practices identified by The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL) that support social and emotional learning as well as strong academic outcomes.

GTL also separated the 10 teaching practices into two categories: social teaching practices and instructional teaching practices. I think of the social teaching practices as the soul of a classroom. Social teaching practices are student-centered discipline, teacher language, student responsibility and choice, and warmth and support. Instructional teaching practices are cooperative learning, classroom discussions, self-assessment and reflection, balanced instruction, academic press and expectations, and competence building.

Let’s dig into what student-centered discipline looks like in a classroom and the school community.

Student-Centered Discipline

A thought out and well-implemented classroom management system is not only how teachers get through their day without losing their minds, it is how students make themselves available for learning. Pretty good deal. It is beyond a clip chart (I hate those things).

Collaborative Class Norms

Let’s start with the basics. Every class should have a short list of class rules or norms that are developed together and positively phrased.

Developing this list as a group allows students to see the why behind the rules and buy-in to how they are enforced. I even develop rules during my first session of counseling groups.

Create three to five rules that tell everyone what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do. Think hands and feet to yourself, not no kicking.

As a teacher or counselor, your job is to facilitate the development of the list, not develop it yourself. Students will always give you things you shouldn’t do. Work on how you rephrase and narrow these rules. Try these think aloud questions

Hmm, that sounded like something I shouldn’t do. Try telling me what you want me to do instead.

That sounds a lot like this one rule we already have. I’ll put it underneath to double check later.

Let’s make sure we have the more important rules first and we don’t have any rules that are repeating.

Bonus Buy-in Points for having students sign the rules. I also have my groups make up a name for the group. They come up with three adjectives to describe themselves as a group. The Wacky, Brilliant, Friendly Fourth Graders were always my favorite. Find a name that describes your classroom community.

Logical Consequences

How many times has a student pushed in line on the way to recess and your reaction was to take away recess? No offense, but that isn’t very logical. It doesn’t help the student develop better self-regulation in line and is pretty unrelated to the infraction.

So let’s keep the consequences related to the misbehavior. For example, if that student pushes in line, they go to the back of the line for the remainder of the day or they practice lining up. You could have the student practice lining up while they are missing the initial part of recess. This would be logical since their misbehavior cost the class recess time.

Make sure that your consequences are connected to the misbehavior. Not what will make a punishment mean something to the student. Students don’t learn from consequences that feel spiteful or unpredictable.

For example, say my principal told me I had lunch duty all week for talking during a faculty meeting. Would I think that made any sense at all? I might not talk in faculty meetings anymore, but it would be out of fear of consequences not because I learned it’s disruptive. Or I might talk more out of spite. 😉

You should have different consequences for extreme behaviors (intentionally hurting someone or destroying something). These are your “Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200” behaviors.

Consistent Application

The consistent application goes hand in hand with logical consequences. Make sure that you are consistent with your rules, your consequences, and your reinforcement. Students succeed in predictable and just environments. They get angry just the same as we do when they think they aren’t being treated fairly or acknowledged.

Think about some of these questions:

  • When will you call home to parents?
  • When will you send a student to the office?
  • What consequences do you have for minor infractions?
  • How will you address repeated misbehavior?
  • How will you acknowledge and encourage exceptional actions?
  • Will you track any of this?

Make a plan and feel confident that it will guide your decisions fairly and effectively.

Student Specific

child crying

Okay, so I know I just said to be consistent. But, you do not want to be inflexible in your enforcement. You have twenty plus developing humans in front of you every day. They all are at different points with their skills, and that includes their social-emotional skills.

When responding to misbehavior, take into account the social, emotional and cognitive skills of the students, as well as what was happening in the situation. The consequence for a student might be the same, but you might practice more with this student or have them reflect on their behavior.

For example, say you have a student that frequently pushes in line. The student has an assigned line spot that has been working well, but the student still needs reminders to go to their line spot. You line up your class, but forget to remind this student. The student goes to a different spot and pushes in line. In this situation, I would tell the student that the consequence remains the same, but I would apologize for not reminding them of their spot. I would then practice with them and tell them my plan to remember in the future.

Time for Resolution

conflict resolution process

In your classroom, develop routines for resolving conflicts. This is not a skill that comes naturally to students (or adults), so be prepared to guide and instruct. First thing though, provide the space and time for this to occur.

Some teachers build this into their morning meeting or closing meeting. I had a fourth-grade teacher who had a weekly Circle Up. He had a topic he was covering, but there was always an opportunity for students to raise concerns.

Create a box in your class where students can write concerns or comments. These can be addressed one-on-one or during your class meeting.

Have a conflict resolution process for disagreements between students. This process should focus on communicating clearly (I-Messages are amazing), finding agreeable solutions, and make a plan to move forward. A second-grade teacher I worked with had a Peace Table where students could request to meet to resolve a conflict.

Calm Spaces

What happens when a student is struggling to control their emotions or behavior? Do they have a place they can go in your room or a process they can go through?

Lots of classrooms have take-a-break spots, but honestly, these can just reinforce the behaviors. Have you seen how cozy some of these things are?

Implementing a process for your take-a-break spot and teaching it are more essential than what the space looks like. Students could even complete the process at their desks, and this may work better for older students. Feel free to get pinterest-y with it, but keep the focus on process over product here.

Take a break spot poster

Teachers in my building used this Take-A-Break Spot super successfully because it includes a simple process that students use that focuses on self-regulation and coping skills.


Student-centered discipline requires more of students. They need to be partners in the classroom and thoughtful about their contributions (or detractions) from the class community.

Ask students questions that have them reflect on their negative and positive behaviors.

Why is it important keep your hands to yourself when getting in line?

How might you feel if someone pushed you in line? Would you want to stand near that person again?

You did such a great job lining up! How do you feel when you line up like that? What do you think your line partner is thinking?

Think sheets cover

I have also incorporated think sheets and brag sheets in classrooms and in counseling. This helps students think more about their actions, how they feel, what they think, what others think, what they could do differently. I like the balance of having student reflect on both positive and negative actions. Reflection is an important skill.

Coping Skills

Giving students a process, a space, and an emphasis on reflection is part of it. They also need to develop coping skills to manage their frustration, disappointment, and stress. And they need to know when to use what strategies.

Not every kid should have a fidget spinner.

Drawing might not be the best strategy when someone is ready to explode. Unless you like broken pencils and crumpled paper.

A great group activity can be helping students develop an understanding of their emotions, strategies to cope with negative emotions, and what influences their negative emotions.

These are a couple activities I use:


Walk the walk. Model how you handle frustration or stress just the way you would model a reading strategy.

You can talk about strategies you use when you get upset. The kinds of things that upset you. How you used to handle them and why you handle them this way now.

Children watch us to understand what to do. Be yourself and show them how you handle things.


Now this one is on your students. At the end of the day, you want students to make responsible decisions, take responsibility for their behavior, and understand how their actions affect others.

What can you do to encourage this behavior? How can you make your classroom a place where responsibility is a core tenet?

I think it has a lot to do with the 9 components that came before this one.

Gut-Check Time

  • What classroom-management techniques do you use most?
  • What are the norms and values of your classroom? Could your students tell someone what they are?
  • How do you set norms and values for classroom behavior?
  • Do your norms focus on high expectations, respect, and caring for all students?
  • How do you help student learn to regulate their behavior?
  • How do you respond to students when they misbehave?
  • What strategies have you found to be ineffective and effective? Why?
  • What approaches have you used to help students who struggle to follow behavior expectations?

Now go out there and create a classroom community that is student-centered, fair, and responsive.

Pin this to read and reference later!
pin student centered discipline students on rug

student-centered discipline is an essential teaching practice that supports social emotional learning. student-centered discipline is an essential teaching practice that supports social emotional learning.


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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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