Assertive Discipline


This is a USA technique for applying a rigid set of rules, supported by sanctions and rewards to reinforce rule compliance. The key principles are based on the idea that teachers have a right to teach and pupils have a right to learn Assertive discipline can be adopted across a school or employed by individual teacher, and functions around a set of rewards and sanctions for rule-compliance.


The original text on assertive discipline was written over 20 years ago by two North American scholars and teachers, Lee and Marlene Canter. It involves a high level of teacher control in the class. It is also called the "take-control" approach to teaching, as the teacher controls their classroom in a firm but positive manner. The approach maintains that teachers must establish rules and directions that clearly define the limits of acceptable and unacceptable student behaviour, teach these rules and directions, and ask for assistance from parents and senior staff when support is needed in handling the behaviour of students.

In the case of the latter a simple set of rewards is displayed in every classroom, along with a list of rewards for keeping them and the consequences of breaking them. Typical rules might be that (i) pupils must arrive on time to lessons (ii) enter the classroom quietly (iii) remain in their seats until asked to move (iv) come to lessons properly equipped (v) listen to and follow instructions the first time they are given (vi) raise their hands before answering or speaking and (vii) treat others, their work and equipment with respect.

Pupils who behave appropriately are rewarded either during or (more usually) at the end of a lesson. Breaking the rules leads to a series of sanctions, ranging from the pupil's name being written on the board for a first infringement, through to detention, removal from the classroom, parents being informed, and isolation from the timetable, peers and friends.

Assumptions of this approach include: Students will misbehave. Students must be forced to comply with rules. Teachers have needs, wants and feelings and the right to teach without interruption by students misbehaving. Punishment will make students avoid breaking rules and positive reinforcement will encourage good behaviour.

There is no doubt that Assertive Discipline has made a major contribution to the development of strategies for improving learning behaviour However many commentators think it is over simplistic and too authoritarian in its approach For example according to Canter, there are only three types of teachers: non assertive, hostile and assertive, there is no other type of discipline system. In addition:

  • Canter's work of "research" to create this method has no references or citations listed
  • Canter's research to develop the program was with children with special needs. Canter assumes that the system will work with all students.
  • "although the system is woefully short on hard research data to justify some of its contentions. Assertive Discipline has made a positive contribution to literally thousands of teachers and school systems."
  • Rules and consequences are determined by an authority figure and students are told they can choose to obey or not.- Seems to be a contradiction in the basic principles of the method (Teachers are not hostile toward to the students).

Important note
Assertive discipline has evolved since the mid 70's from an authoritarian approach to one that is more democratic and cooperative. It has become the aim of an assertive discipline approach to teach pupils to choose responsible behaviour and in so doing raise their self-esteem and increase their academic success. The model is now based on consistency, follow-through and positive relationship building. It has become much more attuned to the Behaviour for Learning rationale which emphasises the importance of helping pupils build relationships for learning - with themselves, with the curriculum and with others

Relevance for teachers

Teachers who use Canter's methods say they like Assertive Discipline because it is simple to understand and implement. Others feel that it is this simplicity, coupled with its focus on the rights of teachers to teach rather than on the rights of children to learn. that makes the technique alone insufficient to meet the needs of the many and complex learning behaviour situations encountered in the classroom. However all agree that Assertive discipline contains some useful elements that should be in included in any improving learning behaviour approach
Looking at the general theory behind assertive discipline it may be argued that pupils cannot be expected to guess how a teacher wants them to behave in all situations. In order to succeed (both in learning and behaviour) in the classroom, therefore, pupils need to know what is expected of them. When pupils are not given a set of teacher-expectations they will operate in a vacuum, with a danger that they will create their own, unacceptable set of expectations. Simply put, assertive discipline argues that pupils need to know what behaviour is expected of them by their teacher. And they need to know what will occur if they choose not to comply with those expectations, and what will happen when they do. This is universally accepted as an essential starting point for improving learning behaviour
Rewarding pupils for effort, punctuality or good attendance has become increasingly embedded in the way in which teachers promote learning. An example of an Assertive Discipline technique is catching pupils being good - recognising and supporting them when their behaviour is positive and letting them know you approve of what they are doing. This should underpin any learning behaviour improvement approach. However it may be over simplistic to base the rationale for this process solely on the Canters' belief that pupils obey the rules because they get something out of it or because conversely they, understand the consequences of breaking the rules. There are many other motivations for pupils to behave pro-socially even when there are no rules to follow.

Indicative reading

Canter, L. & Canter, M. (2001) Assertive Discipline: Positive Behavior Management for Today's Classroom. Sacramento: Lee Canter Associates.


Assertive Discipline, Rules, Sanctions, Rewards

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