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Positive Discipline in High School


My name is Melanie and I just got through my first year of teaching. I am not from the US and I was educated as a college prep teacher where a stern look solves all discipline problems. I moved here to the States, because I married an American. Now I stand in front of completely different classes and have to teach myself how to deal with it. The ideas that I get from colleagues are mainly negative and hard on me and the students or simply do not work. I read "Positive Discipline" but it was more geared at younger students. Do you have a good book suggestion for high school students and something that works in the high school curriculum - daily conferences of 20 minutes is a bit long if you only have them for 45.
I appreciate your time and support.


Dear Melanie,

My name is Jody McVittie and I’m one of the lead trainers for the Positive Discipline Association and also part of the team that answers questions for the website. I have worked with middle and high school teachers for about 10 years. This is a great question – or rather two questions (about upper school and how kids are “different” here).  

The simpler question is about class meetings in upper school.  The most effective way to implement class meetings at a middle or high school is to have them done during the student “advisory period” or a lengthened period.  Some schools have a special home room or advisory that meets every day – and then have class meetings on 2 or 3 of those days.  Other schools lengthen one period a day by 10  minutes and ask teachers to hold the class meetings during that period.  All of this of course presumes that you are using an “all school” model, which isn’t very common.  If you are one of the few people using class meetings in your school, I would recommend following the model of teachers who do them one time a week…and pick only one or two classes to use them in, until you gain fluency.  You will still be able to teach your students the skills they need and they will be able to problem solve, but it will take longer.  As you get more fluent and more familiar with what works for you and your group of students you will be able to decide which classes will benefit the most from class meetings and how you want to work it.  It isn’t a perfect solution, but it can be very encouraging for you and your students.

The question about the differences how students respond reaches deep into Adlerian theory and into the roots of democracy.  In many places in the world there is a hierarchy of roles and a set of rules about how you respond to people in various roles.  You’ll note that some of those people are “above” you, and some “below” you.  Teachers are “respected” and “honored” and given deference by students and families because of their role in society.  Typically, there is a sense of order in these roles.  For example, older people are “on top” and younger people are lower; bosses are on top, workers are lower; men are on top, women are lower; white people are on top, people of color are lower.   Although the word “respect” is often used to describe how the people who are “lower” treat those who are “higher”  the relationships are often more complex than that.  The people on “top” actually have power over the people “below” and that power is invoked using punishment, shame, and shunning.  The folks on the bottom of the ladder “know” their place, partly out of tradition, and partly out of fear.

In the United States (and other places) there is an interesting social “experiment” going on. There is a cultural belief that all people are equally worthy of dignity and respect. (And as people of color, children, and women can tell you – the practice does NOT match the theory.. but this idea of democracy is still part of the culture). Adler recognized this and moved to the United States in the 20’s because he felt that his ideas might find a better home here.  When there is a clear hierarchy of roles the person who is on top (the man for example) can say “jump” – and the person “below” him (his wife, for example) will “obey”…  Then the kids see this and they have a model for how society works.  But in a large part of our society of a man says “jump,” his wife will say “Excuse me?” and when the kids see this, they think that they have a right to be honored and respected as well.

This is a huge shift in social order.  In the hierarchical system, “control” is held in place by tradition, and when that doesn’t work by punishment and fear (the “look”).  In a democratic system those tools no longer work.  People breathe the air of democracy and they don’t want to be “controlled”… they want to have a voice too and be able to collaborate.  The old tools don’t work.  (This is what you are experiencing).  One of my colleagues, Lois Ingber calls this “moving from LADDERSHIP to LEADERSHIP”  We need a whole new set of tools for building a community that is not based on tradition or fear but instead on collaboration and deep mutual respect.  My sense and experience is Positive Discipline is one set of tools that effectively invites leadership and collaboration.  You are very correct that many of the materials are aimed for grades school classrooms, but they are EASILY adapted to high school.  For example, the Mutual Respect activity, the Win-Win activity in the book work really well with adolescents.  The “Buy –In” Activity in the Manual is a little better for adolescents than the one in the book – but the one in the book can be easily modified to be engaging for adolescents as well.  After you have practiced a few of the activities you’ll get a sense of how your students connect to the material.  I don’t have another book I recommend specifically, but if you are working with really challenging students you might take a look at Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future by Brendtro et al.  It uses different language and a Native American model, but is entirely consistent with Positive Discipline.

Here are a couple more hints that the high school teachers I work with have found useful:
-    Most of the activities are preceded by a comment. This is for your information only. Don’t share it with your students.  The questions in the activities are designed to DRAW FORTH and engage the students with ideas that fit for them.  The learning takes place as the students discover what they already knew and are applying it a slightly different (useful) way.
-    Get really familiar with the “mistaken goal chart” so that you can begin to see the “how and why” behind the behavior. This will help you see the student for who they can be, and their behavior as code for “I want to belong and be important, but I don’t know how to do it in a socially useful way.”
-    Take small steps.  Your students have years of schooling behind them that didn’t necessarily encourage them or invite them to bring forward the best of themselves.  Once they see you as someone who can see the best in them, amazing things can happen.
-    I also recommend that you take a two day Positive Discipline in the Classroom workshop.  Besides connecting with other teachers, you will get a better understanding of how to link theory with practice.

I wish you the best in your practice.  Please feel free to write with other specific questions.

Jody McVittie

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