Research Related To Psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs Approach Towards Democratic Discipline

Social psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs approach towards classroom management is that teachers and students should show mutual respect towards each other, collaborating in decision making and problem solving. One of his main ideas is that all people have an innate desire to belong to a group and that any act of bad behavior is due to one feeling insignificant. As it relates to students, he believes that feelings of isolation or displacement leads to four levels of misbehavior: attention getting, power seeking, revenge, and feelings of inadequacy.

Traditionally, teachers reward good behavior with some type of incentive and generally bad behavior is stopped with a punishment. Dreikurs, on the other hand, endorses consequences over punishment and encouraging words over rewards. Ultimately, I believe Rudolf Dreikurs advocation for democratic discipline does offer an untraditional and unconfrontational solution to student misbehavior which could aid in a positive classroom environment, however this approach alone does not provide enough support for teacher’s as they try to identify the motivation behind student behavior and the most effective solution to curb it.

Strengths of Democratic Discipline

One of the major strengths of Dreikurs approach is that he is not an advocate for punishment, but rather supports the idea of logical and natural consequences. The difference between punishment and consequences is that punishment points the finger at the child whereas consequences make the behavior the “bad guy” instead of the child. Consequences pressure students to make better decisions because they know specific results will follow specific actions. For example, if students know that consistently being off task during group work will result in separation and individualized work, then they can consciously and carefully decide what choice they want to make.

Dreikurs had the same pattern of thought about natural consequences. They teach children to discipline themselves and be accountable for their choices. For example, if the student does not bring his signed field trip permission slip back to class, then naturally he cannot go on the trip. Furthermore, a positive aspect of consequences is that they create a level playing field where all students receive the same consequence. Unlike other disciplinary methods where the teacher delves out punishments and rewards based on how they feel from day to day, consequences are established and accepted by the class so that there is no room for confusion or biases.

During my research, I discovered a media-based parenting advice company called Active Parent Publishers, whose entire program is based on Rudolf Dreikurs and his predecessor Alfred Adler’s disciplinary ideas. Dr. Michael Popkin founded it in 1983 and it is still going strong today. In a study published in the Journal of Individual Psychology, the company gave 274 parents of elementary to high school level children an opportunity to try their product, making sure each parent attended a class once a week for six weeks to learn about Dreikurs methods and concepts. The program taught the parents to be more attentive to their children’s emotional needs and encourage them more.

At the end of the study, 84% of parents reported an improvement in their children’s behavior and 97% indicated that they would recommend the program to friends (Mullis 1999). The researchers did not directly measure the children’s behavioral growth, so the results are solely based on the parent’s perception of their child’s behavior after the study. Regardless, the results show that one of the strengths of Dreikurs approach is that it may help raise teachers and parent’s tolerance levels for student misbehavior and instead of reacting harshly, they will stop and think of the kindest but firmest way to deal with the student instead.

Weaknesses of Democratic Discipline

So far, this paper has focused on a summation of the key ideas and strengths of a democratic classroom. The following section will discuss its weaknesses. Dr. Dreikurs believes that all students will eventually control their behavior through self-discipline, but I contest that not all students will adopt this adult skill, especially younger children. Some students are not concerned about consequences and may even choose to behave badly if the intensity of the consequence does not outweigh the enjoyment of the unfavorable action.

For example, if the only consequence for a student texting during class is the teacher confiscating it until the end of the period, some students will perceive that consequence as “not that bad” so they will take a chance and break the no phone rule. This disciplinary measure gives students too much freedom to act out over and over, resulting in the teacher having to create a Rolodex of solutions to stop the behavior while also maintaining a degree of respect and kindness towards the child. Without a complete understanding on how to execute Dreikurs methods, the teacher will not have any luck controlling the classroom and students will eventually have the power.

Another serious weakness with this approach is in the four mistaken goals: attention getting, power seeking, revenge, and feelings of inadequacy. Dreikurs says that he “never met a youngster – a preadolescent – whose faulty behavior could not be conceptualized in one of these four mistaken goal patterns, although the particular behavior might be displayed in some slightly different variation” (Christensen 1980). I should note that he made this statement in 1947 when society and the way kids were raised was a lot different than how it is today. At that time, most kids were raised in two parent homes and did not have as many adult responsibilities as kids have nowadays. As a result of these pressures, kids can act out in many different ways, some of which may not fit into Dreikurs small boxed thinking.

Lastly, the most compelling evidence for why this approach may not be the most effective is in the lack of formal evidence I was able to find on the topic. Many of the case studies were conducted at least forty years ago and I found them irrelevant. There were little to no teacher comments or blog posts on this method either. One possible implication of this lack of support is that this approach takes a great deal of effort on the part of the teacher. They must learn to find the difference between punishments and consequences and decipher what is encouragement and what is praise. I believe many teachers would rather stick to the traditional route and use tired and true methods over the democratic approach.

Final Recommendation

I think the idea that bad behavior and social insignificance directly correlate is a good basis for understanding the motivation behind elementary and middle school student’s behavior, however I don’t find this explanation fitting for older students. To support this idea, Dreikurs says, “Later in adolescence they may develop many different goals in addition to the four faulty goals, such as constantly seeking excitement, entertainment, and fun in order to achieve social significance in their peer group” (Christensen 1980). If older students suddenly find new motivations for their behavior, consequently teachers will have to figure out another set of solutions which can be quite stressful.

Additionally, I personally believe older students are facing more real-world problems beyond social acceptance from peers, like figuring out their future career paths, passing SATs and ACTs, and a dealing with a litany of family related problems. With that said, before high school teachers decide to implement Dreikurs’s methods into their class, they should consider that his methods are a great foundation to build off of, but they are not all encompassing. Some students who act out may not be seeking attention or trying to get power or revenge, there behavior could be resistance to conformity and a way to gain their independence and voice. The point is that people express their feelings in different ways, and what may seem likely is not always the case.

In conclusion, if secondary teachers and preservice teachers are looking for guidance in understanding their students, then the democratic discipline approach is a great place to start. But also know that Dreikurs approach benefits the student more than the teacher because it emphasizes student choice, and ultimately the basis of the theory does not provide support for every instance of misbehavior, resulting in the teacher’s difficulty to determine the motivation behind the behavior and the most effective solution to curb the behavior.

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