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  • Writer's pictureAction Hero Teacher

Teachers, How Do You Discipline Students Who Won't Listen?

mischievous teenage boy staring at the camera
We have all had this student in our classroom

This is the eternal question, teachers.

But the line is still being crossed & they are not listening to you. They don't want to play ball & the situation is escalating.

This is the time that you need to lean into your authority and used that dreaded word - sanction.

But... Isn't a sanction a punishment? Should we be punishing our students? If I punish my students, does that mean I'm a horrible teacher & person?

This is where many teachers come unstuck. We don't sanction our students to punish them but we sanction them to discipline them.

There are NOT the same word.

If we discipline our students correctly, we help them to become better people.

In this week's blogpost, you will learn:

1) The difference between punishment and discipline & why that matters.

2) Why it's important to give sanctions when you are not 'emotionally highjacked' and to deliver it in a calm and collected manner.

And most importantly...

3) How to build on the relationship after you have given the sanction, not only to keep the rapport, but to create a stronger classroom bond going forward.

Let's get to it.

Punishment Vs Discipline - Is There a Difference?

A girl holding unto a fence.
Discipline and Punishment are NOT the same

Sanction. What images come to mind when you hear that word?. Here are a couple of famous examples:

  • When David Beckham was sent off for kicking Diego Simeone in the England vs Argentina 1998 World Cup… England lost.

  • The United Nations sanctions against Iraq in 1990 for invading Kuwait, which was the beginning of the First Gulf War

  • The time in The Lion King where Scar framed his nephew Simba for killing Mufasa and then banished him out of the Pridelands

OK, the last one was a little silly but you get the point. Unless you are a sociopath, sanctions do not feel good to give. But just like doing your taxes, taking out the bins and cleaning your dog’s little ‘gifts’ off the floor, it may not feel great but they are necessary.

Many teachers. especially those that are early in their careers, struggle to get their heads around sanctions. When I started, I wanted to be a positive teacher and have all the students like me.

But as I developed as a teacher, I realised that my hang-up was because I was looking at sanctioning as a punishment rather than sanctioning as a discipline.

Although it is subtle, these two words represent two different paradigms that will determine how effective you are at leading your students. Let's dig a little deeper.

The Oxford Dictionary Online1 describes ‘punishment’ as

1. The infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.
‘crime demands just punishment’

Retribution as in revenge. I don’t know why but when I think of the word ‘retribution’ I think of Game Of Thrones - I know it’s weird. The word 'punishment' comes from the latin word ‘punire’ which means ‘penalty.’

OK. Let’s look at the word 'discipline2'. There are several definitions that are quite interesting

1.1.The controlled behaviour resulting from training.
‘he was able to maintain discipline among his men’

1.2 Activity that provides mental or physical training.
'the tariqa offered spiritual discipline’
‘Kung fu is a discipline open to old and young’

1.3 [count noun] A system of rules of conduct.
‘he doesn't have to submit to normal disciplines’

There is no talk of retribution or medieval style revenge here. The word 'discipline' comes from the latin word ‘discipulus’ which means ‘learner.’ This root word is also where we get the word ‘disciple’ from.

Although it is subtle, these differences change the paradigm.

When we sanction our students it should not come from a place of malice or revenge but from a place of control & justness.

Sanctions should be used to educate and guide our students to follow better patterns of behaviour — patterns that they eventually have to follow in the Real World.

In wider society, we all have to adhere to laws, regulations and codes of conduct. Without some rules and regulations, there would be anarchy. For good or ill, you as a teacher have a responsibility to help prepare your students for this reality.

Teaching discipline is very much tied into grit and mastery and many scientific studies have shown that people who can control their impulses and maintain their focus tended to be happier, healthier and more resilient to the highs and lows of life.

Here are 3 tips that you can help you be more effective at giving sanctions and still maintain the positive relationships you have with the students.

1) Beware of the 'Emotional Hijack' - Always Try To Sanction Your Students in a Calm & Fair Way

A man screaming & pounding a desk with his fist
Please don't scream at your students

Going forward, we will use a case study.

Vicky in 1OG is being really defiant and will not put her phone away. You have spoken to her politely and have warned her and now she is choosing to ignore to you. She eggs on other students to defy you & she is becoming more confrontational and aggressive.

In the meantime, your breath is getting shallower and you start hearing your heartbeat in your ears. You have had to stop the whole lesson and don't understand why Vicky is being this rude.

Now you are approaching the danger point.

You want to give a sanction but you are enraged. You want to scream at Vicky, but you know that Vicky will retaliate in kind. You clench your teeth. Your eyes zero-in on Vicky and you feel the anger bubbling in your throat. You open your mouth.

Stop. you have been 'emotionally highjacked.'

When we get stressed, startled or threatened, our amygdala, which is the emotional control centre of the brain, 'highjacks' our neocortex which is our thinking part. We enter a 'fight-or-flight' stress response.

Our body, for want of a better term, moves from a logical, rational mode of thinking to a more instinctive, irrational mode who's sole purpose is our physical survival.

The 'fight-or-flight' response is great for running away or mustering up the strength to fight a sabretooth tiger. But horrible for dealing with angry students!

Here's what you must do.

Stay calm — do not lose your cool as it takes away from your authority and you may say or do things that you will regret later. Reiterate for the last time what you have asked the student to do and what will be the consequences.

Separate - If the student does not comply or ramps up the aggression, then this is where separation must occur to stop the hijack situation. Ask the student to step outside the class to have a breather or call for additional support.

This will give both you and the student time to settle your nervous systems, flush out all the stress hormones and hopefully get back to thinking clearly.

Unless it is severely serious, I would suggest holding back from giving a final sanction straight away. Allow the time for both you & the student to cool down so that you can have a rational & calm conversation.

This may mean sending them to another class or to another part of your institution. This will vary from place to place. Remember you are the emotional bellwether of your classroom. You have to set an example. Separation allows you to regain control of yourself & be in the best place to deal with it effectively.

2) Explain the Sanction Clearly & Create a 'Teachable Moment'

Let's check in on Vicky.

Vicky refused to hand over her phone and you called for Patrol to remove her from the class. As per the school policy, she now has a has lunchtime detention. You have arranged a meeting after school, to discuss what happened.

There are two ways that you can conduct this meeting. You can step into the class with all guns blazing and within a minute, lay down the law, make a couple of threats like Vin Diesel and then dismiss the student.

But this can be counterproductive & cause some serious beef in the long-term.

But there's another way: try to create a 'Teachable Moment.'

Hopefully, by now, both you & the student are calm and collected & can have a civil conversation. Here's two tips to handle this meeting.

Walk them through the chain of events - Starting from the beginning, walk the student through how the incident started and listen.

Poor behaviour is a symptom, not a cause. At this point, you may discover additional information that will change the whole direction of the conversation.

In Vicky's case, it turns out that she had a fight with her Mum in the morning and was texting her Dad to sort it out. Although these responses are not appropriate, you now have something to work with.

Walkthroughs give you greater insights into your student's personality, triggers and will give you more tools to stop this happening in the future.

Walkthroughs also give the students a chance to reflect on their behaviour & in some cases help them to self-correct their behaviour when they find themselves in a similar situation, further down the line.

Ask Open-Ended Questions - During the walkthrough, ask your students a series of questions that are designed to make her think about their behaviour. Make sure that they are open-ended using 'why, when and how' questions.

This doesn't have to be an inquest & this could be done in under five minutes. Here are some examples:

  • Tell me about what you think happened?

  • When I asked you to hand over your phone, why did you not do it? How were you feeling at this point?

  • Do you feel that was the right response and if you could would you make a different choice?

  • Do you feel I was being unfair? If yes/no why?

  • What if someone spoke to you the way you spoke to me how would you feel?

The purpose of these questions are to increase empathy and rapport.

When we are 'emotionally highjacked,' the part of our brains that can empathise with other people is comprised. These questions allow you & the student to understand each other better & make it more likely to get a positive resolution.

Having a dialogue doesn't mean that the sanction may necessarily be avoided. You must impress upon the student that we all make bad decisions but we don't have to be defined by them. This leads to the third step.

3) Build On the Relationship After the Sanction Has Been Served

a female student fistbumps her tutor
Sanctions don't need to destroy your teacher student relationships

If this part has handled correctly, this can be a real opportunity to build a positive relationship with the student.

Take the time to talk to your student and impress upon them that now the sanction had been completed, it is now part of history and you both have a fresh start going forward.

You don't have to organise a United Nations meeting either. If the issue is serious then you may have to have a formal restorative meeting possibly with another member of staff.

If it is a minor incident, you may just have to see the student before in the next lesson. Unless it is dangerous or a Child Protection issue, never leave a sanction on a negative note.

Thank your student for listening and being mature enough to take what you said on board. Coming from you, an authority, will have a positive & powerful effect on them. It will display a potent mix of authority and warmth that will make your students respect you more.


JFK portrait
A legendary president

America's 35th president, John F. Kennedy once said:

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis. ' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity.

I want you to look at sanctions in exactly the same way. This is the most pleasant part of the job & at times there feel like there are dangers. But sanctions are opportunities to:

  • Build rapport with your student.

  • Prevent the same incident from happening again using a 'teachable moment.'

  • Make your student into the best version of themselves.

This was an extensive blogpost, but I hope that it will help you become more confident in guiding your students.

If you liked this blogpost, sign up to the AHT blog below to get the latest tips, tricks & resources fresh off the presses! It will take you less than 20 seconds!

C'mon - grab the opportunity.

Karl from

1. Oxford Dictionary. 2018. Definition of punishment in English. [ONLINE] Available at:

2. Oxford Dictionary. 2018. Definition of discipline. [ONLINE] Available at:

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