Young Students Need Discipline Along With Kindness

Terrence Moore

July 1, 2003

My first experience with first-graders was both enlightening and terrifying. I had volunteered to teach the recess classes for a week of vacation Bible school. My mission was simple. All I had to do was lead the children in a little exercise during their morning break. This seemed to me an easy operation. I was a Marine at the time and had no shortage of confidence in anything I tried.

For the most part, the week went swimmingly well. I had the older children playing Bible baseball and finding hidden treasures with the use of textual clues. The kindergarteners seemed happy enough playing “red-light, green-light.” Yet the first-graders soon became the bane of my existence. They had no mind to do anything I said. They laughed at my authority and only occasionally took part in the games I had planned for them. On the third day I faced an open rebellion. I was trying to line up the first-graders to go back to their regular class after an already harrowing thirty minutes of anarchy. Some were running all over the parking lot, and others were just jumping up and down and shouting. Used to commanding men, I now was at the mercy of a mutiny of six-year-olds. Suddenly their regular teacher, a veteran from the local elementary school, appeared on the scene. She instantly issued her commands. “Cory, get back in line.” “Alex, do I need to call your mother?” “Jenny, you know better than to yell when someone’s talking to you.” Her voice was firm but by no means loud or perturbed. The outbreak was reduced to order, and a minute later the teacher was marching a well-behaved troop back to class.

This experience has led me to believe that early elementary teachers can best be understood as loving drill instructors. On the one hand, their pupils are very attached to them because they are “so nice.” On the other, these young children soon learn that they cannot get away with anything. No look, gesture, laugh, cry, or whisper escapes the notice of the elementary teacher. She is quick to praise and quick to correct.

Young children are in need of such gentle discipline. They come to school as raw recruits. Though irresistibly cute and curious, they are in the strictest sense undisciplined. Their world has largely been the pursuit of their own pleasures with their own toys in their own homes on their own time. They have never been in a room with twenty or more other children. They have never had to sit in one place for long stretches of time. They have never had to walk in a line or for long distances with anyone but a parent. They have never had to get along with so many others. They have never had to keep up with so much stuff: pencils, notebooks, restroom passes, folders, homework, papers of all kinds!

They are restless, chatty, and excitable. Yet in a few weeks with proper instruction these recruits learn to keep up with all their papers, to speak only after raising their hands and being called upon, to say some of their lessons in unison, to walk from place to place in a straight line, to pay attention to the teacher rather than their “neighbors,” and to work quietly when necessary. The progress that early elementary students can make in only a few weeks of school proves that, despite their initial inclinations to anarchy, children respond well to a firm but caring regime of discipline. This is no mean achievement since discipline is the foundation of learning. For once children learn to pay attention, their natural curiosity takes over, and learning proceeds apace.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow with the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.