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Disciplining Students by Promoting Responsibility

By Deb Wuest

The word "discipline" brings many different meanings to mind. Discipline can be defined as "punishing students in order to make them behave." Discipline can also be defined as "teaching students to behave responsibly." Many of the "discipline" approaches used in education focus on punishing students and using rewards to influence classroom behavior. However, given that discipline problems are often cited as the most challenging problem facing teachers today, we may need to look at other approaches to address this pervasive problem. Marvin Marshall, in an article entitled Rethinking our Thinking on Discipline: Empower --Rather than Overpower states: "We need to rethink our thinking about discipline. We cannot change other people, but we can empower then to change themselves."

Approaching discipline from the perspective of teaching students to behave responsibly can help us achieve many of our goals. Teaching students to assume responsibility for their own behavior and learning is important to the promotion of lifelong involvement in physical activity. Respecting others, valuing individual differences, and fair play are desirable outcomes of physical education. There are several models that have been successfully used as curricular frameworks to help teachers structure their programs, adapt their teaching strategies, and involve their students in promoting personal and social responsibility. One model that has been successfully used in many different settings is the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) Model of Don Hellison (1995).

What is the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility Model?

The TPSR Model was developed to help students learn to be responsible by giving them increasing amounts of responsibility and by carefully shifting a significant portion of decision-making responsibilities to them. The model promotes self and social responsibility by empowering students to take more responsibility for their actions and lives and by teaching them to be concerned about the rights, feelings, and needs of others. The model strives to help students feel empowered, to experience making commitments to themselves and others, to live by a set of principles, and to be concerned about the well-being of others.

The TPSR Model emphasizes effort and self-direction as critical to the achievement of personal well-being. Respecting others' rights, considering others' feelings, and caring about others are essential to the achievement of social well-being. Hellison places the achievement of these outcomes in an informal progression of levels or goals to help both teachers and students to become aware of their behaviors and to focus their efforts as they move toward desired outcomes. Teachers can use these levels as a framework to plan, teach, and evaluate student learning.

What are the levels of responsibility?

The TPSR model's levels can be described as moving from irresponsibility to responsibility, moving from respect for oneself and to respect and concern for others. These behaviors would be first developed within the physical education class and then used outside of the gym, in the home and community settings.

Hellison's levels of responsibility and examples of associated behaviors are briefly described in the table.

 Levels of Responsibility






Examples of Behaviors*





Students control their own behavior and show respect for the feelings and rights of others. Students understand that all have the right to participate. Students have the right to resolve conflicts peacefully. Students are taught to recognize and respect differences of opinion and to negotiate conflicts. Increased awareness of empathy and understanding of the impact of one=s behavior on others.




Participation and effort

The emphasis is on helping students participate in activities that can become an integral part of their lives. Students are encouraged to explore the relationship between effort and outcomes, try new activities, accept challenges, and arrive at a personal definition of success. Is success participating? Improving? Being socially responsible?





Students assume increased responsibility for their work and actions; they are able to work more independently on tasks. Students learn to identify their own needs and interests, set own goals, establish related tasks for achieving them., and evaluate their progress. Students are encouraged to balance current and future needs. They have greater ability to disregard "peer pressures" and remain committed to being socially responsible




Caring and helping others

Students are helped to develop interpersonal skills and to reach beyond themselves to others. They are encouraged to give support, show concern, and exhibit compassion without expectation of reward. Teaching styles, such as the reciprocal style, offer opportunities for students to assist each other in learning. Students are supported in their efforts to become contributing members of the community.

* Adapted from Hellison, D. (1995) Teaching Responsibility Through Physical Activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics and Hellison, D. & Templin, T.J. (1991). A reflective approach to teaching physical education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hellison's responsibility levels offer teachers guidelines for their efforts and actions. To achieve the model's goals, teaching strategies must be carefully selected to promote responsibility and to develop concern for others.

What teaching strategies support the model?

Hellison and Templin (1991) as well as Lavay, French, and Henderson (1997) outline six instructional strategies that contribute to the development of responsibility. These strategies are awareness, experience, choice, problem-solving, self-reflection, and counseling time.

Promoting awareness of the goals and different levels is integral to the success of the program. Teachers should take advantage of varied opportunities to help students learn about the program and the different levels. Teachers can use brief talks at the beginning of the class to discuss a level, use teachable moments during class to point out level-related activities, and invite students to share their experiences with different levels.

Experiencing different levels is important. Teachers can create opportunities by carefully selecting games that promote cooperation and inclusion (Level I) and by offering experiences that help students see the relationship between effort and outcomes (Level II). Using teaching styles that provide opportunities for students to work independently during class or to make choices about the task (Level III) or to help others (Level IV) encourage the development of responsibility.

Choice is an integral part of each level. Students at Level I who misbehave or infringe on the rights of others can either choose to sit out or change their behaviors. Students also experience choices as they negotiate conflicts. At Level II, students can be allowed to choose their level of effort, providing their lack of effort does not adversely affect the performance of others. They could have the opportunity to select the number of repetitions of an exercise, choose from a series of progressively more difficult tasks at a station, or choose a level of game intensity -- recreation or competitive. Choices at Level III may include choosing to work on activities related to personal goals or participating in teacher-directed activities. Level IV offers students the opportunity to choose to help other students in the class to learn.

Problem solving is incorporated into each level. At Level I students may address how to deal with name call or examine ways to negotiate a conflict. Level II problems may deal with issues of low motivation, while at Level II students may address difficulties they encounter in being self-directed. Dealing with peer pressure may be addressed at Level IV.

Self-reflection encourages personal growth. Students can be asked to reflect on what they did and felt during class in relation to the levels. Reflection may also occur through writing, by a check list, in discussion, or even by a show of hands indicating how the students felt about an activity or behaviors during class.

Counseling time is need to talk to individuals about specific problems, teacher's observations in relation to levels, and how students view their behavior and class. This could be accomplished for some students during preclass activities or games. Other students may require a greater length of time and may need to be seen outside of class.

How can the TPSR Model be used to establish class rules?

Hellison's different levels can be used to help teachers establish class rules and identify expectations for student behavior. Oftentimes teachers have too many and too narrow rules. Many times rules are stated in stated in negative terms, emphasizing the don'ts rather than the do's. A few rules, coupled with clear expectations, can help children behave responsibly and reduce "discipline" problems. Graham, Holt/Hale and Parker (1998) state that Hellison's guidelines cover many things teachers typically include in class rules. For example, respect for the rights and feelings of others (Level I) encompasses such behaviors as playing fair, using equipment correctly, not pushing, taking turns, paying attention when the teacher is talking or demonstrating, and similar behaviors. Participation and effort (Level II) can include working hard, trying new things, and defining success in terms of one's personal experiences. Behaviors associated with Levels III, such as students working on their own, and with Levels IV, students caring for and helping each other, are also desirable outcomes.

Hellison's levels can be translated into class rules. Developed by Graham et al. (1998), these class rules reflect Hellison's levels:

  • "Be nice to classmates, the teacher, and the equipment."
  • "Try everything - and try hard."
  • "Do what you are supposed to do, even though the teacher isn't looking."
  • "Help others."(P. 116).

Rules based on the TPSR Model and the use of sound classroom management techniques help students learn more effectively.


The TPSR Model offers teachers a wonderful framework for their teaching. The model offers students guidelines for their behavior, outlines expectations, and invites greater participation in learning. By empowering students, students learn self-control rather than being controlled through classroom management techniques. By changing our thinking about discipline, we can create a positive learning environments that enriches the lives of students, both within the school and in the community.


Graham, G., Holt/Hale, S.A., & Parker, M. (1998). Children Moving: A Reflective Approach to Teaching Physical Education (4th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Hellison, D. (1995) Teaching Responsibility Through Physical Activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hellison, D. & Templin, T.J. (1991). A reflective approach to teaching physical education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lavay, B.W., French, R., & Henderson, H.L. (1997). Positive Behavior Management Strategies for Physical Educators. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Marshall, M. (1998). Rethinking our Thinking on Discipline: Empower --Rather than Overpower.

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