Compassionate Discipline in Practice

By Maddy Pribanova, CEI Intern

Incorporating compassionate discipline within schools and homes can be challenging. At times, it’s difficult to know where to start. Senior teacher and trainer, Grace Dearborn, and the Irvington School in Portland, OR have begun adopting the principles of compassionate discipline in their classrooms. Dearborn and others at Irvington apply them to every day interactions. They have found that in practice compassionate discipline helps them tackle every day issues such as disobedience. However, it also helps them with larger issues such as institutional racism by having courageous conversations (see below).

Overcoming Resistance

Sometimes compassion and communication are not enough. The experience of child abuse, for example, has long-term implications for behavioral development and the trust and bonds children are able to form with adults (Odhayani, Watson, & Watson, 2013). Students with challenging and disruptive behaviors often come from backgrounds where there has been trauma or abuse (Odhayani et al., 2013). These children then struggle to take in and respond to directions and are often resistant to complying with others. Their behaviors can be particularly disruptive to not just the child’s learning, but also to the classroom setting. Bringing their disruptive behaviors under control, while challenging, is crucial.

Overcoming barriers to learning that are associated with abuse and trauma can be particularly difficult, but according to Grace Dearborn (2015), it is possible. In an article ‘˜Compassionate Discipline: Dealing with Difficult Students,’ published by the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), Dearborn (2015) writes about her own experiences as a teacher in Fairfax, California. She describes perseverance and a six-step technique. According to Dearborn, a children’s defiance and disrespect is usually a concealment of fear and anger. Therefore, it is important to try to be consistent in redirecting defiant behavior in a calm and safe environment. This process works both for homes and schools. The way Dearborn has done this is through taking six important steps:

  1. Assume the best

Seeing the best in children and accepting the resistance as normal allows parents and teachers to see it as a test rather than a threat.

  1. Soft Eyes, Soft Voice

During confrontation, modeling safe and calm behavior encourages the child to do the same and be far more likely to listen and cooperate.

  1. Offer a Choice

It is important to empower children by giving them choices. Discussing the consequences allows them to be in control and part of the disciplinary process.

  1. Respect the Choice Made

This teaches children to be responsible for their actions and models the relationship of mutual respect. If a child chooses to resist, he/she is still at the stage of testing the boundaries.

  1. Give the Consequence

It is important to be consistent and follow up with the consequences discussed. Many experts have discussed natural, logical consequences. If possible, incorporate such consequences into the child’s decision-making process. If a child chooses to comply, then it may be easier to avoid or terminate the confrontation and restore peace. Should the child continue to resist, then step 6 may be necessary.

  1. Escalate the choice

Continue offering a new choice with a more uncomfortable consequence until the child complies. Should the child be unwilling to do this, teachers (and parents) might consider removing him/her from the room.

This six-step technique acknowledges that resistance is a mere test of boundaries and a natural process in child development. Parents and teachers often assume that respect and compliance should be automatic due to their overarching authority (Dearborn, 2015). According to Dearborn, this authority is something that is established over a series of interactions and setting of boundaries. Empowering children through modeling respect, giving them a chance to take responsibility and collaborate with the adult, while setting reasonable limitations, both imparts values and allows children, as well as adults, to overcome resistance in a successful way. Dearborn says that this mindset has also enabled her to continue to love teaching and have a long and successful career in education.

Courageous Conversations

Providing equity for every child is vital for each individual’s success in life. In the multicultural world that we live in today, teachers need to be sensitive to the differences in racial and cultural backgrounds. In the US, Blacks and Hispanics make up 40.9% of the public school population (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2014). Yet, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White counterparts (Losen, Martinez, & Gillespie, 2012; Loveless, 2017). Ethnic minority students are sometimes set back due to the discrimination that occurs in the implementation of behavioral policies. This not only lowers their academic performance, but also has long lasting effects on self-esteem and life ambitions.

In a bid to infuse equity in education, the Irvington School in Portland is training their staff and pupils in ‘˜Courageous Conversations.’ This transformative process gives staff and the school community the tools to approach discipline in a far more holistic way. The initiative of ‘˜Courageous Conversations’ was proposed by the Pacific Education Group and seeks to encourage interracial dialogue and awareness of the role of race and racial identity. By acknowledging racial differences, the role of ‘˜whiteness’ and white privilege, as well as how race is lived and experienced, the school promotes sensitivity towards diversity in the classroom. Taking a child’s racial experience into account allows teachers to develop a tailored approach for each child and develop positive relationships. Furthermore, reflecting on one’s own ideas and behaviors related to prejudice, whether related to race or even gender or class, gives teachers the opportunity to be far more conscious of their disciplinary behavior.

In the Irvington School, courageous conversations are part of an overall transformation and step forward toward compassionate discipline, whereby teachers are culturally responsive to their students and provide a far more nuanced and personalized approach to positive discipline. At Irvington, there is an overall focus on understanding students and supporting them in achieving both academic and behavioral excellence. The school’s success with these disciplinary tools is reflected in the results. In 2011-12, 24 students were suspended from the school, compared to 7 in 2013-14. The school reports that events leading to suspension and the number of students leaving the school have also decreased.


Dearborn, G. (2015). Compassionate Discipline: Dealing with difficult students. Association for Middle Level Education Magazine.

Losen, D.J., Martinez, T., & Gillespie, J., (2012) Suspended education in California. Los Angeles: UCLA The Civil Rights Projects.

Loveless, T. (2017, March 22) 2017 Brown Center report on American education: Race and school suspensions, v. 3, 6. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

National Center for Educational Statistic (2017). Mobile Digest of Education Statistics 2017. Institute for Educational Sciences.

Odhayani, A., Watson, W. J., & Watson, L. (2013). Behavioural consequences of child abuse. Canadian Family Physician59(8), 831’“836.

The Irvington School. (2014, June 1). Compassionate discipline: Moving away from exclusionary practices to culturally responsive PBIS. Irvington School Portland Public Schools, Presentation.


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