Children have a legitimate right to freedom and autonomy. However, these are not rights that children intuitively understand and know how to exercise. Nor do they develop naturally as the child matures. Instead they must be taught and learned. Children must be guided and educated into an understanding and appreciation of what it means to be both free and autonomous individuals within a given society. In order for this to occur, both autonomy and freedom must prevail within the classroom.
Only in such an environment can children safely practise what it means to be free and autonomous individuals and learn how to responsibly exercise these rights. It is, perhaps, somewhat of a paradox that at the heart of both freedom and autonomy lie control and restraint. Children need to first learn these virtues in order to become free and autonomous individuals who are able to responsibly function within society and take full advantage of the opportunities available to them. In order for this to happen restraints may well be necessary.
Teachers must have a degree of authority over children in order to educate them to exercise their freedom and autonomy responsibly. If the teacher’s authority is questioned or not respected, then the child’s successful transition into a responsible, autonomous adult may be compromised. To maintain a sense of order in the classroom rules need to be established and followed, and standards enforced. Discipline is a positive method of enforcing standards and teaching self-control, confidence, and responsibility.
Positive discipline reinforces what is acceptable and what is not. The focus is on what children are expected and allowed to do and includes catching children being good and encouraging appropriate behaviour as well as modelling appropriate behaviour. Punishment is quite different from discipline as it has no educational value. It offers no guidance to the child on how to behave appropriately in the future, but instead focuses only on the misdemeanour committed. Punishment may be physical as in spanking, hitting, or causing pain.
It may be psychological as in showing disapproval, shaming or isolating the child. There is no justification for punishment alone, it must be supported by some form of guidance or counselling in order to help the child understand the nature of their misdemeanour, as well as why the rule (and abiding by it) is important. In order to best assist children to develop into educated adults, capable of successfully contributing to society, teachers must carefully balance children’s legitimate right to freedom and autonomy, with their authority as teachers.
For this to happen effectively, the authority of the teacher to enforce rules and discipline must override the student’s right to freedom and autonomy. For better or for worse, discipline must exist in the classroom, to be learned and applied by children, empowering them to enter society with a clear understanding of self regulation and the ability to understand the consequences of “wrong” decisions.