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Applying Kohlberg's Model For Discipline in Schools

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(2006 update - this was copied from a page which no longer exists...

Honor Level System of Discipline:

Budd Churchward, the author of The Honor Level System: Discipline by Design, explains that students function at different levels of discipline and states that schools should not expect all students to be disciplined the same. Mr. Churchward believes that rates of progression through the stages of Kohlberg's model differ from student to student, but that the progression from stage to stage is the same regardless of sex, race, or culture.

  • A brief summary of Churchward's ideas is offered below: the reader is encouraged to visit his web page.

Churchward's main concern is that in a society that expects math, reading, and other subject's programs to be different for each student or each grade level, the discipline programs are the same at each level. He has developed a discipline program based on Kohlberg's ideas which takes into account the moral development of each student. He, like Kohlberg, believed students followed a progression of stages on the road to self-discipline, and each student progressed through those stages at his or her own personal rate.

He renames the stages and offers some examples in his web page.

Stage 1:
Recalcitrant Behavior The Power Stage: Might makes right!
Stage 2:
Self-Serving Behavior The Reward/Punishment Stage:"What's in it for me?"
Stage 3:
Interpersonal Discipline The Mutual Interpersonal Stage:"How can I please you?"
Stage 4:
Self-Discipline The Social Order Stage:"I behave because it is the right thing to do."

Working Through the Stages

Churchward encourages teachers to work through the stages; not skip from stage to stage. He encourages teachers to talk to the student to see what is troubling him or her: "Whatever the cause, it is worth taking the time to talk with the student and see what's going on". He further encourages teachers to help students through the stages and most importantly, don't give up!

This tutorial contains information about Lawrence Kohlberg's ideas of moral reasoning, including its roots in Piaget's ideas of moral realism and morality of cooperation.

Lawrence Kohlberg's ideas of moral development are based on the premise that at birth, all humans are void of morals, ethics, and honesty. He identified the family as the first source of values and moral development for an individual. He believed that as one's intelligence and ability to interact with others matures, so does one's patterns of moral behavior (Woolfolk, 1993).

Kohlberg based his ideas of moral reasoning on Piaget's moral reasoning and morality of cooperation. He described three main levels of moral development with two stages in each level.

  1. punishment-obedience orientation
  2. personal reward orientation
  1. good boy-nice girl orientation
  2. law and order orientation
  1. social contract orientation
  2. universal ethical principle orientation
How do Kohlberg's ideas apply to the classroom?
  • Concrete examples describing actual dilemmas and how Kohlberg's ideas can help solve them are included in this tutorial.
  • The work of Thomas Lickona is highlighted from his book Educating for Character: How our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.

Is Kohlberg the answer to all moral dilemmas?

Many people disagree with Kohlberg for various reasons. We will touch on some of the criticisms of Kohlberg's theory, including whether moral development occurs in discreet stages, whether moral reasoning matches moral behavior, his bias against women, and the reliability and validity of his testing methods. The work of Carol Gilligan will be outlined in this part of the tutorial.

Is anyone using Kohlberg's ideas in the classroom?

We will profile real life examples of applications of his theories in the classroom environment. Budd Churchward, author of The Honor Level System: Discipline by Design, has developed a discipline program taking into account Kohlberg's ideas.


Kohlberg defined moral reasoning as judgements about right and wrong. His studies of moral reasoning are based on the use of moral dilemmas, or hypothetical situations in which people must make a difficult decision.

Kohlberg defined a subject's level of moral reasoning from the reasoning used to defend his or her position when faced with a moral dilemma. He thought this more important than the actual choice made, since the choices people make in such a dilemma aren't always clearly and indisputably right.

He noted that development of moral reasoning seemed to be related to one's age. However, he also determined that the highest level of moral reasoning was not reached by all of his subjects.

Examples of Kohlberg's six stages of moral development (Woolfolk, 1993)

Consider the following moral dilemma: Mr. Heinz's wife is dying. There is one drug that will save her life but it is very expensive. The druggist will not lower the price so that Mr. Heinz can buy it to save his wife's life. What should he do? More importantly, why?

This is one of the dilemmas that Kohlberg used to determine stages of moral development. Examples of the reasoning individuals at each stage of development use to solve this dilemma are outlined below.

The reader is encouraged to examine the links offered at each stage. These links contain concrete examples of each of applications of these types of reasoning in the classroom.

Level 1: Preconventional

At this level judgement is based solely on a person's own needs and perceptions.

Stage 1: Punishment-obedience Orientation
Persons in this stage obey rules to avoid punishment. A good or bad action is determined by its physical consequences.
Stage 2: Personal Reward Orientation
In this stage, personal needs determine right or wrong. Favors are returned along the lines of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours".
  • At level one, a person's answer to the Heinz dilemma might be,"it is wrong to steal the drug to save your wife because you might get caught." This reasoning is based on the consequences of his actions. This person's primary concern is avoiding punishment. On the reverse side, the reasoning for stealing the drug would be to avoid punishment by your wife and the law, assuming an investigation came after the wife's' death. The inquiry may blame the man for not coming up with a way to get the money to save his wife's life.

Level 2: Conventional

The expectations of society and society's laws are taken into account in a decision about a moral dilemma.

Stage 3: Good boy-Nice girl Orientation
To a person in this stage, good means "nice". One's behavior is determined by what pleases and is approved by others. This is a point in Kohlberg's theories that has received criticism regarding its bias against women.
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation
When deciding the punishment for a given wrongdoing, laws are absolute. In all cases, authority must be respected and the social order maintained.
  • At level two, one takes into account society's norms and laws, saying , "It's wrong for Mr. Heinz to steal because it's against the law. Mr. Heinz wants society to approve of his actions, so he doesn't steal the drug." On the flip side, the subject may believe: "it's right to steal because Mr. Heinz means well by trying to help his dying wife. He'll pay the druggist the money when he is able, or accept the consequences for stealing the drug." In this case, the subject still respects the law, but places an even higher value on loyalty to his loved ones. This shows a desire to be a good person but still conform to the law.

Level 3: Postconventional

Judgements are based on abstract, more personal principles that aren't necessarily defined by society's laws.

Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation
Good is determined by socially agreed upon standard of individual rights. The United States Constitution is based on this type of morality. Persons operating in this moral stage believe that different societies have different views of what is right and wrong.
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principle Orientation
What is "good" and "right" are matters of individual conscience and involve abstract concepts of justice, human dignity, and equality. In this stage, persons believe there are universal points of view on which all societies should agree.
  • At level three, a person's response might be, "It's not wrong for Mr. Heinz to steal because human life must be preserved and life is worth more than personal property. " Note that the thinking here is more abstract than the previous levels. Laws to a person at this level can be considered somewhat arbitrary, depending on the situation. This person realizes that laws are important to keep society running relatively smoothly, but also knows that they can be too rigid to apply in some cases. This person justifies that saving a life is more important than an abstract symbol of power: money.

Kohlberg's ideas are everywhere! For examples of how Kohlberg's ideas fit in U.S. Congressional debates click here.


Level 1: Preconventional

Punishment-Obedience orientation

  • Elementary school examples
  1. A fourth grade girl refrains from running in the hallway to avoid the consequences involved in breaking that school's rule.
  2. "Discussion rules" are placed on the blackboard in a combined 1st and 2nd grade classroom, and whenever a student breaks one of those rules, he or she cannot participate in the classroom discussion
  • High school examples
  1. When a middle school student swears in the classroom, he or she has to complete a list of consequences developed by the teacher earlier in the year
  2. One middle school teacher devised the most effective strategy for getting students to class on time. He has latecomers do pushups--50 of them--in front of the class
  3. A high school English student is sent down to the office for forgetting her homework the third day in a row.


Level 1: Preconventional

Personal Reward Orientation

  • Elementary school examples
  1. Two elementary school students were found arguing:

Student 1: "She called me a jerk!"

Student 2: "Well, he pulled my hair!"

  • A student offers to be last in line when going to the cafeteria so she can be first in line when going out for recess.
  • High school examples
  1. A middle school student refrains from arguing with her classmate so she is able to participate in group work later in the period.
  2. A group of high school students involved in a cooperative learning activity get upset because one of their group members is repeatedly absent and did not do any work.
  3. A high school teacher has the rule: "Homework in late will receive five points off for each day it is received after the due date". One student hands in homework four days late with a story about how her boyfriend left her. The teacher takes 20 points off her paper. A second student misses several days of school due to an illness, and hands in the same homework four days late. The teacher gives him full credit. The class protests, saying it is unfair for him to change the rules in the middle of the school year

Level 2: Conventional

Good Boy/ Nice Girl Orientation

  • Elementary school examples
  1. A student stays after school to clean all the chalkboards for the teacher.
  2. A fifth grade teacher asks her students to: "Please help me clean up the mess from our science experiment so we can all get to recess on time!"
  • High school examples
  1. A middle school student agrees to throw out the gum she is chewing to please the teacher.
  2. In an inner city high school student's journal, she wrote "I am going to work harder in school so I won't let you down because if you think I can make it then I can make it" (Johnson, 1992).

Level 2: Conventional

Law and Order Orientation

  • Elementary school examples
  1. "It is compulsory for all school-age students to attend school." This statement exemplifies a right available to students by the United States Constitution (Gathercoal, 1993).
  2. "Respect the property of others". This sign, when hung in a middle school, reinforced the student's right to private property .
  3. "Keep your hands and feet to yourself." School officials have both the legal authority and the professional responsibility to deny student rights that seriously disrupt student learning activities (Gathercoal, 1993).
  • High school examples
  1. "Move carefully in the halls". This rule reinforces the fundamental purpose of government to protect the health and welfare of it's citizens (Gathercoal, 1993).
  2. "Gang activity must be off school premises." School officials have both the legal authority and the professional responsibility to deny student rights that seriously disrupt student learning activities (Gathercoal, 1993).
  3. "Wear appropriate shoes on the gym floor". Public property must be protected in the schools (Gathercoal, 1993)
  • Readers interested in learning more about Forest Gathercoal's Judicious Discipline, a model of discipline based solely on the United States Constitution are referred to the following readings:
  • Gathercoal, Forrest. (1993). Judicious Discipline, 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Caddo Gap Press.
  • McEwan, Barbara. (1990). Judicious Discipline. Democracy and Education, 4(3): 37-40.

Level 3: Postconventional

Social Contract Orientation

  • Elementary school examples
  1. A combined first and second grade class makes its own rules during the first month of the year according to a class meeting where students discuss what is proper and improper behavior in the classroom and why a particular behavior is inappropriate (ie., who is affected by your actions)
  2. A second-grade teacher helped her students understand all aspects of a moral dilemma during a science project in which the class was incubating chicken eggs. The assignment was to open an egg each week to look at the developing chicken at various stages. Later that day, one of her students confided in her that he thought it cruel to open an egg and kill the chick inside. She listened without comment and decided to hold a class meeting discussing the topic. The class discussed many aspects of the assignment, including whether it really was cruel to kill a chick each week and alternatives to the assignment. After discussing all the aspects, students were encouraged to vote as to how to continue with the assignment (Lickona, 1993).
  • High school examples
  1. A high school teacher uses the following handout on the first day of class (Lickona, 1991):
  • "Please remember that this is your room and your class. The behavior and participation of each person will shape the type of learning that will occur. Since one person's behavior affects everyone else, I request that everyone in the class be responsible for classroom management. To ensure that our rights are protected and upheld, the following laws have been established for this classroom..."
  • A high school teacher was having many problems with aggression in her classroom. One day she decided she could not take the constant fighting anymore and had the students participate in a class discussion about why fighting was wrong. The class developed a long list of reasons why fighting is wrong. She then encouraged them to develop a list of alternatives to fighting or consequences of fighting during class time. The students developed a long list, and only the most agreed upon consequences were used. For example, "a person caught fighting will have to lick the floor" was deemed inappropriate by the class for hygiene reasons, while "a person who feels the need to fight will quietly step out of the room to cool down for a few minutes" was accepted by teacher and students (Faber and Mazlish, 1987).

Level 3: Postconventional

Universal Ethical Principle Orientation

  • Elementary school examples
  1. An elementary school class has little discipline problems with one simple classroom rule: "Respect everyone in this room" (Lickona, 1995).
  2. A combined first and second grade class makes its own rules during the first month of the year according to a class meeting in which all students are asked to reflect on what is right and wrong and why things are right and wrong .
    • A second grade teacher was facilitating an activity to make a model of the classroom as they saw it using wood scraps. A couple of her students were found discussing their ideas (Lickona, 1991):
    • David: That is the dumbest chalkboard, Martha. You put it in a stupid place.
    • Teacher (to David): You think Martha should put the block in a different place. Would you like to suggest to her where she might put it?
    • David: Yeah, right there. The chalkboard is BEHIND the table.
    • Teacher (to Martha): If you accept David's suggestion, you may move your block. But if you like it where you put it, you may leave it right there.
    • Teacher (to David): when you don't use the words "stupid" and "dumbest," people like to listen to you. You had an interesting point to make about the chalkboard.
  • High school examples
    • High school teacher: "I have only one rule in this classroom and that rule is not negotiable: Respect yourself and everyone else in this room. If you can't respect yourself, you can't respect other people. And if you don't have any self-respect, you have a problem. We're going to fix that problem because every person has the right to his or her personal dignity."
    • High school student: "That's bullshit!"
    • Teacher: It tells you everything...(for example)...Do you think it's respectful for you to get up and walk around the room while I am talking?"
    • Student: "No"
    • Teacher: "Well, then, do you think it's respectful to say 'shit' in school?"
    • Student: "No"
    • Teacher: "then you tell me an example of something you could do in class and get in trouble for that does not break my single rule"
    • He offered several suggestions but his classmates loudly disqualified each example (Johnson, 1992).
  1. This same teacher later added another rule to her list: "I will not tolerate any racial, ethnic, or sexual slurs in this classroom. It is not fair to erase someone's face. In this room, everyone is entitled to equal dignity as a human being. (Johnson, 1992)"
  2. At a high school for girls in Chicago, math classes studied demographic facts related to hunger , and religion classes discussed the question of "What is our ethical and religious responsibility for the starving people of the world? (Lickona, 1991)

For further reading on the fostering of moral development in children, the reader is directed to the work of Thomas Lickona.