Upcoming Courses

40 Hour Workweek

Classroom Management   |   Dec 9, 2013

Discipline, not punishment: creating a personal improvement plan for a troubled kid

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Discipline, not punishment: creating a personal improvement plan for a troubled kid

By Angela Watson

This is the time of year when we tend to be especially short-tempered with our “frequent fliers”, as a principal of mine used to call those kids who seem to spend more time traveling down to her office than in the classroom. I wrote a post last week called Why discipline is different from punishment and explained my perspective that punishment makes a child suffer for wrongdoing, whereas discipline helps a child solve a problem. Strong and effective discipline figures out the root of the problem, and applies consequences in a way that addresses that root problem, not just the effects of the problem (the chaos of misbehavior in the classroom.)

I gave an example of a child named James who gets physically aggressive with other students or even teachers. James gets into an argument over something silly in the classroom and shoves another student. (Repeat 15 times a day–so often that if you attempted to suspend him each time it happened, James would probably spend about three minutes a week in your classroom.)

Here’s how I respond to “frequent fliers” like James in the elementary grades. The first thing I do when I realize that I’ve got an ongoing, larger problem that isn’t solved by my normal classroom management approaches is create a Personal Improvement Plan, which is a term I prefer to the more traditional Individual Behavior Plan, despite its unfortunate acronym, PIP.  (I just refer to it as “our plan” most of the time when talking with the child.) I like that term because the plan’s purpose is focused more on helping the child become a better person than on modifying his behavior. It’s designed to help the child reflect on her actions and connect them to logical consequences (and motivating rewards if needed).

The plan is typically a contract or evaluation that is created in conjunction with the child and parent, but if the parent’s not involved, I’ve created plans with just the child. You can read more about how these personal improvement plans work (and download free editable examples of plans I’ve used with my students) on the Behavior Plans and Charts page of this site. I’ve also written an entire chapter on personal improvement plans in my book, The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable and have a 45 minute session on meeting individual student needs in The Cornerstone webinar.

Once the personal improvement plan is in place, I no longer have to make swift judgments about consequences the moment I see misbehavior. The student and I are already in agreement about what will happen when rules are broken, so kids like James are less likely to get angry and lash out at me when they make poor choices, and I’m less likely to say or do something I’ll regret.

When I see an incident, I typically address the other child immediately, giving him or her attention instead of the child who is acting out. I might say, “Thomas, are you okay? Thank you for not hitting him back, you made a good choice. Would you like to sit somewhere else in our classroom where you feel safe? Go ahead, move your chair near your friend. Back to work, everyone, I’ll take care of the situation.”

In this way, I haven’t responded to James out of anger or given him any attention for his behavior. I’m not arguing with him or escalating the situation, I’m just making sure the child he hit is safe and I’m getting the class back on task. James will most likely be pouting, mumbling under his breath, kicking his desk leg, etc. If the behaviors aren’t too disruptive, I’m going to ignore them for 30-60 seconds and let James calm down. If it’s a bigger problem, I’ll skip the wait time and motion James and the other child over to my desk or a quiet spot in the room.

I keep my facial expression solemn and voice tone neutral and say, “Tell me what happened.” I let each child speak, uninterrupted, to tell their version of what happened. I mostly respond with questions so that the kids are the ones doing the thinking. “Was that a good choice? What else could you have done?” As we wrap up the conversation, the tone of my voices expresses disappointment rather than anger, and I say, “We agreed on a plan to help you make good choices. What needs to happen now, according to the plan?” James will mumble whatever the agreed-upon consequence is, and I’ll nod solemnly. If the other child also needs a consequence, we discuss that, as well.

Since the kids who have personal improvement plans often exhibit misbehavior multiple times in a single day, I don’t have that conversation every time. Often I simply make eye contact with the child and say, “We have a plan for handling this, right?” and the child will nod. That way I know that James (and the rest of the class) understands there will be a consequence, but I’m not making the situation worse by embarrassing or correcting him in front of others.

Kids like James sometimes show a significant turn-around over the course of several weeks or months when they have a support system like this in place. Eventually they can even be weaned off of the plan. Other kids don’t seem to make a lot of progress and need the plan in place all year long, simply because the 25 hours a week they spend in my classroom really aren’t enough to correct deep-seated issues and undo the damage that’s created in the other 143 hours.

I don’t judge the success of the plan on whether it stops the disruptive behavior altogether: let’s face it, there’s no plan in the world that can do that for certain kids. I’ve learned to accept that dealing with misbehavior is part of the daily work of a teacher. So is helping kids learn how to make smart decisions, problem solve, and self-regulate. Socio-emotional skills might not be on a standardized test, but they’re some of the most important things we can help kids learn, and we can choose to embrace that fact instead of resenting kids for needing guidance in the area of self-control.

So instead, I judge the plan’s success on whether it allows me to help the child without derailing my primary purpose in the classroom: to teach. If the plan lessens the power of a single child to disrupt the entire learning environment, it’s worth doing. I’ve found that creating personal improvement plans prevents me from getting so angry and frustrated with my “frequent fliers”, and helps me to respond to their misbehavior in ways that address the root cause of the issue with minimal disruption to the rest of class’ learning.

Have you tried personal improvement plans or individual behavior plans with your students? What works (and what doesn’t), in your experience?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
Browse Articles by Angela


  1. One other thing I would like to add is looking at the antecedents prior to the behavior. In some instances, children cannot control themselves even when they know what the consequences will be.

    In those cases it is up to the adult to change the environment to minimize those behaviors as much as possible while teaching the student in small increments coping skills and strategies.

  2. What about beyond elementary school and into middle and high school? I’ve had instances where approaches like this work, especially when it’s clear that the behavior of the student in question clearly has little or nothing to do with me and has more to do with many factors beyond my control. But I have also had students who, quite frankly, laugh off any attempt at an intervention like this. What’s the approach then?

    1. Behavioral plans are great for all ages, but that behavioral plan HAS to address the function of the behavior. I would highly suggest completing training in Functional Behavioral Assessment, Applied Behavioral Analysis, and the creation of behavioral plans. A true and effective plan does not just say what the behavior is. A behavior plan SHOULD start with a FBA, which includes an interview of the child and the child’s guardians and several behavioral observations. Utilizing all this data, you write the FBA and utilize this information to create the behavioral plan. Behavioral plans HAS to be specific to the child and their needs, cognitive and social development, likes, and the function(s) of the behavior.
      Each child will have their own unique plan. This is then presented to the child, the parents, and hopefully the other teachers to utilize.

      1. I agree that training in FBA and ABA are ideal. Most teachers I know don’t have that kind of experience and are expected to handle behavioral problems on their own. I was always told to create my own behavior plans and document the results of my interventions before a school psych would get involved and do a more thorough analysis. So, this was the process that worked for me. Having a more thorough behavioral assessment prior to starting the plan would have been really helpful.

    2. Great point, Tom. The plans I used were only with elementary kids, as I haven’t taught middle or high school.

      Elementary teachers are often the first identifiers with troubled kids–I would hope that by adolescence, the student would already have the attention and support of a school pysch and there would be a lot more info about the child’s issues. I would also hope that the consequences for violent behavior in the classroom would be more serious at the middle and high school level–a 6 year old shoving and kicking classmates is a very different situation than a 16 year old doing it. But I am well aware that’s not always the case.

      The other difference is that secondary teachers only have their students for 45-60 minutes at a time or maybe 90-120 minutes every other day. The whole approach to a behavioral plan might be different than that of an elementary teacher who’s responsible for a child for 5 or more hours a day and has to have a structured system for dealing with the child all day long. Not to mention the fact that the elementary teacher can provide consistency–a secondary student can’t be expected to follow a different plan in each class with each teacher.

      It also seems more manageable to create behavioral plans when you only have 30 kids to think about rather than the hundreds that secondary teachers see. An elementary teacher might have 2-5 kids with plans: a secondary teacher could conceivably have dozens.

      So, there are a lot of reasons why I agree that an intervention like this might not be the best choice at the secondary level. I think it needs to be more formal–something created in conjunction with school psych/behavioral support team at the school, explained and agreed upon in a meeting with the student/parents/admin/teachers. The teacher/school’s response to violence at the secondary level needs to follow a clearly-defined disciplinary matrix and the consequences need to be applied consistently by all the teachers who work with the student.

      I would love to hear from secondary teachers (including yourself, Tom), about how they are working with troubled kids when the school does not step up and support them as needed.

      1. One of the tougher things to deal with in this situation is how unique each case really is. Some students don’t have much of a record from elementary school or it’s a very muddy picture because they went to two or three schools before they got to high school. Some students aren’t necessarily violent but are simply disruptive and will literally make moves to take control of a classroom. I’m not kidding here — I had a student who knew just exactly how much he had to do in order to not get in major trouble.

        504 plans are useful but it depends on how specific they are to the various issues as well as how practical they are to follow. By the time a student is in high school, he/she should be able to take more responsibility for his/her own learning and behavior and that means that part of the accommodations in a behavior plan should be on the onus of the student. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

        1. I am a school psychologist, currently working at the secondary level.

          It’s all about the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student – nothing works if that’s not on a firm foundation.

          If you haven’t read the work of Ross Greene – I highly recommend these videos:
          He makes a pretty strong case that kids with challenging behavior have a developmental lag in the cognitive skills they need to regulate their behavior. Just like a student with dyslexia needs support and specialized teaching to learn how to read, these kids need support and specialized teaching to learn how to behave.

  3. I teach middle school and we have an automatic 3 day suspension for students who fight physically, however that’s a pretty small percentage of our overall discipline issues. Most of our problems are classroom disruptions/ disrespect. Our behavior progression plan looks like this: 1st offense =verbal warning, 2nd offense = time out in another class (with work and reflection sheet) … usually followed by parent contact and 3rd offense = referral. I would say it works for 90% of our kids (though its that 10% though that makes you question your career choice). For the more severe cases, a student who has multiple referrals will get an individual behavior plan. They’ll have a sheet of paper they’re supposed to carry from class to class. The sheet identifies the desired behaviors and the teacher will mark an S, N or U to show how well the student showed those behaviors. At the end of the week, if they have x number of Ss, they get some previously agreed upon reward. To be honest, this plan only works on a select few in middle school. Most of them will either laugh at it or lose the folder in a day or two. They’re usually eventually sent off to the alternative school for 45-90 days. This process takes a while. We’ve had a few students come and go to no avail. Some have already started their criminal careers, but they’re still shuffled back into public schools until there’s enough data to send them back to alternative school. Kind of sad … For the student, for the teacher and the other students as well.

  4. I have a question about 504 plans. I follow my students’ 504 plans very well. In fact, my classroom routines and procedures have 504’s in mind as I am trying to build independence and responsibility within each and every student. So ALL students are getting what a 504 student would have.
    However, the problem with 504’s, in my experience, lies in the home place. Daily folders and planners are not checked or signed, classroom work is not looked at, bi-weekly progress reports and quarterly report cards are not looked at or signed and returned, and homework is not monitored.
    Here is my question – Is it possible to include in the language of the 504 what the parent is going to do to develop student responsibilities within the child? For instance “Parent will check child’s folder and planner daily” or “Parent will develop homework routines to assure that it is turned in on time”.
    Whenever a 504 meeting comes up, I ask myself “What is the parent going to do?”

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!