There are many misconceptions about the relationship between
discipline and counselling. By far the most common is the
view that counselling or talk therapy, with its
emphasis on empathetic understanding, is the humane alternative
to discipline. Here would fall in that category of educators
who punish students caught cheating with counselling
or who buy into the plea that emotional wounds and distress
somewhat exonerates misdemeanours like shoplifting, violent
outbursts and injury to others. Just as misguided is the notion
that counselling is too soft: that what is needed is swift
and decisive punishment for neglect and wrongdoing; that to
spare the rod is to spoil the child.
These views tend to see discipline and counselling as being
dichotomous. In practice, however, discipline and counselling
intertwine in helping students meet their goals and in equipping
them with the skills and attitudes to succeed in their lives.
One way to break through this dichotomy is to examine the
goals of discipline. While discipline is often equated with
punishment and control, effective and positive discipline
goes beyond the merely punitive to include rehabilitative
and restorative goals. The first deals with how the university
can encourage future compliance while the latter deals with
how the transgressor can repair the harm and make amends.
After all the goal of discipline in an educational setting
like NUS is to help students to fit into the real world happily
and effectively; to be able to delay self-gratification in
pursuit of their goals; and to develop an internal sense of
control and responsibility.
In fact discussions about discipline in the last 3040
years have moved from issues of control to those of human
motivation. During this time, counselling has often been seen
as a way to help transgressors understand themselves and resolve
their conflicts. The basic approach involves helping transgressors
discover what their real goals are, reflect on the extent
to which their present behaviours are hindering them from
achieving these goals and to plan more effective future behaviours.
Proponents of these approaches include Glasser (reality therapy)
and Gordon (open communication and mutual solving). An obviously
corrective orientation to counselling is Dreikurs social
discipline model. According to Dreikur, misbehaviour is due
to four mistaken goals: to gain attention, exert power over
others, seek revenge for real or imagined events or out of
feelings of helplessness or impotency. Hence one important
function of counselling is to determine which goal is in operation
and to respond accordingly.
An important corollary of Dreikurs approach is that
the person must then be made to face the undesirable consequences
of his behaviour. For example, if a student is caught shoplifting,
he/she needs to face the legal ramifications. This might include
being put in a temporary holding cell and paying a $5,000
bail. Some would argue that such a student needs counselling
and in all likelihood they are right. But this does not detract
from the need for consequences resulting from a moral or legal
lapse. The stand taken is that while a misdemeanour may be
prompted (in a very few cases) by emotional need, therapeutic
goals should be pursued only after some form of discipline
has been meted out and accepted. Like all of us, students
need to learn to deal with their wounds in a more effective
way. Moreover, there would be no motivation for doing so if
they need not face up to unpleasant consequences. Worse, we
may actually be encouraging unacceptable behaviour by responding
with special attention.
As can be seen, counselling is neither soft nor fuzzy. While
it listens and provides a safe place for students to talk
through and process their thoughts, feelings and needs, it
also challenges and confronts. In addition, talk (counselling)
and action (discipline) go hand in hand.
It is important to note that the consequences Dreikur describes
refer to natural and logical results of misguided behaviour.
For example it is logical that non-submission of assignments
or projects would lead to a failure in the module and hence
necessitates a repeating of that module or its alternative.
However for consequences to have their required restorative
and rehabilitative effect, it is also important that sanctions
be clearly spelled out and consistently enforced. In the interest
of promoting future rectitude, there should also be a direct
link between misdeed, consequence and enforcement. Hence,
in the case of academic issues, it is only logical that the
consequences be drawn up and directly instituted by the faculty
and not by an unrelated body like university administrative
staff or counsellors.
Yet it takes only a minutes reflection to realise
that clear logical consequences cannot always be arrived at
for all behaviours, or for all students, as the natural consequences
may be too dangerous. For example although there are few sanctions
that we can take against students who choose to self-mutilate,
it would obviously be irresponsible to ignore such actions
in the hope that the attending pain would cause the student
from hurting themselves. In fact, it often does not as the
physical pain suffered is often a welcome substitute for great
emotional pain. In the face of such deep emotional and psychological
issues, the best response would be to refer such students
for counselling with a professional counsellor. In fact when
dealing with chronic rule-breakers, it is often useful to
consider that these students may have deeper personal issues
and social difficulties that require more professional counselling
on top of appropriate sanctions.
In conclusion, for discipline to be effective, there must
be a meaningful connection between misdemeanours and sanctions.
Towards this end, it is often necessary for faculty and student-transgressors
to sit together to discuss issues like personal goals and
obstacles as well as the consequences and effects of behaviourpractices
which fall within the purview of counselling. However this
is not to ignore the fact that some forms of misbehaviour
may point to more dire root-causes. In such cases, proper
handling may include referral to professional assistance as
well as appropriate sanctions.
Dreikurs, Rudolf; et al. (1992). Discipline Without Tears.
Dreikurs, Rudolf; et al. (1998). Maintaining Sanity in
the Classroom: Classroom Management Techniques.
Glasser, William. (2000). Reality Therapy in Action.
Glasser, William. (1999). Choice Theory: A New Psychology
of Personal Freedom.
Gordon, Thomas. (1989). Discipline That Works.
Daphne Rodrigues is a Senior Student
Counsellor at the Office of Student Affairs with 12 years
of teaching experience at the Ministry of Education. Her experiences
at NUS and MOE have taught her the importance of meeting students
twin needs for structure and empathy.
Services provided by PGCS
The Personal Guidance and Counselling Service (PGCS)
is a special unit under the Office of Student Affairs
which looks into the emotional and psychological needs
of the students. Services include:
Guidance and brief counselling
The service seeks to empower students and help
facilitate the problem solving and decision making
process by providing a safe place for students to
talk through and clarify issues concerning career,
study, relationships and personal growth.
As students and their problems are often best seen
in the academic and social context of NUS, PGCS
also liase with faculty members to help students
in need. Counsellors also liase with Halls, residences
and various officers at the Office of Students
Affairs to promote a continuum of care. Faculty
members may also choose to refer students in distress
to the service. It is important to note here that
PGCS is not the place to refer students for misdemeanours
such as cheating, shoplifting and other offences
in lieu of discipline and legal consequences. However,
counselling would be useful in helping students
to understand their motivations and accept the consequences
of their misdemeanours.
In situations which require immediate attention,
given the degree of emotional distress and likelihood
of serious danger and harm to the student and/or
others, counsellors at PGCS provide assistance to
help alleviate and manage the distress at that point
Referrals and case management
In some cases, more serious psychological and psychiatric
problems may underlie emotional distress. In such
cases, referrals to medical professionals like psychiatrists
would be made. Counsellors at PGCS then serve as
case managers and help to coordinate support and
resources available in the University.
A wide variety of self-help information (both
on the Web and as handouts) as well as self-development
and career guidance workshops for students are also
provided. In addition, training sessions for staff
on basic listening and counselling techniques, and
identification of at-risk behaviour are conducted
at various times and upon request.
How to reach PGCS?
PGCS is located at Yusof Ishak House Level 4 (on the
floor above the study room) and can be reached at 6874-2376.
Or you can email us at