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Teaching in higher education emphasises mainly the cultivation of students’ mental and practical skills, as well as to some degree, the nurturing of students’ social skills. This CDTL Brief looks at some issues surrounding ‘Discipline and Counselling’, modes that educators often employ to influence student behaviour.

August 2002, Vol. 5 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Discipline and Student Counselling
Ms Daphne Rodrigues
Senior Student Counsellor
Office of Student Affairs

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 30–40 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 Dreikur’s 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 Dreikur’s 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 minute’s 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 behaviour—practices 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.

  • Contextual counselling

    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.

  • Crisis work

    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 in time.

  • 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.

  • General education

    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 .

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Care and Control: On the Relationship between Discipline and Counselling in Education
Discipline and Student Counselling