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Humor and discipline

Allen Mendler and Brian Mendler

There are many situations of potential conflict that can be defused with humor. Humor in discipline can be used when it is a natural part of the adult’s personality and style, and/or there is a relationship that has been built with a child which allows for off-beat words or actions to be accepted in a nondefensive way.

Humor that pokes fun at a student can be used successfully only when the student knows you care about him. Otherwise, such words and actions can be misinterpreted and viewed as a put-down. This creates the possibility of embarrassment, and students may feel a need to defend themselves. Most adults who respond to students with sarcastic humor accept and even invite students to respond to them in kind. Sarcastic humor is only one type, but it is the most risky because of its dependence upon prior relationship and even a student’s disposition on the day that it is used.

After a 40-point performance the night before, Greg, a high school basketball star arrives late for the third time to his economics class. Mr. Stalls says, “Hey Greg, with all the stardom you’re getting on the court, I’m glad to see that your head still fits through the door.” Greg and all the other mere mortal students have been signaled, with the use of inoffensive humor, that despite his stardom, the rules apply to him as well. It is the last time he is late.

A tall, long-haired, scraggly-looking 16-year-old shows up for the third consecutive day without his homework. Instead of writing him up or giving a detention, Ms. Mills pairs him with the most clean-cut, well-dressed, smartest female student in the class. For 45 minutes, they work together on his incomplete homework. Not only does the class find this amusing, but the next day his homework is completely done.

Thirteen-year-old Sean is forever interrupting class discussions or criticizing Mr. Hart’s teaching. After becoming increasingly exasperated, Mr. Hart looks at the bright side. He tries to identify the pluses in having this student in his class. As hard as that is, he comes up with a few. The next time Sean acts in an intrusive way, Mr. Hart is ready. He says, “Sean, I know that God put you in my class to help make me a better teacher. Although sometimes I wish you would just sit back and say nothing, your tough questions push me and lots of your classmates to think harder about what we say.” Sean’s behavior in class almost immediately became more cooperative.

Humor based upon affirmation is much safer, but it must be predicated upon honesty and genuineness to be effective. This kind of humor, like Mr. Hart’s, requires the adult to identify how the student’s irritating behavior actually contributes positively to the class. For example, a student who mouths off is redefined as “a quick-witted young woman whose comments add a welcome touch of humor to the class discussion.” A student who refuses to work is viewed as donating her time to fellow students." Her teacher can now approach and genuinely say, “Martha, I’d prefer to see your work done. But when you don’t do it, I have one less thing to do, which gives me more time for teaching and for giving feedback to other students. It is time for me to start noticing that fact more often.” Another student who does not do homework is defined as “having more important things to do.” Without blame, his teacher tells him, “Mark, I hate getting in your way by giving you homework when you, no doubt, have more important things to do. So you can stay after school and do your homework here. That way, you won’t have to be bothered when you get home.” When such refraining is used, the educator acts without frustration. Elements of affirmation are blended with humor to create a changed and often improved relationship.

Humor is at its safest when adults poke fun at their own imperfections and errors. Such statements as “That’s one of the best mistakes I’ve made today” show students the value of a mistake and a lightened perspective that can help them learn to be less uptight. I remember an esteemed professor from graduate school who had a habit of chewing her pen while she was lecturing. Sure enough, the day came when she accidentally bit too hard, and in the middle of a lecture, blue ink started drooling from her mouth. Suddenly aware of what was happening, this usually serious, dry woman hollered, “Code blue!” The class, which had been restraining itself in an effort to be polite, broke into uproarious laughter.

The most nerve-rattling disciplinary moment for most educators is when a student or a group challenges adult authority in the presence of everyone else. These "button-pressing" moments can often be defused by using humor. Sometimes the humor shows strength with uncertainty. When a student attacks with such remarks as “You can’t make me” or “This class sucks,” others will usually watch intently to gauge the teacher’s response. It is the goal of “saving face,” that leads so many educators into using threats with the student or, more often, simply removing that student from class. An alternative is to defuse with humor. For example, the teacher might say, “Wow, you must be really mad to use that kind of language here. As I look around many of you have that ‘what are you going to do to Billy’ look on your faces. How many are wondering that? Well, in case you are, all I can say is that I’m wondering about that, too. Until Billy and I can figure out why he needs to use words that we all know are unacceptable and against the rules, there’s no way for me to know what’s best. Billy, you and I will deal with this later. Now it is time for us to get back to work.”

Humor often requires doing the unexpected. A middle school nurse/teacher once asked me about whether a certain practice of hers constituted a “punishment” or a “consequence” She related the following story:

An eighth-grade English teacher had a group of boys who engaged in daily choreographed farting. Conventional efforts had essentially failed, especially since this group got a lot of attention from others and were generally considered by peers to be trendsetters. The English teacher referred the four boys to the school nurse, who set up four chairs outside her office. She came out the door with rubber gloves on and asked the boys to come in one at a time. She told them that they had been sent to her because she and their teacher were both concerned about their “inability to control their sphincter muscles.” As each boy entered, she discussed the general principles behind “intestinal gas production and release.” She reported that their expressions were amazing. “They just kept staring at the gloves.” She continued, “Part of the discussion revolved around how I would examine a patient with rectal problems — a thought absolutely revolting to most eighth graders. They returned to class and refused to discuss what happened with their friends or each other. No further problems were noted.”

A first-year female teacher was challenged by a 14-year-old boy who said aloud, “What would you do if I said I was going to drop my pants right now?” The teacher paused momentarily and answered, “I’d say hurry up because we’ve got a lot of other things to do. I might even start singing the song, ‘Is That All There Is?’”

Effective discipline on a daily basis requires the attention of multi-talented educators to numerous factors. We must not underestimate the power of humor as an effective tool in our arsenal of relationship-developing skills. Gentile and McMillan wrote about humor: “For purposes of inner harmony and peace, no single human phenomenon is as healthy, spontaneous, honest, and soothing as laughter.” Unfortunately, opportunities for classroom humor may be overlooked by educators who see it as an inappropriate distraction from the standard curriculum. Studies and interviews with students consistently rate “sense of humor” as being a very highly regarded characteristic in teachers. And it is increasingly clear that student classroom performance is strongly influenced by relationships with teachers. In fact, humor works best when it is integrated into classroom instruction to make learning an enjoyable, involving experience. Next time you are developing your weekly lesson plan, be sure to include a component on how you plan to have fun in the classroom. Do at least one thing every day that is fun for you. The humor will begin to flow.


Gentile. L., & McMillan. M. (1978). Humor and the reading program. Journal of Reading. 21(4).

This feature: Mendler, A. & Mendler, B. (1995). Humor and discipline. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol.4 No.3 pp 16-17