Contribution in the Classroom

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by Jane Nelsen and Kelly Gfroerer

Students feel belonging (connection) and significance (capable) when they have opportunities to contribute.

  1. Think of all the things you do that could be done by your students (bulletin boards, door greeters, even teaching some lessons). Assign these tasks to your students.
  2. Verbally appreciate how much they contribute to the positive classroom atmosphere.
  3. Involve students whenever possible. “Students, we are having a problem with disruptions right now. I need your help solving this challenge.”
  4. See “Jobs” and “Class Meeting” cards for other ideas on providing opportunities for contribution.

In contrast to behaviorism, which advocates for external rewards and punishment in the classroom to motivate change, Positive Discipline tools teach the best way to change behavior is from the inside out. And, one of the most important tools to develop intrinsically motivated students is Contribution.

Excerpt from Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers 

Many teachers today share how difficult their job is because parents send their children to school with a sense of entitlement. This complaint may be true, but teachers can’t change parents. They can, however, make sure their students learn the art of contributing, a skill that will serve them throughout their lives. Adler believed that the primary need of all people is a sense of belonging and that Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a measure of mental health.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl essentially means “social consciousness and a desire and willingness to contribute.” Thus, belonging and contribution are equally important. Many parents have done a good job of helping their children feel a sense of belonging. However, the scales are out of balance when children are not also taught the importance of contribution. When contribution is missing, children develop a sense of entitlement.

Research shows that children seem to be born with a desire to contribute. Warneken and Tomasella found that children have a natural instinct to help others starting at a very early age. In one study, eighteen-month-olds and their mothers were brought into a room where they watched the experimenter drop clothespins. The toddler would watch for a few seconds before picking up the clothespin and handing it to the experimenter.  In another scenario the experimenter tries to put books in a cabinet with the doors closed. The toddler watches him bump into the cabinet several times before he walks over to the cabinet and opens it for the experimenter. If you want your heart to melt, watch the video below for yourself.


Too often, even when children want to contribute, they are discouraged from doing so. A two-year-old may plead or demand, “Me do it, me do it.” Instead of taking time to honor this desire to help, adults some- times discourage the child’s efforts by taking over. Perhaps the adult is in a hurry or doesn’t think the child can do it “well enough.” Parents don’t realize that with such discouragements they are denying their children an important opportunity to fulfill their innate desire to contribute. It is important that this pattern not be repeated in the classroom. As children grow older and become accustomed to having things done for them, they are at risk of losing their natural desire to contribute. They get used to having things done for them. Some seem to see it as a burden, or even an insult, if they are asked to do anything for anyone else, often at the same time they are making constant demands on others. In school they seem to want and expect the same special treatment.  

The more one wants to contribute (in his or her family, classroom, and community, and to the planet), the greater his or her overall mental health. Contributing promotes a sense of belonging and capability. We shouldn’t rob children of these gifts by doing too much for them. Classroom meetings provide the most comprehensive way to teach contribution, though there are many other ways. Anytime you involve students in problem-solving and focusing on solutions, they learn a little more about how to contribute in a meaningful way.

Tool in Action 

In a high school class of fifteen-year-old students I was doing Positive Discipline sessions. I was going to talk about the brain in the palm of the hand and Positive Time-Out; however, the students’ chatting was very annoying, and we could not concentrate or hear each other. At one point I decided to ask for the students’ help and said, “I need your help. Tell me what we need to do to have a productive atmosphere and be respectful of what others say.” They looked at me, surprised, and replied, “Three hours of detention.”

They are in a very strict school where teachers give detention very often. I told them I was not willing to give them detention. Instead, I needed us to brainstorm and find another way. They started thinking and making suggestions. The person responsible for deciding who would talk would pass the talking stick. I asked them more questions to help them think. At one point a big, heavy silence filled the room. I had, I think, asked too many questions and not given them enough space. I asked, “What is happening now?” and a girl said, “It’s oppression.” I laughed and asked, “Would there be something in between oppression and incessant chatter?” Someone said, “What if we raise our hands when we need to talk?” Another said, “But that is what all teachers tell us to do.” The girl who had used the word “oppression” said, “Guys, when we decide we want to raise our hand, we are free. When the teachers tell us to do so, then it is oppression. What do we want to choose?” Now we had this deep, sustained silence once again. Then they all decided they could raise their hands and still be free! It took only ten minutes for them to reach this conclusion because they were invited to contribute their ideas, and in the time left the students were respectful and the class atmosphere was incredibly positive. And they learned a lot. They taught themselves what freedom was about!

—Nadine Gaudin, Paris, France 

    Certified Positive Discipline Trainer 

Online Learning

Positive Discipline offers online learning options for parents, teachers, and parent educators. Learn in the comfort of your own home and at your own pace. You have unlimited access to our online streaming programs, so you can watch and re-watch the videos as often as you like.