2010 February 17
by Evan Lenz

Chip recently asked, “How does the Sudbury model teach self-discipline?” This post is my attempt to address that question.

What is self-discipline? Merriam-Webster defines it as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement.” How does one learn to regulate oneself? I’m in my 30s, and I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that question. I run my own business from home, and I’d be lying if I told you it hasn’t been a challenge figuring out how to consistently correct and regulate my own behavior. The Internet is a carrier of so many distractions, and my job involves being on the computer for most of the day. It does take real discipline—and the development of new habits—to resist those distractions and make myself focus on what it is I want to be accomplishing.

One of the chief things I’ve learned is that I need help from other people. I need a support network. In fact, I recently discovered that daily accountability is what really works for me. I have a call with an accountability partner every morning to review yesterday’s wins and challenges and to communicate my goals for today. This has been immensely powerful for me. Just that little bit of support has made it much easier to discipline myself and relax into the schedule I’ve laid out for myself on any given day.

I thrive on structure, but I don’t have a boss telling me what to do and when to do it. Instead, I’ve had to create my own structures, by seeking out help from other people. That alone has been immensely empowering—knowing that I can evaluate my own weaknesses and accordingly seek out the help I need from others. I’ve learned to regulate myself using whatever means I can.

Faced with gobs of time by myself, I am forced to consider what is important to me. If I care about something enough, I will figure out what I need to do to make it happen. I’ve gone through periods of discontent and boredom, passing the time, trying to figure out what I want and what works for me. At various times I’ve been tempted to go back to a “normal” job, where someone is there to tell me what to do all the time. But then I realize the deception. In my line of work (and in most people’s these days), it’s never that simple. You still have to figure out how to manage your time, boss or no boss. And I remember all the freedoms I’d be giving up if I were to do that. So I re-focus and find the resources to make it work.

This is similar to the plight of a Sudbury school student—with the major difference being that Sudbury students already dwell in a richly supportive and stimulating community of people. (I’ve already confessed my envy over that.) But the gobs-of-time component is the same. Time is the clay of life, and it’s their responsibility to figure out what they want to sculpt. Structures and support are available, but the onus is on them to request help in creating them. Sudbury students learn that if they want something to happen, they’re the ones who are going to have to make it happen.

Sudbury students, by necessity, learn self-regulation, because no one else is there to regulate them—except insofar as they are held accountable to keeping community agreements, i.e. rules. The Judicial Committee (JC) is the school structure to ensure that all people (staff or students) are held accountable for keeping community agreements. (You can read more about JC here.)

In a traditional school, discipline is externally imposed. Students learn to do as they are told. They are taken to account for deviating from their prescribed activity. Figuring out what to do with their time is not something that students in a traditional school have to worry about (at least during school hours). These decisions are made for them anew every day. Of course, there are certain freedoms, and learning definitely takes place. Students learn how to cope with externally imposed schedules, and they learn to make choices about what attitudes they want to bring to school. But it’s a narrow form of freedom and it doesn’t require the kind of decision-making that Sudbury students are, in effect, forced to engage in.

When I think of the Sudbury school experience, I think of it as a crucible for learning. Without handholding, without smothering, students are forced to look within for the power they need to find their place in the world. That’s hard work. What results from that hard work? As an adult who has been engaging in that kind of hard work, I can say that it has deepened my understanding of what’s important to me, and it has increased my ability to regulate myself—to discipline myself—toward achieving goals that align with my highest values. Sudbury students are given the opportunity to learn this early on.

I noticed that right now on the Sudbury Valley School website that Dan Greenberg is going to be giving a talk in March, called “Sudbury Valley – the easiest school? Or the hardest?” I think I know what his answer is going to be.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010

    I quickly point out that I know little about the Sudbury approach so please forgive me for feeling like your answer is incomplete.

    “Sudbury students, by necessity, learn self-regulation, because no one else is there to regulate them…”

    That’s it?
    Taken out of context, that sounds like great potential for chaos.
    If there is no one there to regulate them, is there someone there to teach them how to regulate themselves? Does anyone there give them guidance? Kids don’t often have the same value system.

    I’ve always felt that teaching kids self-discipline and respect for others should begin at home and be supplemented by the school. The two efforts should be complimentary. In this case, if the effort at home is lacking, it sounds like there isn’t a back-up plan at school.


    • Evan Lenz permalink*
      February 20, 2010

      To do full justice to each of your comments and questions, I’m posting my response as another full post. You’ll see it published here on Monday morning.

      And please continue to keep the conversation going. I’m really inspired by discourse and I value all the questions and opinions. If we all agreed on everything, there would be nothing to talk about. :-)


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