1-2-3 Magic: A Classroom Discipline Policy That Works For Me

Imagine a classroom discipline strategy that eliminates the whining, the stress, the shouting, the tantrums, the debating, the negotiating and the total sapping of your emotional energy.

I have been using 1-2-3 Magic: Managing Difficult Behavior in Children 2-12 for kids as a classroom discipline policy for a few years now and I find it works like a dream. (I use an adapted version of it at home for my own kids, and I love it.) I did not read his book, but thoroughly enjoyed watching his DVD – it is a bit dated, but kids are kids.

I have been following Special 2 Me’s “Dear Abby” blog post about a student she has been having discipline problems with and have engaged in some discussion about the success I have had with Thomas Phelan’s programme. I have promised her I would give her a rundown of how it works. Brad, on Reality 101, has also asked his readers for successful discipline measures with autistic children – I use this system with all the students I teach, including those on the autism spectrum.

The principle that I love behind this programme is that it is fast, effective, simple and works every time. Kids, at heart, know what is right and wrong. We don’t need to spend hours telling them what they have done and negotiating with them because essentially, as you are imparting your words of wisdom on them about correct behaviour and expectations, all they are hearing is, “Blah ..blah….blah …dee…blah.”  If you are shouting then you are the one throwing the tantrum.

When students behave badly, they are counted 1. Let’s call our naughty child George for today (with apologies to all the Georges out there.)
When George does the wrong thing, all you do is say to him, “George – that’s 1,” in a firm  I-mean-business voice. Should he overstep again, you repeat, “George – that’s 2.” If George hits 3, he is sent to a time out place in your room. According to Phelan, a child should be in time-out for the same amount as his age. If George is 9 he should be there for 9 minutes, however in my classroom environment I always give 5. I set the timer as the beeper is a great signal that his isolation has ended (and of course if I don’t set it, I will lose track of time and I don’t want to leave him there for the whole lesson.) George needs to know that if he hits 3, he loses the right to be part of our classroom, but is welcome back when he is able to be a responsible and fair member of it.

When the time-out is over, there is no explanation or negotiation, just, “George, your time out is over – you are welcome to join us again.”

When I go into classrooms or cover for other teachers, I use this strategy effectively because kids love testing the boundaries with somebody new. I guarantee you that one child will always land up in time-out. One. Everybody will get the message that you have these boundaries, they need to stay within them, should they step over them – time out. (Secretly, when I walk into a class, I can usually tell straight away which kid is going to test me and which kid is going to be the one to land up in time out and see if I mean what I say.)


  • George says, “I refuse to go to time out.” I respond, “No problem George. You can choose to do your time-out now or a do a double time-out at lunch/art/free play…” George will throw you a nasty look or sulk in his time-out chair, but I gave up falling for the victim mentality a long time ago.
  • Two children are at fault – count them both.
  • Two children having an argument /blaming each other – Don’t buy into he said, she said – count them both.
  • The child really does not know that what he is doing is wrong – “George, that behaviour is unacceptable. If you do it again, I am going to have to count you.”
  • If George does something really bad like hurt somebody, you will of course not count him on 1 and give him two more opportunities to hurt again. “George – that behaviour puts you straight on 3. Go to time-out.”
  • George just needs to be quiet in time-out. If he does the wrong thing while he is there, the timer goes back to 0.
  • When my first child goes to time-out, I often switch the activity to something fun and engaging. George needs to see how much he can miss out on if he is not part of the group. Husband says this is psychological warfare.

Strategies I have used to implement the systems into my classroom:

  • I explain to students that this is how I work. I always follow through.
  • I have now got so used to the 1-2-3 magic system, I have tied it into my reward system.
  • I have colour coded and laminated a traffic light style card with green, yellow and red circles. If children are counted, I write their names with a whiteboard marker on the relevant circle.
  • I never go back – if your name moves down to 2, it stays there. It will not go back to 1 if you correct your behaviour. It only goes back to the beginning the next day.
  • My kids now have their magnetised names up on the board. I don’t even count them. I just move their name down and make sure they have seen it. Some teachers use clothes pegs with children’s names on them.
  • Children get so used to the system that if I am working with one child and they are doing the wrong thing, I just need to hold up my finger as in “1” without interrupting my work…they get it. Don’t forget to use your “I mean business” face.

Guess what? I am not moaning, shouting, whining or losing the plot. I love it! The kids in my classrooms are not unhappy because of this. Effective learning is taking place becasue we are not exerting our energy on behaviour problems.

Phelan has a DVD for older childen as well, but I have not watched it as I work mainly with pre-teen children.

And as an ending – my children have threatened to send me to time-out before. Imagine that – 40 plus uninterrupted minutes in time-out for me? Bring it on. In fact, I’ll take a double.
The Teacher Wife

This entry was posted in Discipline Strategies, Kids, Parenting Tips, Teaching Ideas. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to 1-2-3 Magic: A Classroom Discipline Policy That Works For Me

  1. Lub says:

    Wish I got time out – from hubby!! What bliss that wold be 🙂

  2. Leila says:

    Thanks Teachermum. I am going to implement this today. I will report back on its effectiveness.

  3. JOAN AND GERALD says:


  4. Emma says:

    I really love the idea of this discipline method. Especially no moaning or shouting from either side. I am going to try it at home as well.

  5. Lynne Horoschak says:

    I love it all with the exception of using missing art as a punishment. As an art teacher, I will deal with my classroom behavior problems in my classroom and I encourage my co-workers to do the same – rather than use my art time.

    • TeacherMum says:

      Hi Lynne
      Thanks for your comment – I totally agree with you. I would never deal with my own student classroom behaviour in another teacher’s time. I meant an art/creative/fun type activity during my own lesson in my own class. I should have made it clearer in my post.

  6. Linx says:

    Wish u were teaching my kids! Your strategies are always creative and teach the kids life skills!! I’ve used the 1 2 3 magic with my own kids and lent out my copy (ad nauseum) to all my friends….

    • TeacherMum says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’m so glad to find someone else who believes in 123 Magic. Unfortunately, the last person to borrow my DVD never returned it!

  7. Pingback: Not This Year or Dragon Ball Z stance! « Special 2 Me

  8. pat wenger says:

    I looking for an acronym for the time out area in my classroom? Any suggestions?

    • TeacherMum says:

      I don’t have a specific area or spot called the “time- out” area or “naughty corner.” I use a space that is practical at the time for the child to be “excluded.” It might invovle him taking his chair to the side or going to an area near the door…all depends where the activity is being held. I prefer to not have a “marked” time out spot in the classroom or my home, as I don’ t like the idea of a “punishment” area.
      At home, my kids generally choose where they are having their time out. Usually they choose a chair in the kitchen. Sometimes they prefer to go their rooms…but they know there is no playing while in their rooms.
      Good luck

  9. Jens Andersson says:

    I’m a PE teacher (“Bachelor’s degree in physical education teaching” it says on my diploma…) living in Sweden. I’ve used the 1-2-3-Magic! discipline policy for many years, but – I’ve changed the counting into yellow and red cards, almost like a soccer referee and it works great in my subject!
    As a positive contrast to the “dull” cards, I’ve also added a “green card”, which you can earn if you do something really good, beyond obvious commitments like doing your best and being a good friend in class.

  10. Pauline says:

    Hi there!
    I came across your website after a search. I’m actually training parents and professionals how to use the 123 Magic! program here in South Africa. You wouldn’t believe the issues surrounding discipline here in this country. Even though corporal punishment in schools is illegal, it is still used in many areas. Unlike the USA (I’m originally from Chicago) where we are inundated with different ideas of “what is the RIGHT way” of disciplining, South Africa has two modes: physical punishment or the positive parenting/message movement, which is great and all but I would give my eye teeth to meet a teacher who has the time or energy to discipline a student by explaining to them why hitting is wrong, and why we don’t do it. They KNOW, they just have to test boundaries (as is their right as children) but it is our obligation to set clear limits to keep them safe and happy while in our care.
    Anyway, great posts! LOL

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