The Great Discipline Conundrum

Retiring after 38 years in education, my coworker and friend recently described his school days attending Catholic Grade School in Southwest Louisville, an area then–and still–a working class and comparatively impoverished part of town.  If his bangs reached too far, they’d get clipped off on the spot.  If his tie wasn’t tight, shirt buttoned to the top–even in sweltering 3rd floor classrooms–then immediate detention.  That day.  No negotiating the penalty of rewriting the school handbook, no matter how long it took.  Paddling was common.

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For many “old-school” teachers who attended school in an age of greater conformity and fear-based discipline, the culture of our schools is in dire straits because there is no discipline.  No respect.  No consequences for students who don’t toe the line.

I can only imagine what he feels seeing students cuss out teachers then returning to class the next day considering, back in the day, similar insubordination at his school would result in expulsion.

While teaching at various Kentucky public schools for nine years, I’ve rarely seen disciplinary action that deters or prevents repeat behavior.  And if schools aren’t going to punish students in order to alter or deter behaviors, then what the heck are we doing wasting time on in school suspension, detention, and other completely ineffective actions?

The status quo is to remove disruptive students from class or school.  Many principals and other building leaders understand they must honor teachers whose classrooms can’t function in an orderly or safe manner if Johnny or Susie Troublemaker is in the room.  The problem is, Johnny and Susie return after a day or two, repeat their behaviors, maybe end up getting sent to an alternative school for a few months.  Then they’ll likely return to school, where behavior remains unchanged, or transfer to another school where the cycle of disruption begins again.

School leaders are under pressure to lower suspension numbers, too few schools employ restorative discipline, and far too few students receive proper guidance from their parent(s) or guardians about how to behave, act, and communicate appropriately.  To further complicate the issue, there is a debate about whether or not the “discipline gap” in schools is  the result of unequal punishments to different groups of students.

In Jefferson County Schools, where I teach, overall suspension numbers are down, but African American students have accounted  for 66% of total high school suspensions this year, despite comprising roughly 36% of the student body; these statistics align with a national trend.  According to this Huffington Post article, a study by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA states that 24% of black students and only 7.1% of white students were suspended from school during 2009-2010.

Based on personal observation, I dispute racism as the main cause for this gap–you only need to look at the two-parent household gap to start identifying one factor main for such a stark contrast in disciplinary infractions.

So what is my approach to discipline?  Working at a variety of schools, I’ve found that if I focus most of my energy on building relationships with students, crafting engaging lessons, and  practicing class procedures, then I’ve usually avoided major class disruptions.  I take great pride in trying to connect with students across races and socioeconomic groups.

I don’t buy the argument that it’s the students job to sit there, be quiet, and learn.  Sure, there is always a student who is going to pop off no matter what I do.  I’ve had students who are bipolar, been rape victims, and are hungry when they enter the classroom, among other conditions I can’t control.   All I know if if I sit back and pass out work packets and expect students to comply, I’m putting myself in a tenuous position.

I’ve realized that I’ve got to take a preventative approach to discipline through sound instruction, knowing that if I allow certain behaviors to escalate or reach the administration, it’s unlikely that behavior will be changed based on the consequence.  It’s clear that discipline strategies such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions aren’t working, and it’s time for a paradigm shift.  We can’t control who comes through our classroom doors, or how many guardians each student has, but we can shift how we deal with transgressions.

What are your thoughts?  If you teach, do you find school-level discipline to be effective?  What are some of your memories of effective or ineffective discipline you experiences or witnessed as a student?  Should parents be held more accountable for disruptive students?


  1. Chris,
    Thanks for the thorough and insightful comments. I especially appreciate this: “A key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain.”
    There is way too much emphasis on academic data, versus the myriad needs a child has….

  2. I think of education as a three legged stool. Those legs are academics, counseling and parental involvement. Each leg is as important as the other. If not, the stool wobbles and bends towards the leg of least resistance. The great teachers are the ones that somehow made sure all three legs were in sync to the extent possible for each student. They understand that what the true goal is of education is to help students develop those skills and understandings necessary to allow them to become problem solving young adults who can take the challenges of life and effectively deal with them.

    In order for the education process to work and the three legged stool to have a chance, there must be a safe and ethical environment for the student. Safe means that the student can come to school without the fears of weapons, drugs, bullying, sexual abuse, hunger, etc. It is a zero tolerance environment with respect to any matter involving safety. Ethical environment means that students should feel free to express their true feelings and concerns to a trusted teacher/adviser without fear of or their private matters going public or consequences arising from seeking advice.

    An ethical environment also means that parents, teachers, administrators and counselors support each other in trying to help the students. We all make mistakes and we all see mistakes but working together in the student’s best interest, we do the best we can.

    Key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain. It is also important to realize that they are subject to news and social interaction 24 X 7. Think back to what you dealt with growing up and how you would deal with the issues these kids face today.

    Nothing in this is new albeit we have become a more drug dependent and violent society so special attention has to be paid to safety. No matter how old we are, we can think back to kids that seemed to thrive and the school environment, kids that somehow got through it and those that one day stopped going to school. If the student is not thriving, the thought should be which leg of the stool needs to be fixed or is there a safety or ethical environment problem?

    For many years, I was on the board on a school designed for kids who could not succeed in a traditional school. There were a myriad of problems that teachers and staff dealt with everyday. Discipline was not applied in dealing with those problems unless safety was involved. Rather, self discipline was viewed as a learned behavior that each of our students ultimately understood as they became problem solving young adults.

    We also knew as parents, counselors, administrators and teachers, that we were all in this together. With some kids, it felt like we were the survivors of a plane crash. We can try to fix our situation by ourselves or admit that we need help.

  3. You make a good point. There is no formula. It takes a patient and imaginative adult who really has the child’s best interest at heart and an intuitive sense of what is appropriate in a given case. But the one rule I would stress is” don’t make any empty threats. Be honest.

  4. But what about the kid who only comes to school to do sport…that is the only positive thing going in their lives? It is a tough call. For some this would work, for others it would make things worse.

  5. I would think that holding them out of sports would be very effective. As you say, deprive them of something they love. It’s foolish to assume blindly that the kids aren’t going to get away with anything they can — just like kids with their parents. That’s been the way it is forever. The best child psychologist I ever knew ran the summer camp I worked for in Maine for five summers. He once said: if you tell the kids to stop or you will kill them, you had better kill them. His point was not to kill them, but not to make empty threats, and mean it when you say it. The kids know when they are being treated honestly and will accept deserved punishment, albeit it grudgingly.

  6. “Fear” is a nebulous word. I don’t mean scare the dickens out of them, but a touch of fear blended with respect, with stress on the latter, will help convince the kids that you mean what you say. Hollow threats are just that: hollow — and the kids know they can get away with murder after that.

  7. Nathan,
    You’re right about relevant consequences–“Watch how quickly a student behaves once you have ahold of their cellphone, or their purse. See how quickly even the worst of our students shut up when we threaten to ban them from prom.”
    What I’ve seen is students refuse to give up cell phones for violating policy–instead of handing over their phones to the administration, they gladly take a three-day suspension as to avoid a real consequence (not having a phone for an extended period of time).
    Teachers also have vastly different notions regarding how far their influence and responsibility extends with student misbehavior, which is another challenge for creating consistent discipline in schools.

  8. Astute observations. I more or less follow the protocol or laying out certain rules/procedures and explaining why, but I do allow student input by asking: What behaviors/norms are displayed in classrooms where you learn best? I give students a chance to take ownership of a few key norms, and it works pretty well.
    Completely agree about teachers not being friends. I tell students that I can be friendly, but I’m not your friend. The more mature students understand what I’m saying.

  9. Hugh,
    The idea about empty threats is key. I hear students all the time talk about instances in which educators “don’t do anything” after stating they will.
    As far as fear goes, it’s a tough line to toe–how well will students learn if they fear you? On the other hand, nobody will learn if a classroom is out of control.

  10. I’ve been a teacher for three years now and taught in two schools. They were diametrically opposed in terms of their discipline systems. The first school I taught at was an alternative school in the south end that had a predominantly african-american population with a 98% free and reduced lunch rating. The second school is a rural middle school with primarily lower-income white kids. The first school I was in was very discipline oriented with lengthy rules and regulations as to how to treat a student and how the student was to receive discipline. The second school is much different.

    Instead of giving kids suspensions, ISAP (3D, ISS whatever the crazy kids are calling it these days), or detention. Our school has instilled very real consequences for bad behavior. A few month ago two students had a fist fight in the bathroom. At the alternative school we would have given them a few hours of ISAP. At this school they were led out in handcuffs.

    They came back a few weeks later on probation and were model students. Still dumb as posts but there’s only so much you can do to correct 8 years of a flawed system that passes on unready kids with a minimal effort to intervene on their behalf.

    I am not advocating overpopulating our already strained prison systems. My point is that rational self interest is very much alive and well inside the heads of our hormone addled charges. To a kid with a “dog eat dog” mindset, ISAP has no effect, suspension (for many of our “problem” kids) is a reward, and a badge of honor. That said, when punishment has a real effect on the life a student, when we threaten the things they value most, they wise up real quick. Watch how quickly a student behaves once you have ahold of their cellphone, or their purse. See how quickly even the worst of our students shut up when we threaten to ban them from prom.

    Schools are a socialization agent in a child’s life and need to act as such. We need to establish supreme authority within our halls and enforce that authority with relevant justice. When a student breaks the rules, they should suffer in some way. That may seem harsh but in a few short years it will be the reality anyway. Better to give them a place to suffer and recover than let them fail after their 18th birthday. There will be bosses they hate, but that doesn’t mean they can pipe off to them. There will be times where they want to break a law, but that doesn’t mean they won’t go to jail if they do. We need to instill a direct link in the minds of our children between unacceptable behavior and unacceptable consequences.

    99% of all discipline must be handled in the classroom by the teacher and 99% of that requires relationship building. Preventive discipline is all well and good. It should be a staple in every teacher’s toolkit. I don’t think anybody could disagree with that. That said, there comes a point where we are no longer responsible for the behavior of a free-willed individual. If we are to have any hope of modifying behavior, we must start (and I only mean start) with reminding them that society will not tolerate their actions.

  11. I am a parent of two children and I have seen personally various styles of teaching over the past seven years. The worst thing,in my opinion, is when on the first day of school, the teacher asked the class to help come up with classroom rules. I don’t ask my children what rules they want to follow at home.
    My oldest son switched classes starting in 4th grade, one teacher had the rules all printed out for the kids, another went over classroom rules and why they were in place and the third had the kids come up with class rules. Same group of kids, the printed rules went sideways fast, the teacher who had the kids input on the rules was eaten alive by the kids-there was no control or respect in the room. The teacher who laid out her expectations, the rules and most importantly why they were in place had little to no problems.
    Teachers aren’t meant to be the student’s friends. For 6 1/2 hours, they are in control of 30 kids. They are the boss and need to set the tone from day one. If a teacher has a clear cut plan in place, I think students respect the teacher more. As a parent, I like knowing what the rules are and what actions will be taken if a classroom rule is broken. Race is non existent if the rules are in place that first day. If you misbehave -parents are called or made to come in. Parents don’t like missing work-you affect their pocketbook. Called in too many times, Suzy is going to shape-up or feel her parents wrath.

  12. I have never had to deal with the sorts of discipline problems you have and I admire your attempts to make it work — and your patience. My instincts are to add a touch of fear to the mix. Fairness and consistency are essential, but as Machiavelli taught us we cannot make anyone love us, but we can make them fear us. If this sounds antiquated, perhaps it is, but the fear card may be the only one that works in the end. I don’t mean scare the kids to death, but make them realize that when you want quiet you mean it. No empty threats: they must be followed up on. Kids know when we are pulling their chains.

  13. Rumpy, I see your point. But to what extent should we be morally or culturally relativistic when it comes to behaviors students should exhibit in a school setting?
    Also, it’s tough as a teacher to consciously ignore certain student behavior once it has come to the fore…it’s often too easy to point fingers at the same students over and over again. I’ve been guilty of that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily racially derogatory. It’s just trying to survive in the classroom, maintain order, and perhaps impose norms on students who might not share the same ideals. Is that a bad thing?

  14. Melissa,
    Thanks for stopping by the ‘Stew. I’m in complete agreement with you–even the toughest kids react well to consistency and fairness, but it becomes tougher to adhere to those goals with classrooms full of many students who want to test the boundaries, day in and day out!

  15. I like how you try to engage children in ways other than the old “my way or the highway” approach. As for persons of color who act out, I can say that in the course of my work I have interacted with many parents who did not trust the white establishment of the school. And while the white establishment of said school did not see themselves as acting in a racially derogatory manner, And yet I saw plenty of it. Most of it was intentional, but these teachers and administrators chose to judge the children by their own cultural norms, and not by the norms of that child’s culture.

  16. I believe that the teacher has to set the tone of their own classroom. I also believe that relationship building will benefit all. Some non-educational people believe teaching is easy and “just assign the reading and answer the questions”. The days that the students are engaged 100% of the time and therefore behaving 100% of the time are the days the lessons have been carefully planned and executed. Being from both sides (administrative and classroom) I realize the teacher has to be the final word in the classroom not the administrator. I always advise new teachers – do not make rules you cannot enforce in a fair way consistently. Consistency and fairness seem to be the secrets.

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