On School Discipline

There was an interesting tweet I read from The Seattle Times about an upcoming Education Lab event.   It read, “Suspending students does more harm than good. But what’s the alternative? Join the conversation on May 20” and linked to this registration page, where it states, “Study after study has confirmed what many parents, students and teachers already know: Traditional school discipline often doesn’t work. Students who are suspended have a higher risk of dropping out and their behavior typically doesn’t improve when they get back to class.

What would help discipline work better?

Join the Seattle Times Education Lab for a thoughtful discussion about the way our schools handle discipline. “


This is a very important topic to discuss as teachers, as parents, and as anyone who has interest in education.   What is the best way to discipline a student?

I never really understood suspension as a punishment, even when I was a student.  Those students who don’t want to be in school anyway are ‘punished’ by not being allowed to go to school.   It never made sense.

On the one hand I understand that when a student is misbehaving or disrupting the instruction in a classroom he/she needs to be removed from that classroom so that the rest of the students can continue to learn. And I guess a suspension that requires a student to stay at home is supposed to cause some inconvenience for the parents, who must find a way to care for the child while they are not in school. I suppose a parent having to take off work because their child was suspended from school is supposed to get the parent involved and working to discipline the child so that the behavior does not continue or repeat, but I have not often found that to be the case.

There needs to be a balance found in discipline between the needs of the individual student and the needs of the rest of the class.   And, to be honest, before we can begin talking about the best way to handle discipline we need to have a serious discussion about the purpose of discipline.   Is discipline intended to simply punish a student for wrong-doing or is it intended as correction, to help the student improve their behavior? It is the same argument for the prison system – is it intended to punish or to reform?  Is it a deterrent (avoid the punishment) or is it a social program (help people become better)?

Of course, discipline needs to be, at least partially, both.  Students who misbehave or break school rules need to be punished as a clear indicator that such behavior is not tolerated and cannot be repeated or duplicated by any other student.   But discipline should also work with the student to help correct inappropriate behaviors and ensure they can return to the classroom and continue their education.

I am more a proponent of In-School Suspension programs, then, because they do separate out the student who is causing a problem or disruption in the classroom, allowing the classmates to continue learning and the teacher to continue with the lesson plan, but it also provides something for the student to do.   Usually the student is given some schoolwork that they need to complete, not busy work to keep them occupied, but actual assignments from their classes that they need to work on.   In-School Suspension, in this case, works on the same principle as a Study Hall, giving the student an opportunity and the time needed to complete their school assignments.   This sends the message that while the student needed to be separated from the classroom for a time due to behavior issues, they are still expected to complete the required assignments and meet their educational objectives. School is still stressed as being important, unlike the situation when the student is sent home, where the message is “School is important, but it is more important for other students than it is for you.  You don’t need school right now, you just need to leave so others can do school properly. “

There also needs to be involvement from everyone affected — students, teachers, administrators, and parents.  All need to be on the same page with regard to the purposes and goals of discipline.  All need to work together so that individual students’ educational goals can be met as well as community educational goals and the educational objectives of the school as a whole.  This needs to be an ongoing discussion in our schools and in our homes. Everyone needs to understand the reasons behind different types of discipline and work together to ensure that everyone is able to learn and grow properly in school.

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