Teaching is a craft that can be developed and perfected over time as the teacher reflects on what has worked and not worked well. Differentiating instruction in order to meet the academic needs of every student is certainly a challenge, but teachers consistently rate behavior as one of the most significant issues they face in schools (Causton & MacLeod, 2016). Every year, teachers have a few students who repeatedly disrupt class by getting out of their seats, being confrontational and refusing to do work. However, there can be a wide range of outcomes depending on how a particular teacher handles discipline and to what degree the school’s discipline system empowers teachers to manage behaviors in the classroom. This research brief will outline traditional disciplinary practices, most of which are not effective for challenging students, and trace their roots back to early behavioral psychology. In addition, a multi-level approach to designing a discipline system is proposed. Recommendations are based on research in neuropsychology and best practice research in schools.
Effectively addressing behavior at an early age is essential in terms of preventing a child from suffering years of low self-esteem and poor self-efficacy. A first grader whose disruptive behavior goes uncorrected can become the fifth grader with multiple suspensions, the eighth grader who self-medicates, the high school dropout, and the 17-year old who is involved with the criminal justice system. Since the stakes are so high, teachers and administrators must take the initiative to work together to develop an effective discipline approach that works for all students, not just for some.
The traditional manner in which schools deal with challenging kids is rooted in the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner who studied rats in a “Skinner box.” His research found that human behavior is determined by consequences and bad behavior must be punished. However, consequences have unintended consequences that must be considered. For children with challenging behavior, conventional disciplinary approaches, such as detention, in-school and out-of-school suspension, often exacerbate behavior. In exchange for temporary peace in the classroom, long-term solutions to the problem are sacrificed (Lewis, 2015). It is important that schools find a way to balance holding children accountable and showing compassion. Schools must make it clear that the student is responsible for his behavior AND make it clear that he is not a bad kid for having exhibited these bad behaviors (Abblett & D’Antuono, 2016)
Children with diagnosed behavior problems (ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, etc.) are the most likely to be disciplined, often because of their difficulty relating to others. I’m not sure how it makes sense to impose the harshest consequences on those with the most challenges since punishments like detention and suspension do not deter future misbehavior. Educators spend a lot of time discussing and trying to diagnose children, but in this process, assumptions are often made. Many times, we think we know why a child is misbehaving and we take action accordingly. This, however, is not the best way to respond since there are often many factors that influence children’s behavior, many of which are unknown to us.
When schools implement the traditional methods of dealing with challenging behavior by suspending kids, they are taking the easy way out. It is easier to dole out a punishment than it is to try to understand the problem that is leading to the behavior. When we simply punish, kids just return to school ready for another fight, not having learned anything through the process, and, in fact, feeling more misunderstood and further alienated from school (Worth, 2015). It is true that behavior can be shaped by consequences, but consequences aren’t the only factor affecting behavior nor the only option when it comes to how to respond to behavior (Caffee, 2016). We must also consider what lagging cognitive skills may exist, as well as environmental factors such as light, sound, peer dynamics and individual factors such as hunger, fatigue and a history of trauma.
SCHOOL-WIDE DISCIPLINE SYSTEMS
Educators often dedicate a significant amount of time to discuss curriculum and assessment, yet seldom do teachers and administrators spend time together defining a building-wide discipline system (Boyd, 2012). The referral forms, referral process and paper trail, data entry and analysis and accountability for following classroom management procedures are all crucial components of establishing a foundation for school-wide discipline. If these procedures and processes are not in place and followed by everyone, then the best case scenario is to merely have pockets of effective discipline among teachers.
The code of conduct is another component of school-wide discipline. It is important to have in place as a general guide for administrators, but its purpose is not to fully support the work of teachers in the classroom. The majority of behaviors must be handled in the classroom by the teacher in order for the system to run smoothly. One administrator monitoring and intervening with regard to the behavior of hundreds of students will never be an effective discipline system, yet this is how discipline plays out in so many schools (Boyd, 2012). The ultimate goal is to develop and implement a discipline system that allows challenging students to remain in school by teaching them the skills they need in order to meet the demands of school.
Read Full Research Brief