Discipline Is a Process, Not an Event
When I wrote about the importance of keeping kids in school rather than suspending or expelling them, I’m sure some readers thought, “So what are you supposed to do with kids who are disruptive, disrespectful, or even threatening? You can’t just put them right back into the classroom.”
And you are right. When a student has been seriously disruptive, a slap on the wrist and a return to the same class won’t work. Nothing has changed except that now the teacher (and maybe the other students) is even more frustrated and disheartened. And everyone is asking himself, “OK, who’s in charge?”
First of all, school discipline is a process, not an event. The discipline of a school lies in its culture, not in the hands of a single individual principal or vice principal, although those people can help set the tone for the school. “Most schools cope by separating challenging children from the classroom,” writes Katherine Bradley Washington, president of CityBridge Foundation. “Referrals to social workers, special education placements, and suspensions are the core tools used to get by.”
Another tool, Washington suggests, is lowering demands on kids, a move, she says, that seems compassionate, but is in the end harmful. Lowering demands, of course, is also a tool to avoid confrontation. Instead, Washington recommends bringing in services to train and mobilize adults in the school to deliver a “whole school culture of health, safety, and learning … a model that seeks to heal the school – not ‘refer out’ the problems.”
No academic progress can be made in a school without a strong culture of school discipline, and by “school discipline” I don’t mean punishment. I mean clear, high expectations that everyone – teachers, parents, and students – understands and a safe and orderly environment. Teachers should be trained in classroom management skills so that they feel confident in handling the garden variety discipline issues inside their own classrooms. They can learn how to keep a volatile situation from escalating and how to avoid hard confrontation. They can meet with parents whenever possible and with the student as well. They can plan together a behavior plan. They can assure the student that they care about what happens to him. They can build trust. And they can offer a curriculum that is challenging and interesting.
None of this happens overnight. But it’s part of our mission. And when a kid is suspended or expelled, he’s failed and we’ve failed.