Every aspect of the school day is mandated by outcomes. Standardized testing, IEPs, core curriculum standards all are funneled to one goal: marked educational improvement. We talk about educational vision to see beyond the day-to-day scope of operations within the school environment and to foreshadow the ultimate goals for our prospective schools.

What about discipline? How can principals use discipline as another educational tool to prepare students to leave the educational nest and become well-rounded citizens? While we may often understate the role of societal and personal discipline, these skills are crucial. Without an understanding of cause and effect, action and reaction, and behavior and consequence, students—no matter how intelligent—will only get so far.

Secondary school principals should keep the following considerations in mind when establishing discipline policies: 

1. Maintain consistency of discipline across grades and classrooms.

Consistent discipline tactics avoid the “punishing versus disciplinary” pitfall. That is, we’re human and tend to provide consequences based on a “knee jerk” reaction. If we’re having a bad day, or we’re irritable or tired, we’ll apply the disciplinary stick with more malice. With a specific guide, we are less apt to do so.

Example: Inconsistent consequences among and within grade levels. Practical Application: Take an informal survey among classrooms over a seemingly innocuous issue such as “chewing gum in class.” Ask yourself: Are the consequences logically related to the context of the infraction? Is the discipline consistent across grade levels and within the grades evaluated? Is the discipline consistent with school policy/procedures? Is it “a small example” of consequences in the larger real world?

2. Think of providing a “small example” in the larger world.

Many times educators and parents say to a student, “Wait until you get into the real world; this wouldn’t fly.” We must give small, manageable parallels of understanding of what can be expected in the real world, especially with regard to discipline.

Example: Time wasted versus time owed. Say a student refuses to do homework. You can: Do nothing, give a detention, take away a valuable activity, etc. Look at it from an adult paradigm. As an adult, you may be having an “off day,” procrastinate on a big report due, spend time web surfing, or chat with co-workers despite that report hanging over your head. What happens next is a simple adult consequence—the hour spent procrastinating must equitably be made up somewhere else. 

Practical Application: A student refuses to do his/her classwork for a period of 20 minutes; they are sent to you in a huff of frustration by the teacher. 

  1. If 20 minutes are wasted, 20 minutes are owed. No more, no less. Emotional outbursts may create a situation where the teacher desires to inflate that time. But keep in mind that this is not a practical parallel for procrastinating in the real world.
  2. The 20 minutes should be taken at the time that’s most critical to the student’s social life. This may include before school, after school, or during an important activity.

Example: Community service. In a similar approach, if you make a mistake, make it right. In the “real world,” if you damage someone’s items, you must pay for them, or make it right. If you damage something, help repair it; if you deface something, clean it.

Practical Application: A student is found to be teasing younger peers in school.

The student who’s doing the teasing can find a means of “community service” enacted toward his/her peers (with close adult supervision) by 1) helping in a mentoring club, or 2) being a role model or assisting in a lower grade level.

3. Natural consequences create practical incentives.

We’ve all heard stories of the “adult child” who lives at home with his or her parents. Parents insulate the adult child from experiencing the discomfort of failure in life, and in doing so the adult child never fully understands the cause and effect of behaviors. To teach responsibility, students must be given some responsibility in their work, activities, etc. Giving multiple warnings without a consequence doesn’t teach responsibility. We don’t receive multiple chances in the world without immediate natural consequences. How do we apply logical consequences to behaviors within school?

First, be honest. If a student hits another student or is otherwise offensive, the natural consequence is that their peers will stay away or ostracize them. How many people do you know in the real world who are offensive, annoying, or just plain obnoxious? This behavior sometimes persists for years because no one addresses it. Honesty should not be shunned or punished, as it is a practical learning post in how to function in society. Feedback is important as long as it is honest and kind.

Say a student has repeatedly harassed others. Despite numerous warnings, this behavior continues. Ask yourself: Is it common sense that the student should know this behavior violates the rights, policies, or rules of the school? If so, what is the logical purpose of implementation of a warning? 

Or, say a student continuously “gets under your skin” with comments, and you raise your voice and emotion to emphasize the point. While it can be challenging to maintain control, deliver your discipline with as little emotional investment as possible and use the simplest manner possible. Be professional, firm, and patient. Students equate anger or strong emotional output with gaining control and attention. It should be avoided.

Example: Addressing honesty. A student tells you something that you are suspicious of (if true) regarding a statement made by their parent.

Practical Application: Immediately contact the parent with the student present and explain what they said. With all parties involved, this avoids a triangle and provides an immediate consequence for dishonest statements.

The “I Don’t Care” Paradox

A student comes to your office for a disciplinary consequence. This is the third time this week, and you try to levy a consequence. The next statement you hear from the student is a wry, “I don’t care.” You try to give a more significant consequence and receive a sarcastic, “So?”

Example: Don’t back down. A noted athletic student has been having prolonged disciplinary issues. You threaten to suspend the student from the next two games. 

Practical Application: He states, “I don’t care!” (Which you know translates to, “I do care, but why would I let you know?”) Continue with said consequence.

If we’re going to teach students in a school system and prepare them for the real world, we must think outside the box. We must figure out how we can help them succeed in a world that has concrete disciplinary rules. Create an environment where familial ties don’t matter, and where students are not allowed to pass off their responsibilities to others. Discipline is perhaps the greatest gift we as administrators and educators can provide our students to enable them to succeed in the real world.

Brett Novick is a certified educational administrator and is licensed as a family therapist. He is the author of Parents and Teachers Working Together: Addressing School’s Most Vital Stakeholders.

Making It Work

Principals should ask themselves the following questions when developing a discipline policy:

  • Does this consequence make logical sense in light of what was done?
  • Is the disciplinary action instructional or punitive?
  • Does the disciplinary action provide a small example of what can be expected in the real world?
  • Do the consequences involve as little emotional involvement as possible? 
  • Is a warning necessary because the student is confused about the infraction?