I will admit that, as a new and young administrator, I felt uneasy about school discipline. I grew up watching movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to the Future, which portrayed authoritarian principals who spent their days spitefully chasing down and punishing students who misbehaved. As someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, I wondered if I could pull off this part of the job.

I wish I could say the ’80s movie narrative is far removed from reality, but Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families reports that suspensions and corporal punishment still account for two-thirds of all disciplinary actions in the state. External, exclusionary, and punitive measures to correct behavior are how many of us were raised at home and in school—not to mention how our criminal justice system is structured—making it a difficult tradition and mindset to break. My journey in questioning this approach and discovering more compassionate, restorative practices not only impacted my philosophy as a school leader, but it also unexpectedly shed light on how we can help heal the effects of stress and trauma and transform the culture of our schools.

The Problem With Punitive Discipline

When I was a youth and forged a note excusing a tardy, it took one terrifying trip to the principal’s office and a day of detention for me to vow a life on the straight and narrow. For many kids like me, the punitive system results in correction and compliance. But for many other kids, those who regularly engage in unproductive behaviors—who lack the support or skills to improve on their own, and who are becoming increasingly disconnected from school—the punitive system is doing more harm than good. It was in my first few years as an assistant principal that I witnessed this firsthand.

While serving at a junior high in a district that serves predominantly students of color from low-income families, I was responsible for the discipline of the alternative learning environment (ALE) housed in our building. Students qualified for the ALE program if they displayed multiple high-risk factors—chronic absenteeism, behavior issues, failing grades. By eighth grade, most of our ALE students had been expelled from school and were “frequent flyers” in the juvenile court system. As the office referrals for fighting, drugs, gang activity, and profanity came flooding in, I followed the traditional policies and practices in place. 

While assigning detentions, suspensions, and expulsions allowed for a predictable system, it also contributed to problems. Many students continued to repeat the same behaviors and receive a harsher or lengthier punishment, resulting in increasingly apathetic and defiant attitudes at school. It hurt any gains the teachers and I had made in developing connections and trust, and the students fell further behind academically. If removed from school and left unsupervised during the day, it increased their chances of engaging in harmful behaviors and coming in contact with law enforcement. I felt myself in a moral dilemma each time I excluded and punished a student who was already on the margins of the school system and society.

As I began to research discipline, I learned my intuition was supported by experts. At best, the result of a top-down, punitive system for managing behavior is compliance. At worst, “the power-over model … ruptures relationships, inhibits self-​regulation, relies on fear, and generates anger, defiance, and revenge rather than learning and cooperation,” notes developmental psychology and childhood education expert Becky A. Bailey. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies published a report in 2020 on federal discipline data, which revealed the loss of 11 million instructional days due to out-of-school suspensions in a single academic year, disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic students. In examining the results of suspensions/expulsions at a fundamental level, John Hattie’s meta-analysis of research in Visible Learning shows that these actions have a negative impact on student learning and achievement. In looking at the bigger picture, the National Education Association says, “A suspension can be life altering. It is the number-one predictor—more than poverty—of whether children will drop out of school, and walk down a road that includes greater likelihood of unemployment, reliance on social-welfare programs, and imprisonment.” 

The reality is that students walk through our school doors each day impacted by stress, trauma, and unmet needs. Often the symptoms show up in the form of behavioral problems. If we see every misbehavior as defiance and address it with punishment, we will fail to see the cries for help and opportunities to teach missing skills. By treating behaviors as indicators of larger needs, and by actively addressing those needs, we can improve student well-being and behavior long-term.

Paradigm Shift

Do as I say, not as I do.

Quit crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!

Because I said so!

Sound familiar? These notions molded how many generations perceived and responded to children, and why authoritarian discipline styles can still be hardwired in how we think and respond to misbehaviors at school. In Conscious Discipline: Building Resilient Classrooms, Becky A. Bailey uses brain-based research and trauma-informed principles to suggest a new approach. She emphasizes, “All behavior is a form of communication … and we are better served by welcoming the important communication behind the misbehavior so we can transform it from a socially unacceptable form of communication to one that is acceptable, safe, and healthy.” Just like learning to write an essay, solve linear equations, or dribble a basketball, emotional regulation and social skills are learned and not instinctual. Adults must rethink discipline: It is not something we do to children, it’s something we instill within them.

In order to change student behavior, we must first change adult behavior. The responses, or lack of responses, to conflicts in the building can set the tone. Even the most well-meaning staff members will lose their composure with students or colleagues at times. As inappropriate as it may be, research says that these teachers had a biological response to a perceived threat that moved them to lower centers of their brain, areas that lack reason and logic. We must learn strategies to maintain composure, practice empathy, de-escalate conflicts, and model the constructive behaviors we desire. We must be willing to reflect on our own behaviors before addressing student discipline—a paradigm shift from the “do as I say, not as I do” era. As Jimmy Casas puts it in Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever it Takes., 

“Across the nation, teachers and administrators continually look for solutions for reducing student behavior referrals. Behavioral tools and programs across the country are infiltrating our buildings as school leaders search for the silver bullet to this issue. No matter what program your school implements, the first step toward making significant improvements in student behavior is to recognize that the adults in your organization are the silver bullet. In other words, if you want to improve student behavior in your school, you must change the way the adults in your school interact with students and with each other.” 

Schoolwide Systems of Support

School leaders have a responsibility to maintain safety, order, and accountability, but we also have the critical task of ensuring we teach every child—the whole child—and that requires reforming the way we look at discipline. To move toward positive discipline that reinforces productive behaviors and teaches expectations in a kind-but-firm manner, there remains a need for structure and a systematic plan for managing behaviors. There are a number of different techniques and evidence-based frameworks for this, such as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). A tiered response to intervention (RTI) system allows for proactive, preventative measures to take place across the school and meaningful, targeted interventions for groups and individuals. Teams of educators collaborate on establishing and maintaining schoolwide systems of support to meet every child’s needs.

The most important part of this effort is building and reaffirming relationships. There is a basic and ongoing human need for connection, and most conflicts stem from disconnection or fears of being unseen, unheard, or unvalued. Behaviors like bullying and fighting are more obviously connected to relationships (student to student), but behaviors like skipping class and insubordination are also about relationships (student to teacher/school). Students need to become contributors to establishing rules and routines so they understand their purpose and can feel a sense of community and belonging. Implementation of social-emotional learning across the curriculum also helps to instill self-regulatory, problem-solving, and prosocial skills that will benefit relationships and prevent conflicts across the school. 

Restorative practices provide alternatives to using punishment and help build healthier learning communities. Kids who are frequently in trouble are often testing a system that has repeatedly failed them, but a restorative approach says we are not giving up on you. Through participatory learning and constructive dialogue, the focus is on understanding motivation, impact of actions, and how to resolve conflicts and mend harm. It can benefit the victim/school/community by providing closure and resolution, with the offender agreeing to community service, restitutions, apologies, or agreements to change specific behaviors or comply with certain conditions. 

Nathan Maynard in Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice says, “Restorative justice takes situations that otherwise might result in a student being removed from class, and instead presents ways to teach the student how to repair the harm that was done and continue forward. This method creates an atmosphere of communication and collaboration around student issues.” 

Studies, such as one recently conducted by Georgetown University, show restorative practices can “boost health, well-being, and academic achievement,” particularly for marginalized groups who “face higher rates of trauma, exclusionary discipline, and detachment from school than their peers.” By respecting, including, and empowering students—even when they make mistakes—we can begin to build a more equitable and interconnected school community.

Establishing schoolwide systems of support for behavior takes an ongoing and collective commitment from staff, but it goes beyond programs and canned curriculum. Cultivating a community that prioritizes relationships and applies social-emotional learning principles starts with school leadership and is fostered through everyday interactions. In Culturize, Casas explains that when a circumstance resulted in punitive measures, he ended discipline meetings with two crucial questions: Do you believe that we care about you? Do you think that we have treated you fairly? While not all students and family members answered affirmatively, asking these questions opened the door for a reparative relationship and showed sincere concern and respect for the individual and the situation. As Sir Ken Robinson said in one of the most viewed TED Talks ever, “Leadership is about climate control, not command and control.” To successfully transform the school’s approach to discipline, school leaders must first implement a democratic leadership style and foster a supportive and caring school climate that makes it possible. 

Getting Started

Managing any major change in the school system takes time, resources, and patience. With so many long-standing beliefs and practices regarding discipline, establishing purpose and building buy-in for transforming school discipline is critical. Here are some ways to build ownership among staff and stakeholders:

  • Provide relevant data that establishes purpose. School leaders should collect, analyze, and share data regarding their current reality around discipline (e.g., school policies; suspension rates; loss of instructional time; referral trends; parent, student, and staff perceptions), as well as research on the impact of punitive vs. supportive discipline. Involve staff in building consensus on the desired state—aligned to the vision and core values of the school—and steps needed to fill the gaps. 
  • Facilitate professional development on brain-based behavior research and practices to build capacity. I have experienced some of the most constructive conversations and “lightbulb moments” while conducting book and article studies with staff. Providing choices of texts on the topic can allow for differentiation and motivation. Guest speakers, such as mental health experts, can provide a credible resource for information and answering questions. Sending relevant tips or food for thought in a weekly staff newsletter can help to “plant seeds” and maintain focus.
  • Ensure systems of support are in place. Consider the various needs that will allow for proactive and positive responses to behavior needs, including—but not limited to—school-based mental health services, mentorship programs, peer leadership groups, and incentive options. Protect time for teams to collaborate on student needs in their area of expertise (e.g., attendance, special education). Replace in-school suspension (ISS) supervisors with interventionists. Create an option for teachers to submit positive office referrals so school administrators can take an active role in celebrating and reinforcing positive behaviors. Equip staff in mapping out the tiered framework for addressing behavior, identifying current supports and areas of need. As always, inform and engage parents and families so they can become partners in the efforts.  

A New Narrative

I worked with students who exhibited some of the most concerning and unsafe behaviors for a school setting. Often the easiest approach at my disposal was to remove the student from school, but it was never in their best interest. While I never had an embittered or uncompromising persona like the antagonizing Mr. Rooney or Mr. Strickland in movies, I see how—in practice alone—I contributed to the perceptions, experiences, and fears associated with school principals. As I have reshaped my vision and practices toward supporting the whole child—even those who are the least likeable and most resistant to help—I recognize that school leaders can contribute to a new narrative, one that redefines our role as protagonists in each child’s story. 

Chelsea Jennings is the principal of Sonora Middle School in Springdale, AR, and the 2021 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year.

Sidebar: NASSP Position Statement and Guiding Principles

To encourage the limited use of suspension, expulsion, and other punishments that remove students from instruction and offer recommendations for alternative methods to address school discipline.

The principal’s primary responsibility is to foster a safe, orderly, warm, and inviting environment where each student comes to school ready and eager to learn.

Any strategy to reduce suspensions and expulsions must be part of a comprehensive schoolwide effort to improve the quality of classroom instruction accompanied by efforts to create conditions where students are meaningfully engaged in the school community and come to school ready to learn.

Schools have a responsibility to model and teach students methods of exerting authority and modifying behavior that are constructive, humane, and provide opportunities for growth.

School discipline should be reasonable, timely, fair, age-appropriate, and an appropriate response to a student’s violation of the district code of conduct.