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OPINION: The Failures of School Discipline in 2019

School discipline is a hot subject of debate in the world of education. Recently, states such as California and Texas have been attempting to re-vamp their school discipline policies, including reducing or eliminating suspension for students in elementary schools. Other states are focusing on more proactive approaches, for example requiring PBIS or restorative justice methods. While I fully understand the intent behind these initiatives, I’m not sure many schools are seeing positive results. Students are still misbehaving at seemingly higher rates, teachers are facing more obstacles due to student behavior and overall, schools seem lost in this discipline shift.

I believe that teachers should have a voice in this conversation. Many of the people making decisions on school discipline never see how it plays out in in classrooms. So, from one teacher’s perspective, here are some of the school discipline failures I’ve seen time and again.

Kids have too much leeway at home

It has to be said—the line between parent and child has become increasingly blurry over the last few decades. More and more, we see children who are coming to school with terrible manners, selfish attitudes and inappropriate social behaviors. When students don’t learn to behave appropriately at home, those behaviors transfer into the school setting. In Dr. Leonard Sax’s “The Collapse of Parenting”, he talks about the “transfer of authority from parents to kids” as a key player in children’s changing behaviors (Italie, 2016). Children who dictate what’s for dinner, when bedtime is, and how much time they get to play on the computer will not be successful at school or in the real world. It’s time for parents to take back the reigns at home and begin teaching their children right from wrong before they reach the classroom.

We are teachers, not scapegoats

This is probably one of the biggest issues I have with school discipline. No matter what happens, there is always one person we can blame for their behavior—the teacher. For example, Johnny hits another student. The teacher says, “Johnny, we don’t hit others. Please apologize.” So, Johnny proceeds to kick the teacher. Any sane person would see that Johnny is clearly misbehaving and is responsible for his actions. So why is Johnny’s mom saying, “well you just aren’t watching him carefully?”Or “he’s just so bored in your class?” Why is the principal asking the teacher why she didn’t try another method of talking to Johnny? Because everyone is blaming the teacher, not the student, for misbehavior. 

I’m not saying that all teachers are perfect, or that the environment we create doesn’t add to student misconduct. But at the end of the day, children need to be held accountable for their actions. By teachers, by administrators, and by parents. Teachers cannot handle all student behaviors alone; we need support and help from administration and parents. 

Buzzwords are not actions

If you’re in the world of education, you’ve definitely heard of PBIS, restorative justice, trauma-informed practices…the list goes on. But do we really understand what they mean? Most educators will say no. I’ve been to multiple trainings on these topics and I STILL don’t understand what they fully mean. That’s what happens when we throw buzzwords around but never actually translate them into practice. Districts start initiatives centered around these buzzwords, nobody truly understands what they mean, and procedures continue as normal. 

I respect initiatives that are working to use more proactive approaches to behavior and discipline. I honestly believe that most are better ways to work with our children. But if we don’t spend the time and money to properly train our educational staff, it will just crumble to pieces. And not just one PD session after school. Educators need in-depth trainings, practice, check-ins and commitment to work on these new proactive programs. When districts or states roll out these initiatives, they need to ensure that the trainings are happening, that the staff understand, and that everyone is working together to make the programs successful.

A lack of consequences

Any child development expert would tell you that consequences are a necessary part of creating a safe and structured environment for your child. Consequences and punishment sound negative, but they honestly are part of a much greater system that helps your child feel protected and secure. Going back to district initiatives, teachers usually understand why these proactive programs are put in place, and why suspension and expulsions are decreased—but what’s the alternative?

Many educators argue there isn’t one. I recently saw another teacher’s story about a student she sent to the office for profanity towards the teacher, destruction of property, and threatening to hurt the teacher and students. The teacher was stressed by the situation and did everything to keep her class and the student calm, even though the attempts failed. When she was called into the office to discuss this, the administrator told her that because it was a restorative justice school, they talked about his actions and he was ready to come back to class. No consequence whatsoever.

We need to make changes

Students need consequences to mold and learn the correct ways to function. Without consequences, they will only continue poor behavior choices, and many will escalate those behaviors over time. It’s no surprise that the teacher mentioned above said the student returned to her class and continued his behavior…and why not? Children are always trying to figure out their world, and they do that by testing limits, pushing boundaries until they reach resistance. If that resistance never comes, then they never learn what is right and wrong. An article from GoodTherapy states that “Despite how they may act, [children] need rules and boundaries so they can both test them and feel protected by them. Creating structure and having predictable responses helps [children] learn to self-regulate.” 

There is never an easy answer, or even one correct answer, when it comes to raising children. Discipline is no different, and there are many theories on how it should be done in school settings. I hope that over time, educators, administrators, parents and policy makers can work together to create better discipline policies in education. We all play an important role, and we all deserve to be heard. They say it takes a village, and in the end, we all want the same goal—to raise children who will be compassionate, collaborative and successful in life.

We’d love to hear—what do you see as school discipline failures and successes? Come and share in our teacherfy HELPLINE group on Facebook. 




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