Discipline & Learning

disciplineAn article in this month’s Atlantic addresses the issue of strict discipline in certain public schools. “How Strict is Too Strict?” explores the unintended consequences of stringent school regulations imposed upon students in charter schools around the country.  This topic is one in which I have considerable personal experience, as I served as the only assistant principal of an inner city public high school school and also the principal of a middle school.  I was THE administrator responsible for enforcing school rules, and I found that fairness, immediacy and consistency are the best measures for ensuring a positive academic atmosphere.

In an effort to create a school environment conducive to learning, one high school named in the article, Carver Collegiate Academy, imposed a very specific code of conduct that included not only a dress code similar to ones in private schools (khahis worn with a belt around the waist, school polo shirts, black or white undershirts, etc), but also acceptable classroom behavior. Students had to raise their hands, respond respectfully, and engage in good listening behavior. They had to “track” the speaker with their eyes, and say thank you when the teacher called upon them. Between classes they had to walk in a single file, and they couldn’t slouch against a wall.  Breaking these and the many other rules outlined in a 50 page code of conduct resulted in demerits, detention, or suspension.

Problems began when a large percentage of the students accumulated enough demerits to warrant a suspension.  Educators bemoaned the fact that the strict rules had the effect of taking too many students out of the classroom and putting them onto the city streets.  One solution to that unintended consequence is the imposition of an in-school suspension policy. Some rule-breakers view out-of-school suspension as a positive rather than negative consequence. They have the day off, often without adult supervision. On the other hand, most students view social isolation within the confines of the school as punitive. Their friends are there, but they can’t interact with them. Having students assigned to a location that includes adult supervision, either a counselor, a para-professional, or a teacher, can effectively reduce the number of students roaming the streets while still expecting them to account for their behavior.

Whatever the rules, the essential part of any disciplinary code is consistency. Students immediately attune to any unfairness and react strongly against it. They do respond more favorably when they realize that the rules are reasonable, and they apply to everyone. Students should have  the opportunity to explain themselves after any infraction, so the disciplinarian needs to address the situation immediately, ideally before the end of that school day.  Teachers and administrators must be scrupulous in adhering to the rules. Furthermore, “the punishment should suit the crime.” Minor infractions should not have the same consequences as major ones: loitering in the hallway should have a different consequence from skipping a class. In school suspension is more effective  Learning can occur only when the school environment is favorable.

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