Wanted: Alternatives to school discipline

A massive study of Texas public schools suggests discipline can be overdone while less of it may lead to students improving. Schools that nurture rather than punish can get results.

Spare the rod and save a child.

That’s a key lesson from a massive study in Texas which found that public schools using less discipline against misbehaving students may actually keep kids from dropping out or ending up in juvenile court.

One big shocker in the study, which looked at the records of nearly 1 million students, is that more than half were suspended or expelled at least once between their 7th and 12th grades. The average was a two-day suspension.

But what may turn many educators’ heads is the fact that about 1 in 7 students was disciplined 11 or more times. Clearly, if a school has to discipline a kid 11 times, something’s not working. A new approach is needed.

In fact, the report found quite a disparity in the use of discipline between schools with similar demographics. In other words, a high rate of discipline may not be a reflection of the type of students in a school but the choices that school officials make in how to deal with misbehavior.

A more supportive, even loving approach can turn around even the most obstinate child. At the least, it helps from stigmatizing a student as a “troubled teen,” which itself can lead to hopelessness in earning a high school diploma.

The 121-page study, called “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement,” was done by the Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University. It looked at school and criminal records in the past decade in Texas, which is the second-largest public school system in the country.

Texas does not expel or suspend students more than most states. But it has followed a national trend in adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward a growing list of infractions, such as gun possession, drug and alcohol use, bullying, and lately, sexting. Coupled with that trend has been a greater interest in ensuring safe learning environments for well-behaved students, resulting in harsher discipline for those who break the rules.

Still, many innovative school districts find it better to use positive approaches with wayward students and to involve parents more in solutions. Schools can use a troubling incident to teach values, especially respect for others, while also dealing with a student’s emotional problems.

The main goal: Teach students to control themselves rather than rely on external controls. Teachers who nurture students and meet their need for belonging are better able to manage a classroom and can cope with misbehavior.

“Positive discipline,” such as praising students when they do something right, needs to become more common in the face of public pressure for more school discipline. It’s too easy for a teacher to pass the buck and send a kid down to the principal’s office.

The easy way isn’t the best way, in most cases. Young people certainly need to know the boundaries of good conduct, but they also must be given a loving hand to see a better way.

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