Types of School Discipline Policies and Their Long-Term Impact

How your child’s teacher rewards and punishes her students has long-term effects. Here's what forms of discipline work (and why) in the classroom.

When I tell people I am an In-School Suspension (ISS) Teacher, they often respond with confusion. Perhaps the fact that I am a 5’2” woman leaves them wondering how I could possibly hold this position.

“Are kids scared of you?” is a common follow-up question. This reaction encapsulates the stigma attached to the notion of “ISS,” as well as to the students who are sent to me. This reaction — one that brings fear into the equation — reveals a common misunderstanding of the disciplinary and developmental techniques that my school employs.

I explain that the students who are sent to me are not “bad kids,” and my job is not to “scare them.” My job is to listen and try to understand their stories, and then to help them explore why they are struggling. My next step is to teach them the tools that will help them find a different path. If warranted, I work collaboratively with each student, their teachers, school counselors, the administration, and their families to help them succeed.

After this explanation, I am usually met by a nod of understanding, and some sort of statement claiming that my role makes much more sense now. That people misunderstand my position is not surprising; some schools do use the classroom dedicated to ISS as a place where students have to sit quietly and do nothing for a predetermined period of time.

What techniques does your child’s school use? Are the methods of discipline the most effective, and what are the short-term and long-term effects?

Below is a breakdown of terms used to describe certain disciplinary techniques. For each method, I have defined the term and explained both the immediate efficacy and the long-term impact of the practice. I conclude by highlighting what research has shown to be the most effective for helping children and adolescents succeed. It is important for parents, teachers, and students to understand the disciplinary practices employed by their schools so they can decide if these techniques match their belief systems, and offer constructive suggestions to teachers and administrators regarding their child’s experiences.

Punitive Techniques

Overview

The implementation of something unpleasant after a child has exhibited a negative behavior is what is known as a punitive technique. An example of this could be when a teacher makes a student sit in the corner of the room and face the wall because the child threw a pencil. The theory is that if a child knows that there will be negative consequences when she does something inappropriate, the next time she thinks about engaging in such behavior, she will choose not to. In other words, if the child knows that she will have to sit facing the wall when she throws things, the next time she is tempted to perform that action, she will think twice.

Immediate Efficacy

Immediately efficacious techniques are an attractive choice because they often stop the negative behavior immediately and involve very little of a teacher’s time. A student does something wrong, so regardless of why she did it, she gets a prescribed consequence.

Long-Term Impact

According to the research, punitive techniques that are not combined with other disciplinary methods have either no long-term impact or a negative long-term impact. This is due to the fact that purely punitive techniques do not take into account that a child may not possess the skills to change her behavior.

For example, if a student does not know how to manage her anger by utilizing positive coping skills, putting her in a corner for throwing her pencil when she was upset will not teach her what to do the next time. In addition, consistently punishing a child can result in an individual who now identifies herself as a problem or a bad person. In turn, the child will begin acting in line with who she believes she is. Therefore, if only punitive measures are used, a child may be set up for failure.

Zero Tolerance

Overview

Zero tolerance is a type of punitive technique. If a person exhibits a behavior that has been identified by an institution as absolutely unacceptable, that person will not be given warnings, nor will there be an inquiry into the motivating factors leading up to this behavior; instead, the person will face predetermined consequences, regardless of extenuating circumstances that may have influenced the individual’s behavior. A school may decide, for example, that bringing drugs into a school building will automatically result in a three-day out-of-school suspension, regardless of a student’s explanation or situation.

Immediate Efficacy

The immediate effect of this strategy on students depends on whom you ask. Like other punitive measures, zero tolerance may immediately halt the issue since the student who engaged in undesirable behaviors is removed from the learning environment, at least for the time being. If the child is removed from the classroom, as is the case with out-of-school suspensions, and the suspension is not coupled with other disciplinary techniques, the teachers or administrators have given up their power to impact the child beyond this punitive measure. On the other hand, a school is charged with keeping all students safe, and therefore the belief may be that some behaviors are absolutely unacceptable and need to be met with severe consequences as an example for the rest of the student body.

Long-Term Impact

Studies have shown that the more students are out of school, the lower their chances of graduating. Additionally, if students are being punished for anti-social behaviors by removing them from opportunities to engage in prosocial behaviors, or if students are removed from the classroom for falling behind because they have been cutting school, a punitive measure can exacerbate rather than mitigate the issue.

Replacement Techniques

Overview

This is the act of strengthening or rewarding positive or desired actions rather than punishing undesirable actions. Replacement techniques can include positive reinforcements (mentioned in the next section), or teaching a child a skill she may lack through direct instruction, modeling, or a combination of both.

For example, if a student is having a rough time sitting still, a teacher may discuss this struggle with the student and teach the child how to detect when this is happening. She can then teach the student that it is OK to ask permission for a break and then allow the child to take five minutes to herself when she notices she is struggling to concentrate. This student would be expected to get back on track after the break. If this does not work, the teacher and the student would meet again to discuss why not and to explore other options. When the student successfully utilizes the plan and is able to stay on track, the teacher acknowledges this success verbally or through an action, like a reward.

Immediate Efficacy

A replacement technique may take longer than a punitive technique like a zero tolerance measure because it requires the adult to understand what the child needs to become self-sufficient and successful in the future, rather than just a focus on how to stop a behavior in the present.

Long-Term Impact

If an adult is able to get to the heart of what is keeping a child from following the rules, and is then able to teach a child the skills to succeed in this area, the long-term impact can be astounding. Children can truly internalize the skills they need to self-regulate and diminish the occurrence of future disciplinary incidents.

Positive Reinforcement

Overview

A positive reinforcement is a type of replacement technique. A child is rewarded when she exhibits a desired behavior, such as giving a child a sticker every time she gets a perfect score on her homework. The hope is that this will increase the occurrence of these types of behaviors.

Immediate Efficacy

Positive reinforcement can increase positive behaviors because there is now an incentive to do so and a growing knowledge of what is expected. If a child does not possess the skills to exhibit the desired behavior, however, all the rewards in the world are not going to teach her.

Long-Term Impact

As mentioned above, if a school only gives positive reinforcements, they may still have a child who is not learning the necessary skills to exhibit a desired behavior. If a teacher gives a sticker to all students who arrive on time, the child who is always late is not learning how to get to school on time. Outside factors may need to be taken into account, as should other skills that may need to be developed in order for the student to succeed. By starting with positive reinforcements, however, teachers and administrators can determine which students require other techniques to be successful.

Final Thoughts

Current research recommends that teachers, administrators, and parents use the least intense punishment that work for each child. So, if giving a child a sticker for doing her homework motivates her to complete her homework assignments, you need not move on to any other forms of discipline. Furthermore, if a punitive technique is utilized, it should be coupled with an investigation into the cause of the behavior and then matched with replacement techniques that will help the student learn how to act in a more productive and socially acceptable manner.

It is not enough to suspend or expel a child for bringing drugs into the school building; there needs to be an investigation regarding why the child engaged in this behavior, and a plan to help her act in a more appropriate fashion in the future.

For more reading about disciplinary measures, please refer to the following articles:

Discipline: Effective School Practices

Fair and Effective Discipline for All Students: Best Practice Strategies for Educators

What Every Teacher Should Know About...Punishment Techniques and Student Behavior Plans

You can ask questions about disciplinary policies at your child's school on Noodle. Look for more information on the school's Noodle profile.

Sources:

References

Bear, G. (2010). Discipline: Effective school practices. National Association of School Psychologists National Association of School Psychologists

Osher, D., Bear, G.G., Sprague, J.R., Doyle, W. (2010). How can we improve school discipline? Educational Researcher, 39(1), 48-58. Retrieved from Intermediate District 287

Sussman, S., Skara, S., & Ames, S.L. (2008). Substance abuse among adolescents. Substance Use & Misuse, 43(12-13), 1802-1828. Retrieved from The U.S. National Library of Medicine

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