Promoting Safe Schools and Academic Success: Moving Your School from Punitive Discipline to Effective Discipline

By Olley, Rivka I.; Cohn, Andrea et al. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, September 2010 | Go to article overview
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Promoting Safe Schools and Academic Success: Moving Your School from Punitive Discipline to Effective Discipline


Olley, Rivka I., Cohn, Andrea, Cowan, Katherine C., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Effective discipline is essential to creating safe, supportive learning environments for all students, which is critical to academic achievement. Since the passage of zero tolerance policies in the early 1990s, many school districts have relied on punitive discipline focused on harsh strategies such as using suspension and expulsion as primary disciplinary actions for even minor misconduct. Unfortunately, as school psychologists know, purely punitive discipline is ineffective at best and often even counterproductive, denying students vital learning time and undermining the overall school climate.

The good news is that policy makers and school districts are beginning to respond to the growing evidence that punitive discipline does not work, and to take a serious look at alternative approaches. A major goal is to reduce escalating suspension/expulsion rates and minimize lost learning time. Federal policies appear to be moving in that direction as well. Strategies that support positive behavior and school climate, which are integral to effective school discipline, are getting significant attention in the debate over reauthorization of ESEA.

School psychologists are in an ideal position to assist schools in creating safe learning environments by working closely with administrators and staff. We have unique training in children's psychological and educational development as well as behavior management to facilitate the implementation of effective school-wide and targeted positive discipline strategies. Helping your school establish such a policy may seem overwhelming in the face of the immediate needs of disruptive students; however, getting buy-in from key stakeholders and decision makers can start with some simple, basic steps at the start of the school year.

Share the evidence that suspension and expulsion does not work. There is no evidence thatzero tolerance policies create safer or more functional school environments. On the contrary, research consistently shows that extensive use of suspension and expulsion does not correct misbehavior over time and actually contributes to increased misbehavior, lack of academic achievement, poorer school climate, an elevated dropout rate, and increased juvenile delinquency and incarceration (APA, 2006; APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Bear, 2008; Skiba8c Rausch, 2006a; Skiba8c Rausch, 2006b; Skiba, Ritter, Simmons, Peterson, 8c Miller, 2006).

Conversely, research shows that when schools create caring environments with high expectations for student academic engagement and success that allows for intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth, student behavior problems decrease and at the same time academic achievement increases (National Technical Assistance Center, nd.).

Share the core principles of positive discipline. The purpose of positive discipline is to keep students and staff safe and to maintain a school environment that facilitates student learning and positive social-emotional-behavioral development. Core principles include:

* Teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors and self-discipline

* Examining why the child is doing what he is doing (i.e., determining the function of the behavior)

* Imposing meaningful consequences that are appropriate to the behavior and educational goals

* Maintaining access to instruction

Use data to identify areas of need. Offer to work with your administrator and/or school improvement team to collect and analyze discipline and other school climate data. Examples can include identifying locations and times that discipline difficulties occur, using office referral data to identify specific students who may need more intensive behavior supports and skills development, analyzing the consequences that were used to determine the efficacy of these strategies, and considering staff satisfaction with existing procedures.

Present information on evidence-based prevention programs.

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