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Dr. Christina Ager

A Better Approach to School Discipline

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Much is written and discussed about the behavior problems in schools. Student misbehavior is cited as the reason given by 53 percent of teachers seeking transfers and 44 percent of teachers who leave the profession (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Additionally it is the most common concern of beginning teachers. 

What is fascinating to those of us who work with schools around issues of behavior is that, in general, most school districts have not changed their approach to discipline in over 50 years except to make punishments more severe or to instill Zero Tolerance policies  -- neither of which is effective. While responsible parents would balk at the idea of sending their children to a school that uses a 50-year-old math or science curriculum, many send those same children to schools with outdated and problematic approaches to discipline. It is also ironic that adults spend millions of dollars annually on diet, exercise, and other self-help books and programs and then those same adults can, with a straight face, say to a young child "you'd better be good" and expect it to be so. 

If changing our behavior were just a matter of "should," then shouldn't we, as adults, just be able to decide to lose weight, exercise regularly, or get to work on time and, voila!, it would be done? How many times have you said to yourself, "I should stop...," "Or start...," Or "cut down..."? Simply saying it does not make it happen. Not for you, or me, and especially not for children, who often have very little control over their everyday situations. 

Parents, teachers and administrators persist in demanding that children change, but demands rarely work because they do nothing to change a child's skills or the situations that spur problems. No one wants to lose their temper with their child when they are trying to get out the door to work, but in order to avoid these daily escalations, we need to learn how we can change our morning routine so it is less stressful for everyone involved. We need to develop strategies and coping mechanisms to effect meaningful change. Simply having the insight that we "ought" to be exercising, eating less, or not yelling at students after lunch rarely works as a long-term behavior change strategy. 

Demands rely on a belief in will power, a belief that if we decide something, then we can "just do it." My guess is that your own experiences show how ludicrous this idea is...remember all those diet plans and exercise programs? Relying on will power remains the flaw in "just say no" campaigns, which simplify human behavior to a laughable degree. 

Across the nation over 12,000 schools are using a program of School Wide Positive Behavior Support (Horner & Sugai, 2005), the behavioral aspect of Response to Intervention. The focus is on identifying positive expectations for behavior, teaching and reinforcing those expectations across the school day and the school areas, consistent teacher responses to misbehavior, and data-based decision-making. 

One quick assessment that will let you know if your school is using effective behavioral strategies is to ask 10 to 15 random students what the school rules are, then ask 10 to 15 teachers or staff the same question. If they all have the same answers, you probably have a school using SWPBS. Most often school rules are long lists of what students should not do contained in a handbook most students don't read. Some schools have as many as 49 to 65 behaviors listed in the school handbook that students must not do, but no expectations for what they should do. Using general expectations such as Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be a Peacemaker and then translating those expectations into specific behaviors in the classroom, cafeteria or recess yard allows schools to take a proactive and positive approach to school discipline. SWPBS advocates that we should teach behaviors, the same way we teach math or language, and that teaching is a more effective strategy. 

Most schools persist in a punishment-based approach. It is important to remember that while the threat of punishment may prevent some students from misbehaving, it is an ineffective strategy for students who have frequent or chronic behavior problems. Additionally, punishment results in two very serious side effects: escape and aggression. Thus we can show that students who are frequently disciplined in schools are also those students who drop out, or perhaps are pushed out, of school in ninth or tenth grade.

It is time for schools to embrace science in their approaches to student behavior. School Wide Positive Behavior Support is an evidence-based practice shown to decrease office discipline referrals, reduce the disproportional number of African-American students identified as having behavior problems, and increase academic achievement by increasing time on task. And it is time for the public and policy-makers to insist on doing what works.

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About Me

Dr. Christina Ager is a Professor of Special Education at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, where she has taught for the past 20 years and the Executive Director of the B2EST Program at Arcadia which was designated a model program by the Pennsylvania Department of ...Read More

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