George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Key Strategies for Reducing Friction Over Student Discipline

Principals and teachers must work hard at alignment when it comes to the difficult—and evolving—question of student discipline.

December 13, 2019
An illustration of a boy listening to conflicting directions
Michael Morgenstern / theiSpot

Student discipline is the biggest source of friction in the teacher-principal relationship, say 52 percent of teachers and 24 percent of principals surveyed by the Education Week Research Center.

That’s in large part due to the competing priorities of each job, writes Arianna Prothero for Education Week. “Principals must adhere to district, state, or federal policies aimed at, say, reducing suspensions and expulsions,” Prothero writes. “Teachers—whose performance is judged in part on test scores and other measures of achievement—are often focused on keeping order in their classroom."

As many schools and districts continue to shift from zero-tolerance discipline policies that research shows have disproportionately impacted black and Latino students to less restrictive and more rehabilitative practices, inconsistencies and frustrations can emerge as teachers and administrators try to implement new practices they aren’t familiar with. “The move to rein in traditional forms of discipline like out-of-school suspensions can create real conflict,” writes Prothero. “Especially if teachers feel new policies have been sprung on them without adequate training and support.”

Three strategies are key to helping teachers and principals see eye-to-eye on discipline: clear and consistent communication; building and maintaining relationships among the school’s many stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, and parents; and providing ongoing teacher training.

Establish Clear Communication

Develop clear guidelines about who handles student misbehavior—and communicate those guidelines. This practice cuts down on confusion about how, and by whom, incidents should be handled.

“I think the biggest thing is sitting down before the school year and getting a blueprint for what the classroom expectations are and what behavior a teacher is going to manage and what the office is going to manage,” says Russell McDaniel, the principal of the junior high school in Celina Independent School District, a rural district in Texas. “Here’s the expectations for the teachers, here’s the expectations for the students, here are the steps, and here is a reward system built into it.”

Clear communication helps reduce confusion and frustration for teachers and parents, and ultimately brings everyone closer to the end goal: ensuring that all students are educated in a safe environment.

Develop Relationships

Long before a conflict arises, relationships—between principals and teachers and between educators and the larger school community, including parents—are a key to successful conflict resolution.

“For Kerensa Wing, the principal of Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, teachers must be included in the restorative process—namely by asking for teacher input on the consequences,” Prothero reports. “She has found it’s meaningful to get students’ input as well—and, subsequently, their buy-in—on discipline.”

This includes, for example, making sure teachers, and the broader community, have a say about adopting discipline changes: “We have a ‘student expectations committee’ where we allow teachers and students and administration to come together to discuss the local rules... to review those each year to make sure they’re still relevant,” says Wing. “Just having those healthy discussions, and the teachers knowing they have input in those decisions, that helps as well.”

Don’t Underestimate the Need for Training

Without being given the basic tools to implement a new approach to discipline, teachers may not feel equipped to effectively carry out new routines in the classroom. Ongoing training, for teachers and administrators alike, should be a cornerstone of successful classroom management.

“While the training required will vary depending on the specific school, the discipline philosophy it’s using, and the students it serves, it’s important that it’s not a one-off thing,” says Wing, the Georgia principal. “It must be for all teachers and it must continue over time.”

Conflicts about discipline may be especially poignant for teachers because the stakes are high when it comes to keeping classrooms under control. “We have been going through an era of blaming teachers for a lot of society’s failures,” says Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy and history at the City University of New York. “Especially in a context when teachers are told: ‘We are going to judge you based on student test scores.’ Then teachers are going to feel more pressure to say,... ‘I don’t have time to deal with a child who is presenting challenging behavior because that’s going to put us a whole day behind.’”

Even with these three practices in place, tension between teachers and principals over discipline will remain. Indeed, policies around discipline should be considered a core competency of school systems, says Kafka, rather than just an extra thing schools need to deal with. “I would argue it’s a fundamental purpose of schooling. It’s teaching [students] how to behave in a social world. Just like kids make mistakes in reading, in math, they make mistakes in behavior.”

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