Good Schools Are Like Good Parents: Demanding, but Supportive

By Dr. Dewey Cornell

A survey of school principals regarding school discipline found that there were two contrasting groups: some principals strongly advocated a firm, no-nonsense, zero-tolerance approach to discipline, while others favored a more supportive and understanding approach. Many adults could readily categorize their school principals into one group or the other. But which strategy is more effective? Are students and teachers safer in a school with strict discipline or one where there is a less punitive and more supportive approach

Although the distinction between strict discipline and a more supportive approach seems compelling, it is probably too simplistic. Decades ago, research by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind at the University of California-Berkeley found that the best parents were both demanding and supportive, a style of parenting she described as “authoritative.” Later researchers more formally specified two dimensions of parenting that yielded four groups of parents. One dimension measured whether the parent was high or low in demanding appropriate behavior. A second dimension was whether the parent was high or low in being emotionally supportive of the child (also termed “responsiveness”). This generated four types or styles of parenting:

  1. Authoritarian parents are high in demandingness but low in supportiveness
  2. Permissive parents are low in demandingness but high in supportiveness
  3. Authoritative parents are high in both demandingness and supportiveness.
  4. Neglectful parents are low in both demandingness and supportiveness.

There is a large body of research pointing to the positive outcomes associated with authoritative parenting. Children of authoritative parents are more self-reliant and self-confident, more independent and high achieving, and less likely to engage in misbehavior and delinquency.

In recent years, the concept of authoritative parenting has been applied to schools. Teachers with authoritative characteristics seem to get along better with their students, who are better behaved and more likely to do well academically.

In the Virginia High School Safety Study (VHSS) at the University of Virginia, we examined whether the parenting concepts could be used to characterize the overall climate of a school. In other words, could we classify schools into these four types, based on student perceptions that the adults at school were demanding, yet also supportive, in their interactions with students?

The VHSS surveyed ninth grade students and teachers in nearly 300 Virginia high schools, representing more than 90 percent of the state’s public high schools. Ninth graders were the target population because the first year is so critical to success in high school, and students who do not get off to a good start in ninth grade are at increased risk of dropping out.

To measure school climate, students and teachers in each school completed online surveys at school. The surveys asked a series of questions regarding whether school rules were strictly and fairly enforced, and whether students felt that adults were concerned and supportive. These questions were used to construct two factors: one measuring the degree of disciplinary structure (demandingness) at school, and the other the degree of support. (Students and teachers completed similar questions, and although there was modest agreement between students and teachers in the same school, the student perceptions proved to be better predictors of school safety conditions.)

Schools were classified into one of the four types based on whether their scores were high or low on the dimensions of structure and support. The four groups of schools were then compared on three indicators of school safety: (1) student reports of the prevalence of bullying at school; (2) teacher reports of the prevalence of bullying; and (3) student reports of how frequently they were victims of some form of peer aggression (ranging from verbal abuse to theft to physical assault).  As displayed in the figure, the results were remarkably consistent across all three outcomes: Schools that were lowest in structure and support—neglectful schools—had markedly above-average levels of bullying and victimization, whereas schools that were highest in structure and support—authoritative schools—had markedly below-average levels of bullying and victimization. The other two groups of schools fell into the middle.

After this examination of student outcomes, the next step in the study was to examine teacher outcomes. Teachers completed a victimization scale that measured experiences ranging from being spoken to in a disrespectful manner to physical assault by a student. Again, the schools with the most authoritative characteristics were the safest environments.

One important qualification is that authoritative schools had strict enforcement of school rules, but they did not rely on zero-tolerance practices. That is, they did not make frequent use of school suspension as an automatic disciplinary consequence. In fact, low suspension rates were strongly associated with positive school outcomes, including higher graduation rates. Zero-tolerance appears to be an authoritarian, but not authoritative, school practice.

In conclusion, school principals do not have to choose between strict discipline and a supportive attitude toward students. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but should be implemented in combination to yield the safest school climate. Indeed, students may rebel against a strict disciplinary approach by school authorities who seem unconcerned or uncaring, and they may be unresponsive to school authorities who do not maintain high expectations for their students. The good news is that many schools have already established an authoritative school climate, and the pathway for others to do the same is not expensive or elusive. Good schools are like good parents: demanding, but supportive.

Dewey Cornell, Ph.D., is with Youth Nex, The Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education (http://Youthviolence.edschool.virginia.edu). He is coauthor of Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence. Contact him at dcornell@virginia.edu

For more information:

Gregory, A., Cornell, D., Fan, X., Sheras, P., Shih, T., & Huang, F. (2010). Authoritative school discipline: High school practices associated with lower student bullying and victimization. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 483-496.

Gregory, A., Cornell, D., & Fan, X. (in press). Teacher safety and authoritative school climate in high schools. American Journal of Education.

About Dewey Cornell

Books By Dewey Cornell: Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence

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