Reframing School Discipline

From “Who Is to Blame” to “How Can We Support Each Other and Our Students to Be More Successful?”

By Jeffrey Sprague

Many teachers experience enormous stress while attempting to “discipline” disruptive students, and often do not feel adequately supported by their colleagues, parents, or society. Teachers often tell me, “I just want something that works,” and yet, when I ask them how they define “what works,” they are unclear about the goals of behavior change, how to measure change, and how long it will take to get there. This lack of perceived job control (“I don’t feel like I am in control of what I need to be effective”) and professional efficacy (“I feel like what I am doing is not making a difference”) results in high levels of stress and can directly lead to burnout or other unhealthy responses to the problem. Fully one half of all new teachers leave the field within their first four years of practice, citing students with behavioral challenges and their parents as one of the main reasons.

Over the past 15 years, the use of “consequences”—such as office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions—has skyrocketed, particularly among poor and nonwhite students. Paradoxically, these practices actually increase aggressive behavior, truancy, vandalism and school dropout/disengagement.

A common response is to increase the length of time to remove a student from the classroom or from school if a behavior problem is not resolved quickly. For teachers, the temporary “relief” from removing a student quickly vanishes when the student returns with the same challenges. This only makes the problem worse in the long term for both student and teacher. Some teachers respond to this spiraling cycle by demanding ever more intense “punishment,” others may simply work harder to try to solve each student’s problems, and still others will engage in harmful behaviors such as complaining about or criticizing students, parents, colleagues, and “the system.” In the worst situations, teachers resort to alcohol or drug use (prescribed and otherwise) in order to “cope.” Each response may bring some short-term relief but will exacerbate the problem in the end. There has to be a “new move.”

Alongside a general interest in restorative justice in society at large, attention has turned to the development of restorative justice practices in educational settings and how this might respond to some of the continuing concerns about discipline and violence in schools. As it has developed in the criminal justice system, restorative justice seeks to provide (perhaps for the first time) a much clearer framework for restitution and repair. In this framework, misbehaviors can result in sanctions, but within a context where the relationship damaged by the misbehavior is the priority and based on the premise that this damaged relationship can and should be repaired—and that the offending individual can and should be reintegrated, not only for the good of that individual but also for that of the community as a whole.

Balanced and Restorative Discipline brings us this “new move,” and I have already seen the positive benefits of using restorative principles and practices in my work with teachers all over the world. Restorative discipline training works to help teachers clarify their core values about their work with colleagues and students and reminds them that their core mission is to help students become “safe, respectful, and responsible.” First they become collectively clear about what those behaviors look like, and second we model those values ourselves.

We embed restorative practices in our staff development and consultation in positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) to help teachers accept that change is very difficult for some students. We also help teachers “reframe” their views of students by emphasizing that their problems are likely a result of delayed skill development in key social areas (e.g., impulse control, problem solving, empathy) and not just a matter of “misbehaving.” Finally, taking valued action on a daily and long-term basis requires teachers to remain mindful of their core values and plans. The most powerful methods we have learned are to share data regularly about improvements or new problems (mindfulness) and to teach problem-solving methods (often called Functional Behavior Assessment) so we can systematically pursue our values.

I hold great respect and hope for our teachers, and believe that restorative practices provide a foundational framework for improving our sense of effectiveness and personal well-being.

Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D., is an associate professor of special education and codirector of the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior. In 2001, he helped establish the Oregon Center for School Safety. Sprague has been a teacher, a behavioral consultant, and director of the Center for School and Community Integration.

About Jeffrey Sprague

Books by Jeffrey Sprague: Best BehaviorWhole School Leader

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Reframing School Discipline

  1. I am always interested in Dr. Sprague’s work. I have left his BEST Behavior book and various articles on the desks of superintendents and principals, but it seems that more flashy packaged programs w/o scientific support (behavioral strategies are not new thanks to Skinner) and with aweak replacement behavior and teaching behavior component are purchased. Ah well….Keep up the much needed work, Dr. Sprague. I hope that our school District can embrace your effective approach in this decade. State scores are secondary to getting our classrooms structured to learn optimally.

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