3 Steps to Aligning your School-Wide Discipline Practices

This post is a continuation from my previous post: 5 Guiding Principles for Effective School-Wide Discipline

3-threeStudents thrive in predictable environments and with predictable routines. Now don’t misunderstand, predictability doesn’t mean boring and within the context of this post, it has nothing to do with a monotonous learning environment. You can, in fact, be predictable and consistent with the opportunities you provide students to explore, create, inquire, collaborate, think, and challenge. An unpredictable experience where things seem to come out of nowhere creates an excessive amount of anxiety which is counter-productive. The focus of this post is about creating alignment with adult responses to student behaviour, the exploration of working model, and the 3 simple, universal steps any school can use to create their plans.

Here is a working model (SW Discipline Planthat you may wish to have in front of you as you read this post.

Before outlining the three steps it is important to understand a few key points:

  1. Teach what is expected. Before holding students accountable for their behaviour we need to ensure that they are clear on what is expected of them. In the same way we would identify success criteria for academic success, we must identify what the social norms are for students in school. What does respect look like, sound like, and feel like? How do students handle adversity? The more specific and intentional we can be the more likely it is for most students to follow suit.
  2. This is working model, not the model. My goal is not to have every school use the exact same plan; it is to make sure that schools create some alignment and predictability with how the adults respond to negative behaviours. Your plan might look a little different; that’s okay.
  3. Each school’s discipline plan is best-served when anchored on the 3 universal principles outlined below, however, each school’s discipline plan must be contextualized; it must fit the routines and social norms of the school as well as being age appropriate. The model attached is a high school example; middle school and elementary models can/should be different.
  4. Creating a school-wide approach to student discipline will not be sufficient for students with more complex behavioural challenges. A general rule to follow in terms of behavioural support is that anything that works for most is likely to be insufficient for the few. Aligned responses create a foundation but are in no way a match for the intensity and complexity of some students’ behavioural support needs.

So with that, let’s explore the 3 steps to creating alignment with a school-wide approach to student discipline:

STEP 1: Decide on the number of behavioural levels. The fundamental question here is whether or not all negative behaviours are the same; we know that they’re not. Speaking out of turn is quite different from physically assaulting someone, so with that, we need to figure out how many different levels there are. In every school where I’ve been a part of creating a school-wide discipline plan we’ve settle on three; one school identified minors, middles, and majors, while the example provided simply identifies levels 1, 2, and 3. I am familiar with schools who’ve settle on two (minors and majors) and school’s who’ve have settled on four (minors, middles, majors, illegals). There is no formula; it’s up to you and your colleagues to decide how many levels there are.

STEP 2: Define each level. Once you’ve determined the number of levels, the next step is to define them. Using the working example provided you can see how each of the levels is defined:

  • Level 1 behaviours are handled by the attending staff member. Chronic level 1 behaviours could result in a referral to the school administration.

The first point is the phrase attending staff member. Every adult – I mean every adult – has to take some responsibility for intervening when negative student behaviours occur, especially if they occur right in front of them. If you see it there is an expectations that you will intervene. Of course, subtle differences within that expectation are possible when it comes to secretaries and/or custodians. This has nothing to do with their capacity to work with students (the majority I’ve worked with are exceptional); it has more to do with developing reasonable expectations for what they can/should be dealing with during the course of a day. Finding balance will be important.

The second point is here is the word could. There is no predetermined sequence that results in a referral to the office. That doesn’t mean some level 1 behaviours don’t get referred; they do. However, it’s up to the staff member to determine when something is chronic and if it requires administrative support. The definition of chronic will be explored in my next post which will outline how this plan is implemented with a staff.

  • Level 2 behaviours are handled by the attending staff member. Chronic level 2 behaviours will result in a referral to the school administration.

The key word here is will. What distinguishes a level 2 from a level 1 is that if a level 2 behaviour persists then it is referred to administration. It’s still up to the teacher to determine if/when something is chronic, however, there is an expectation that when it is that extra support is available.

  • Level 3 behaviours will result in an immediate referral to the school administration

We blended level 3 and illegals into the same category as the end result (a referral) is the same. These are the behaviours that are the full responsibility of the school’s administration. That’s not say that all staff aren’t involved in some way; certainly staff aren’t ignoring fights and other serious incidents. The point is that their sole responsibility is to report it if they see it.

STEP 3: Categorize every behaviour. The final step for you and your team is to decide which behaviours belong in which level. We brainstormed a list of all of the potential negative behaviours we might experience throughout the course of a school year. We then looked for any overlap and blended those together. In the end you have a list of behaviours that you begin to examine and categorize through the answering of a couple of questions.

  1. If the student acted that way, would you immediately refer that student to the school administration? If YES, it’s a level 3. If NO, then it’s a level 1 or 2.
  2. If the student acted that way consistently throughout the year, could you see a scenario where you would never refer that student to the school administration, even if you felt the behaviour was chronic? If YES, it’s a level 1. If NO, it’s a level 2 because a chronic behaviour will always result in a referral.

Admittedly, the line between level 1 and level 2 behaviours is fine. No plan should be so rigid that thoughtful reconsideration is not possible; you might decide a certain behaviour is a level 1, however, as the plan unfolds you might realize it’s actually a level 2. If so, move it…it’s that simple.

As well, any school-wide discipline plan is never implemented in as clinical a manner as it appears. What brings any plan to life are the productive and thoughtful conversations between teachers, students, parents, and administration. Remember guideline #5 from my previous post:

  • Respect the uniqueness of each student, each incident, and each set of circumstances.

There are no automatic responses to students; their uniqueness deserves a level of thought that reaches far beyond a prescriptive course of action. That said, the benefit of adults being aligned with their responses to negative behaviours creates a consistency that students can come to predict. No two teachers will handle negative behaviours in exactly the same way which makes uniformity an unrealistic (even misguided) goal. What are those responses? How do you define chronic? What happens when a student who demonstrates a first-time level 1 behaviour is sent to the office? These questions (an others) will the topic of the next post in this series.

I know this topic is not sexy and doesn’t inspire with futuristic unknowns or the sizzle of technological innovation. It is, however, a core fundamental to creating the kind of teaching and learning environment that allows students and teachers to get to he sexy, innovative stuff. Alignment won’t just happen; it takes thought, purpose, and action. Creating that alignment within your school-wide discipline plan is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

5 Guiding Principles for Effective School-Wide Discipline


Something I have come to know is that effective schools take a thoughtful approach to student discipline. Admittedly, there are some who believe student behaviour will take care of itself; that we’re all just one formative assessment, one differentiated opportunity, or one project-based experience away from neutralizing any behavioural issues with our students. I will concede that pedagogy can make a difference in the overall level of engagement which would, for most students, likely result in a reduction of negative behaviours. In fact, it’s not really a concession since I agree that a holistic approach is usually most effective; that we need both an engaging learning experience for our students AND a purposeful effort to create the optimum conditions within which students can thrive.

That said, the purpose of this post is to explore the guiding principles behind an effective school discipline plan. In future posts I will explore what those plans can actually look like and how (more importantly) they can be implemented with high fidelity.

As Rob Horner (University of Oregon) has said:

Effective schools strive toward becoming a community that establishes a common vision (goals & objectives), a common language (procedures & processes), and a common set of experiences (routines & outcomes).

It’s the last one – a common set of experiences – that is the primary focus here. Foundational to a proactive, productive, and consistent approach to student behaviour is being clear on which behaviours are classroom managed and which behaviors are office managed. Without that clarity, a common experience for the adults working in any school is potentially at risk. How do teachers access support? When do they access support?  What behavioural issue do they handle? Who is supposed to make first contact with parents? When should a student be referred to administration? These are just some of the (many) questions answered with a systemic approach that clarifies roles and responsibilities.

Again, I’ll explore a working model that I have experienced a lot of success with in a future post. Regardless of the model (system) your school creates, there are a few universal guidelines that can assist any school in beginning the process of aligning the collective adult-responses to inappropriate student behaviour. Again, these principles are universal; how they play out in your school is contextual.

1) Every school-wide discipline plan is designed to be an instrument of support and inclusion, not removal and isolation. To be clear, a proactive, systemic approach to student discipline has nothing to do with inventing new and creative ways to suspend and/or expel students. Be clear that discipline and punishment are two very different constructs. A systemic approach to discipline is about teaching, guiding, and supporting; it’s about recognizing which social skills students are lacking and being able to address them through an instructional approach, not a punitive one. It’s what Ross Greene refers to as lagging skills. (My friend and colleague Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin) blogged about lagging skills here.

2) Be clear about expected behaviours and what success can/should look like. If we’re going to expect students to behave appropriately then we should be clear about what that means. Not only should students know what is expected, but they should know the contextual differences between appropriate behaviours, even within the same setting. How students behave during an assembly built around a formal ceremony/service is quite different from one involving an interactive musical theatre group. Behaviour is always contextual and we need to be clear – crystal clear – about what, how, when, where, and (most importantly), why?

3) Be reasonable, consistent, and fair when responding to inappropriate behaviours. Two important points here. First, the policy that should override all other policies is the policy of reasonableness. All of our rules should pass the reasonable test; is it a reasonable expectation for our students? As well, how we respond to inappropriate behaviours should also be reasonable. The second point is that fair is not equal. Fair means being fair given a student’s individual circumstance and level of behavioural competence. Using equal as a starting point requires no thought; being fair allows us to respond to the student while considering the overall context.

4) Pre-correct for anticipated behavioural errors. If there is one strategy that is most effective while being the easiest to implement it’s the pre-correction. Many of us have been pre-correcting students for years but have never thought to identify it by name. We do this before assemblies, before fire drills, before field trips, before science labs, etc. We identify potential sources of tension for students (either as individuals or whole groups) and remind them of how to respond appropriately. When the source of tension does arise, the student is more likely to appreciate the fact that you were able to anticipate it for them and will more likely respond as you had suggested. Even more effective would be to have the students participate in the process of identifying more prosocial ways of responding to aversive situations.

5) Respect the uniqueness of each student, each incident, and each set of circumstances. This principle speaks to the notion that there are no automatic responses to any behavioural error. While your responses may end up being similar (or the same) as previous incidents, no steps are skipped and no detail is overlooked. I learned a long time ago that the more you agonize over a decision before you make it, the less likely it is that you’ll live to regret the decision once it’s made. While you’re not likely to treat every behavioural error as a major crisis, the idea is to simply consider the situation and, without comparing it to anything else, determine the most appropriate response. Precedence can play a role, however, the point is to  respond to the student, not just the behaviour.

Having said all of that, we also know that there are students who require more intensive and/or individualized approaches to improving their behaviour. While a school-wide discipline plan is necessary, we must know that it won’t be an effective process for all students. Fundamental to success with students who demonstrate negative behaviours is to make sure the intensity of the interventions matches the intensity of the presenting behavioural challenge; for some students, the general school-wide approach simply doesn’t match the necessary level of intensity.

By following these 5 universal guidelines, schools are more likely to create a more positive, productive, and proactive school culture. Having a plan for the adults to align their responses to behavioural errors creates predictability for students. While no two adults will ever be the same, we can anticipate more consistency and purpose from teacher to teacher. Student discipline is about teaching and for teachers, it’s about being thoughtful. After-all, as the saying goes, undisciplined discipline is not discipline!

Discipline is not a four-letter word

Somewhere along the way the word discipline has, for some, become a four-letter word.  Isn’t discipline a good thing?  Don’t I need discipline to sustain a habit, change my lifestyle, or excel at anything I do.  Isn’t it important that I learn self-discipline so I can monitor my own progress toward any goal.  If I don’t have it or know what it looks like, isn’t it important that I have someone to help guide me there? Now, I know that’s probably not what is often meant when people use the term discipline, but therein lies the problem.  If by discipline you mean punishment then say punishment.  Living in the world of connotation opens the door to misunderstandings even when we actually agree.

I don’t want to move “beyond discipline”; I want discipline, self-regulation and self-control…and I want it for my students.  I certainly want to move “beyond punishment” to engage in more meaningful dialogue to assist students in understanding where things went wrong, how they can restore their relationships, and how to avoid making the same mistake again.

For schools, discipline plans or systems should be designed as instruments of support & inclusion, NOT removal and isolation. The focus should be on teaching what is socially acceptable within the given context and helping students learn what is and is not appropriate. Students are greatly influenced by the parameters outlined by the adults they interact with and are taught, both directly and indirectly, what is socially acceptable. Do we not celebrate coaches who can instill a disciplined atmosphere within their team? Do students not need discipline to prevent themselves from reacting inappropriately while emotionally charged?

Discipline is a good thing; the misuse of discipline – or mistaking punishment for discipline –  doesn’t render the idea of discipline inappropriate or ineffective. Effective school discipline brings a sense of belonging, an atmosphere of inclusion, a feeling of predictability, and a climate of respect.

Time Out – Time In

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though “timeout” is getting a bad rap.  While I am definitely NOT in favor of creating a fast track to removing students from classrooms, there are times when removing a student from a situation is an effective way of intervening. Even if only for a few minutes, sometimes a little distance between the teacher/environment and the student is the most effective way to defuse the situation. Sometimes, it is important to intervene and/or discuss an issue with a student privately rather than confronting it in front of the entire class.

Time out works.  My issue is more with the misuse of time out by thinking it always works; it doesn’t. Here are a few guidelines that may help you determine whether time out is or is not an effective way to intervene and how you might go about maximizing its effective use.

1. There must be a desirable ‘time-in’ environment. Removing a student from an environment they do not want to be in will never be an effective way of reducing the likelihood that a challenging behavior will occur again.  It’s as silly as suspending a student out-of-school for skipping. This will only serve to reinforce the negative behavior and increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again – only sooner and with more intensity.  This is why two students can/will have very different responses to the same intervention (time out). The student for whom the environment is desirable will respond positively; the other, not so much.

2. Keep it brief – no more than 5 or 10 minutes MAX. If you need to appropriately remove a student because you are in the middle of something that’s okay.  However, the idea that a student sit in the hallway for 30-45 minutes is, for me, unacceptable.  If, as part of a Behavior Improvement Plan, a student needs to be removed for an extended period of time, then another location should be part of the plan so the student can continue their learning.

3. Keep it business-like. This is much easier said than done, especially if the T.O. is the result of the student telling you to F.O. The bottom-line in any teacher-student relationship is getting emotionally caught up in any discipline issue never goes well for the adults involved. Remember, this is not a judgment of the student as a person; this is about their behavior and, as such, we need to remain as objective as possible.  Taking things personally usually leads to ineffective interactions.

4. Teach ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ to take the timeout. This is especially true for students for whom timeout is a part of their behavior improvement plan. Not only will this reinforce the objectivity of the intervention, it will give the student a clear picture of how the timeout is supposed to occur.  Then, if the student follows through on what they’ve been ‘taught’ there is an opportunity for positive feedback on how respectfully they moved to the hallway without disrupting the other students. Students with severe behavioral challenges may never fully change, however, we can teach them prosocial ways to handle their inevitable emotions of anger and frustration by self-regulating how they respond to what you are asking them to do.

5. Review the ‘context’ of timeout use if it’s frequent. This means two things.  First, if you find that you are consistently needing to use timeout on certain days or during certain periods, analyze what you are typically asking the students to do during that time.  As well, it could be that the students arrive to your class immediately after P.E. and the exercise and/or competitiveness hasn’t quite transitioned out.  Second, if a specific student is given a timeout consistently during a certain time/period/day, then examine their specific situation to plan  for ways of preventing escalations and creating an optimum environment.

As I wrote on March 16, 2011, behavior interventions are neutral.  How students respond determines an interventions effectiveness. Timeout is not inherently wrong; however, the misuse of timeout can be counter-productive and only increase the intensity, severity, and duration of the presenting challenging behavior.  In the end, our goal should always be to create a positive teaching and learning environment where timeout is unnecessary.

Classroom Management is about “Predictability”

The other day I came a cross a tweet that asked what they key to classroom management was.  The first word that came to my mind was predictability.

Now before I explain…a little disclaimer.  This is not about “control” – it’s about creating “conditions.”  The word management seems to have fallen so far out of favor that it feels necessary to use “air quotes” each time we say the word.  There also seems to be a never-ending semantically anchored debate that labors to move to actually discussing effective practices when we continue to say, I don’t manage kids (insert air quotes).  Managing situations and learning environments – at least from where I sit – is not at all about trying to control every single move a student makes or stifle creativity.  For me, managing a class means creating the optimum conditions in which students can learn.

Classrooms are effectively managed when there is predictability around expectations, routines, and relationships.  

Predictability of EXPECTATIONS: Students have to know what is expected of them; how they are expected to interact with their peers and with the teacher in the classroom.  They have to understand how to listen attentively, how to respect both themselves and others within the room, how to respect the learning environment, etc.  The consistent interplay between teacher and students establishes a predictability that brings comfort to students; that what is expected of me is not a mystery but clearly established and agreed upon.

Predictability of ROUTINE: There is a rhythm to effective teaching – it’s the rhythm of how we do learning.  Predictable routines – how to access assistance, how to re-organize for group work, how to submit completed assignments, how to respond to feedback – create learning conditions that students can depend upon day in, day out.  In turn, anxiety around routines is reduced which reciprocally raises student confidence and removes yet another obstacle toward the expectation of eventual success.

Predictability of RELATIONSHIPS: For me, most important.  The relationships we develop with students need to be predictable in that there is no doubt that we are on their side and will do whatever it takes to help then succeed. It also means that the relationships between the students is also predictable; that the classroom is a safe place to learn, take risks, make mistakes, and recover free from personal or emotional harm.  All that we do – assess, instruct, grade, report – should not jeopardize our relationships with our students. Everything our students do should not jeopardize their relationships with each other.

The optimal environment in which to learn is one that is predictable enough to provide the necessary parameters without stifling individuality and/or creativity.  It’s a balance – a balance that when struck is the sweet spot of teaching that allows learning to sit front-and-center.

Behavior Interventions are…Neutral?

Pop Quiz…Is temporarily removing a disruptive student from your class a consequence or a reinforcement? 

Here’s the scene:

Two students in your math class – Jennifer & Allison – are being disruptive enough to make learning very difficult for the other students.  Jennifer is your top math student and has proclaimed several times that math is her favorite subject.  On the contrary, Allison hates math.  You know this because she has also told you several times.  After repeated attempts to get them to quiet down, you ask each of them to step out into the hallway; both students comply with your direction and you plan to discuss the issue with them in 5 minutes.

Question: Have Jennifer and Allison been consequenced or reinforced?  Recognizing the limitations of hypothetical situation involving students you don’t know personally, most would likely answer consequenced…same intervention by the teacher therefore same result.  The truth is…it’s both.

Jennifer loves math so she will likely view the removal from class as a consequence since she wants to do well, loves the subject, and is connected to you.  Allison, on the other hand, will likely view the removal as a reinforcement since she doesn’t want to be in math in the first place.  This is where we can get tricked if we are not paying attention.

How is it that the same intervention can produce different responses from students? It’s because behavior interventions are neutral…how a student responds to an intervention determines whether it was a consequence or a reinforcement.

When any behavior is reinforced it means we have increased the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. What has Allison learned…be disruptive and you will be removed from an environment you don’t want to be in. By removing Allison from class, you have increased the likelihood of Allison being disruptive again; for Jennifer it’s likely the opposite.  The whole point of consequences is to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. For Allison you haven’t done that.  The first rule in using “time-out” is that there is a desirable “time-in” environment.  This is how we inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors and scratch our heads wondering why it didn’t work.

Think of it this way…If IT didn’t do what you thought IT was going to do, then IT wasn’t what you thought IT was.

As a school administrator, the silliest thing I could do is suspend someone out-of-school for skipping.

Every student’s response to the behaviour interventions you use will reveal to you whether you are accomplishing the desired outcome.  You see this as an administrator, teacher, and even a parent.  All of our relationships involve a social interaction feedback loop.  As adults we need to pay attention to the results of our efforts and put more thought behind what we are doing; maybe you already do that. 

The point is that we can’t categorize any behavior intervention until we see how the student responds.  Ony then will we know what it was.

Attention – The X-Factor

A number of years ago I attended a conference session with Geoff Colvin, retired professor from the University of Oregon; the session was on Behavior Escalations. At the beginning of the session he asked each of us to answer three questions…I’d like you to do the same:

  1. Kids need attention from adults? (Yes/No)
  2. At school, positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)
  3. At school, negative behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)

Since that session, this is an activity I have done with countless audiences in numerous presentations and workshops; the results are always the same.

I’m guessing you answered Yes – No – Yes.  Here’s the rub.  Most adults agree that kids need attention from adults…not want…need. However, kids don’t typically get what they need at school unless they act inappropriately.  Think about it, if you were a kid and you wanted adult attention, what would you do?  If you’re playing-the-odds, acting inappropriately is the most efficient and effective way to get adult attention at school; this has to change.

Adult attention is a huge reinforcement for kids even when it’s negative.  This is how we reinforce negative behavior. In order to create a positive class/school climate, we need to create an environment where positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults.  An environment where attention for on-task, pro-social behavior is more regular and predictable is one that will diminish the need for attention through negative actions.  Kids will always choose the most efficient and effective means to get what they want.  If adult attention is more accessible through pro-social behavior then we render the negative behaviors as being inefficient and effective; negative behaviors are not the fastest way to access adult attention.

In schools, we need to be mindful of how much/little attention we give to student actions…it is the “X-Factor.”  Descriptive feedback for on-task, pro-social behavior will create a culture where kids won’t feel they need to act out. Reinforcement is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is unavoidable, and there is a huge difference between reinforcement and rewards; rewards are tangibles while reinforcement is social. I’m not talking about M&M’s or ‘false praise’ here; this is about authentic relationships and human interaction. John Maag of the University of Nebraska (2001) once wrote:

Some teachers have said, “I don’t believe in using reinforcement.” This statement is as logically absurd as saying, “I don’t believe in gravity.” Just because someone may not like something does not consequently abolish its existence.

Remember, at the beginning you said that kids need attention from adults, so when we say things like, “Oh he’s just doing that for attention” we’re probably right and must remember that this is a very real need for our students.  Withholding attention is not an appropriate strategy as it only creates escalations; they need it and you won’t give it so they up-the-ante!

What we give our attention indicates to our students what we think is important.  If you value on-task, pro-social behavior then notice it, give it your time, provide specific, descriptive feedback to students (not just ‘good job’) about what you noticed.  How often have we walked down a hallway and not engaged any students until they break a rule?

So, the next time you intervene with a student who is acting inappropriately, reflect on how much your attention to the negative is influencing the students slow move to change. 

Again, if you think they’re doing it for the attention, you’re probably right!