5 Guiding Principles for Effective School-Wide Discipline

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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!

Implement THAT! (Part 2) – Adapt for Context

Context (or contextualization) sits opposite fidelity on the implementation ledger. On the one hand, as PART 1 pointed out, it is important to stick to what the research points to as best practice. However, we also know that each of our contexts – our students, classrooms, schools, districts – need to be considered when implementing anything.

Contextualizing means making sure the best practice is the best fit.  While research points us in the right direction and under which conditions we can best predict similar (or same) outcomes, we have to mindful of the nuances that make our “culture” what it is.  However, contextualizing a best practice has its limits.  After all, if you contextualize too much – personalize too much – what you implement may actually not represent what the research revealed in the first place (i.e. fidelity).  Contextualizing is about adjusting or tweaking without making wholesale changes.

Our contexts are unique: Each of our students is an individual; each of our schools, districts, and communities have nuances that make them what they are.  Each of our staffs have a certain “political” environment (positive or negative) that permeates the relationships and subsequent actions of everyone connected to the organization.  The implementation of every new idea has to be set against the backdrop of personalities, personal preference, school climate, relationships, levels of experience, etc. Implementing new ideas is not just about a clinical application; the art is knowing who, why, how, and when to implement the what.

Our contexts aren’t that unique: Students, teachers, administrators, and districts are more similar than different; sometimes context is over-thought. While adjusting for context is important, we  don’t want to adjust-for-the-sake-of-adjusting just to be different (and maybe to show how much smarter we are than our “rival” school!!).  Context can also be a crutch – a way of excusing inactivity based more in a lack of willingness as opposed to thoughtful hesitation. While there are a cluster of challenges  (i.e. politics, status quo, rigidity, lack of experience) that we all face when trying to bring about change, it is rare that an organization will face such a contextual challenge that it requires an overhaul of the practices the research says will work. Absolutely adjust and adapt for context…but only to a point

That said, fit matters as much as fidelity. Sticking as close to the research as possible while making the necessary adjustments to maximize the rate of success is ideal. Being overly “faithful” to the research is too rigid and not thoughtful; adjusting too much for context has the potential to render the practice as unrecognizable.  Doing both will allow evidence-based practices to fit the context with precision and accuracy.