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Discipline and Punishment: Emerging Theories

Over the past few decades, many schools have shifted their disciplinary focus from punishing students for bad behavior to rewarding students for meeting school administrators' expectations. Rather than handing out punitive consequences to students who break school rules, modern administrators look at disciplinary situations as "teachable moments" and seek to help students understand and change their behavior. This idea of working with students to change their own behavior rather than punishing them has led some states and school districts to completely reevaluate the way they hand disciplinary issues at school.

School-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Support

When it comes to school discipline, some groups argue that traditional methods of punishment have led to discriminatory application of severe punishments that disproportionately harm a high number of minority students and students with learning disabilities or mental health issues. Some educators argue that suspension in particular has lasting adverse effects that may hinder a suspended student for the rest of his or her life.

Some groups, such as Fix School Discipline, argue that implementing school-wide policies to reinforce good behavior is more effective at encouraging students to behave than harsh punitive consequences like suspension. These "School-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Support" initiatives focus on a core set of rules and reward students who exemplify them. Rather than automatically suspending a student or referring the student to an administrator, these initiatives rely on individual teachers to address behavior problems one-on one with students. This adds layers of increasing intervention - such as parent-teacher conferences and short detention periods - to prolong resorting to harsher penalties.

Although some groups argue that these programs are effective, some educators worry that this will place too much stress on teachers already burdened with raising test scores and meeting performance requirements.

Focus on Self-Discipline

The National Association of School Psychologists also advocates for making "teachable moments" out of disciplinary issues, but with a focus on instilling the values of self-discipline in students rather than merely replacing punishments for bad behavior with rewards for good behavior. Instead of attempting to control students, school administrators guide students' behavior by helping them understand the impacts of their actions and collaborating with peers to develop ways to change their behavior.

Instilling self-discipline in students also requires systematic changes to a school. These changes usually include making self-discipline part of the school's curriculum by creating ways for students to use self-discipline tactics in problem solving and challenging students to reexamine self-centered actions. Many psychologists endorse addressing chronic behavioral problems with individualized solutions, including limiting classroom sizes for students with a history of misconduct and developing behavioral contracts with students.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

In the wake of a rash of school shootings in the 1990s, many schools across the country adopted zero-tolerance policies. These policies usually feature mandatory, automatic and often harsh punishments for certain behaviors. The goal of a zero-tolerance policy is usually to send a message to students that certain behaviors will never be tolerated, regardless of a student's reason for engaging in them. Zero-tolerance policies often focus on possession of certain items or substances, such as guns, other weapons, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Although some school administrators may think that zero-tolerance policies are a powerful way to improve school safety, some researchers have argued that zero-tolerance policies actually increase the dropout rate and lead to discriminatory results. Over the past few years, news articles regularly report about students suspended or expelled under zero-tolerance policies for seemingly innocent behavior. Examples include an elementary school student being suspended in 2013 for biting a snack into a shape that school administrators believed resembled a gun, and a teenage girl being suspended for taking Midol, an over-the-counter pain reliever used to treat menstrual cramps. Viral news stories such as these have led some states to reevaluate and change their zero-tolerance policies.

Rather than enforcing zero-tolerance policies, some school psychologists recommend addressing misconduct early to prevent it from escalating to violence, as well as increasing violence-prevention programs, such as adding school counselors and increasing parent involvement.

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