Changing the Culture on School Discipline

By Tess Johnston, Kristy Snyder, and Christopher Wooleyhand
July 2015, Volume 38, Issue 11

Students’ behaviors are learned, and each one serves a purpose—getting a teacher’s attention, for instance, or expressing emotions. Managing those not-so-positive behaviors can be quite a challenge—but it also presents educators with a golden opportunity to teach students positive, pro-social, problem-solving actions.

Principals, teachers, parents, and support staff should work together to execute comprehensive approaches to support positive behavior. Principals should support teachers in creating a community, providing consistency, and planning for breaks. In addition to these practices, the following lay a foundation for lasting student growth.

1. Grow Problem-solvers
Students with emotional issues often resort to inappropriate behavior when they encounter challenging situations. Behaviors can quickly escalate from yelling and refusing to work to throwing objects and fleeing the classroom. The irony is that these negative behaviors often get students exactly what they want: removal from the situation and attention for the behavior.

Administrators and teachers must incorporate problem-solving skills during teachable moments. Primary students can be given a worksheet that has pictures of the rules of the class so that they can discuss which rule was broken and how to better handle a similar situation in the future. Intermediate-level students can be given think-sheets to write down the behavior and why it is inappropriate. They should then be prompted to identify alternatives to the behavior that are in line with the rules of the classroom. An adult should then discuss the think-sheet with the student before he or she returns to class.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices promotes the use of restorative justice in community circles in order for students to discuss how their behavior impacts others, as well as collaborate on solutions. Students who were part of the problem are now responsible for making things right with the rest of the class and/ or school community. Supporting the social/emotional needs of students with challenging behaviors includes helping them take responsibility for their actions so that negative patterns can be reduced.

2. Keep Detailed Notes
Educators must record student behavior in order to monitor progress for each student. This is particularly important for the social/emotional and behavioral goals written on individualized education plans and behavior plans. Educators can use a point sheet divided into equal time increments for specific targeted behaviors, anecdotal records, tally sheets, and many other formats to record behavior based on the student’s needs. Younger students may need visual cues, such as stickers on a chart on their desk, in order to know how they are doing during the day.

At the end of the day, teachers should hold a conference with each student about his or her point sheet and the targeted behaviors to celebrate personal successes while identifying future goals. Point sheets also communicate to parents how the day progressed. These can also be used, with parental consent, to inform doctors and therapists about behavioral trends.

3. Teach Pro-social Skills
A key component for assisting students in learning appropriate behaviors and interpersonal skills is regularly incorporating social skills lessons in the classroom. Students can be taught anger management skills, how to get along with others, how to make friends, how to deal with worries, and other strategies for managing their emotions.

In addition, concerns specific to each classroom can be addressed on a weekly basis by the school social worker after collaborating with the teacher. Often, classroom teachers are fully aware of the student dynamics in their classrooms and can pinpoint specific students’ behaviors that interrupt the positive, cohesive environment in the classroom.

When educators differentiate social skills lessons to meet students’ specific needs. they can direct activities to support positive decision-making. In addition, classroom teachers can use strategies taught in social skills lessons to promote a consistent and cohesive learning environment. Purposeful and targeted social skills lessons that are based on the needs of the students and practiced in a supportive environment offer students with emotional disabilities the best chance of success.

4. Accentuate the Positive
Students with challenging behaviors need to have structure and supports in place to have successful school experiences. Principals play a vital role in helping to establish positive school culture with academic and behavioral expectations that include consistent consequences for inappropriate behavior. To set a schoolwide tone, principals should schedule time during the week to allow teachers to collaborate on classroom management strategies with the school counselor, social worker, or psychologist.

Tess Johnston is assistant principal of Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

Kristy Snyder is principal of Glendale Elementary School.

Christopher Wooleyhand is principal of Richard Henry Lee Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and an adjunct instructor of teacher leadership at McDaniel College.

*This article was originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Principal magazine. Read the full article here.

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