Discipline: A Better Way than School Suspensions

On May 15, 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to ban school suspensions as a measure of discipline for defiant students. The school board directed school officials to use alternative discipline approaches instead.

Offenses such as repeatedly tapping feet on the floor, refusing to remove a hat, refusing to wear the school uniform, and refusing to turn off a cell phone are classified as discipline acts of “willful defiance” and would no longer be grounds for suspending students. The new discipline policy would make Los Angeles the first district in California to ban suspensions for willful defiance. Activities such as these account for 48% of 710,000 discipline suspensions issued in California in 2011-12.

The argument for the new discipline policy is that these suspensions impair students’ academic achievement and are disproportionately harming minority students, particularly African Americans.

The new discipline objective would be to engage students, rather than punish them through suspension.

My instant reaction was that teachers do not know how to handle these types of discipline offenses. They are not trained nor taught how to do so. A major reason that 50 percent of teachers entering the profession drop out within five years is that they are never taught how to engage students in positive discipline. All they know are the negative discipline ways. In fact, classroom teaching is the only profession that, when entering it, the practitioner is not equipped to handle the most important factors for success: developing positive relationships and motivating students so they WANT to put forth effort in their learning. Most teachers are not aware that they market information. Even the slowest salesperson knows enough not to alienate the customer, but too many teachers regularly alienate their students with counterproductive discipline approaches.

In addition, the vast majority of teachers rely on rules rather than procedures. They assume students know what to do without first learning a procedure. Rules are necessary in games, but between people rules automatically create an adversarial relationship. The reason is that if a student does not follow a rule, the teacher naturally goes into a discipline enforcement mode. Teachers generally do not enter the teaching profession to become police; yet many regularly come to school wearing a blue uniform with copper buttons because they do not know how to discipline students in ways that young people don’t even know that they are being disciplined.

A huge number of teachers are relying on antiquated discipline approaches that simply do not work successfully with many of today’s students—especially those in poverty where relationships are a major factor. Learning and feelings cannot be separated. Alienate a student and you can forget about learning.

Discipline as punishment is based on the idea that a young person needs to be harmed to learn—that a student needs to be hurt in order to be taught. If you believe that a 13-year-old is the same as a 23-year-old, then you may have justification to treat both the same. A major cause of today’s discipline problems—especially regarding suspension—is that schools today still aim at obedience rather than at promoting responsibility. Obedience simply does not create desire. The purpose of discipline should be to enable and empower students so that they WANT to be responsible AND put forth their best effort in their learning.

People “do good” when they “feel good,” not when they feel bad. Unfortunately, too many discipline approaches in schools do not consider the two prime characteristics for success in teaching: trusting relationships and motivation.

Additionally, many educators are totally unaware of “counterwill,” the natural human tendency to resist coercion in any form. Terms such as “the terrible twos” and “teenagers know everything” are the direct result of power struggles that, from the young person’s point of view, are coercive.

Do not confuse a discipline approach of noncoercion with permissiveness. One of the most effective discipline programs in both teaching and parenting uses authority but is totally noncoercive. If you aim at obedience, the cause of so many problems, you will encounter stress in all parties involved. However, if your aim for discipline is to promote responsibility, you will gain obedience as a natural by-product. Any person will naturally self-defend. This natural tendency of counterwill can be completely bypassed by never referring to the behavior directly so the person has no need to self-defend.

It is also important to speak to young people in positive ways, such as in letting them know what you want rather than what you do not want. Giving choices automatically eliminates coercion, and learning how to ask reflective questions is a discipline skill that anyone can learn.

You can control someone else, but you cannot change anyone except yourself. Using coercion in this day and age simply does not work. The skill is to influence people to influence themselves to change, and this will never be accomplished with current discipline practices.

The tremendous number of suspensions in schools today is a direct result of using coercive and inappropriate disciplinary approaches. Young people want to be responsible, but we are using counterproductive discipline approaches with them.