Restorative Discipline in Schools

This past week I went to a local professional development presentation on restorative discipline. The speaker was Dr. Derek Wall, a psychologist who specializes in this topic. I was excited to sit at a table with another teacher, a counselor, and an administrator from my own school so we could discuss how to improve our current discipline strategies.

As a teacher, I have seen how school discipline practices hold students back from being successful. All too often, when a student has an incident requiring some form of punishment they become more likely to repeat that behavior and receive the same punishment. Even worse is how easy it is to see how these discipline practices fall negatively across racial and gender lines. It makes me question whether the system that has been in place for so many years has any effect on student behavior.

Dr. Wall started his session by explaining that in the 90s in education it became popular to implement zero tolerance discipline policies. This meant schools had harsh rules with specific consequences for each infraction. He pointed out this startling statistic: a student who gets ISS as a freshmen is 32% more likely to not graduate from high school. Zero tolerance discipline pushes students away from school instead of working with students to help them work through their behavior problems. It’s too common that schools have a “power over” philosophy, meaning the adults carry power over the children and exercise authority to punish them when they misbehave. A better policy would be “power with”, whereby adults empower students to understand their actions and make better choices. 

At my table, all people agreed that our school exclusively uses “power over” techniques to discipline students. It’s the same students who get tardies and then detentions. I have witnessed the same student get ISS multiple times and sometimes even ISS. These students are already so immune to these “consequences” that they have no effect on the student’s behavior. Instead, it’s actually a punishment for teachers, because they have to waste time getting work to these students and then put up with more misbehavior when the student returns to class behind on the learning. It’s frustrating to point out that when I walk in the ISS room I see almost every student watching movies, listening to music, and sleeping. Something is definitely wrong with this!

I understand that some behaviors require strict punishments and sometimes there is a need to remove a student from a classroom or the school environment. However, there must be practices that will accomplish this and also help teach students how to make better choices and not repeat the same behavior. There must be a better way to work with students to help them succeed in school. This week’s session was just the tip of the iceberg but now I hope to continue this discussion in my school so we can improve our discipline practices and make them more effective and equitable.

Dr. Wall started his session by telling us this quote and I think it says a lot about the mission of schools: “It’s easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglas

Dr. Wall recommended these books on the topic and I have them on my reading list:

“Discipline that Restores”: Ron Claassen

“Better than Carrots or Sticks”: Smith, Fisher, Frey 

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