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School Discipline and Self-Discipline

By Kathleen M. Minke

At this time of the year, school psychologists are swimming deep in the alphabet soup of education: ESEA, IEP, CBA, RTI, PBIS, and a host of others. I recently read a report on prevention of social, emotional, and behavioral problems in youth and there was a fivepage compendium of acronyms to help you navigate it! In addition to being reminded that we have to watch our jargon when communicating with others, it prompted some thinking about the either/or approach that sometimes threatens to dominate the discourse in our profession. CHC org. Criterion-referenced or norm-referenced. RTI or comprehensive assessment. Those who advocate fervently for one side or the other on these and other topics serve us well because they prompt us to think through the arguments and draw conclusions about what is supported by current evidence and what still remains to be researched and discovered. And sometimes we have colleagues who do this thinking and help the rest of us out by publishing the results of their careful review of the evidence, providing clarity and direction to our work.

One good example of this kind of analysis is the book that will be the topic of the annual book discussion at the San Francisco convention: School Discipline and Self-Discipline: A Practical Guide to Promoting Prosocial Student Behavior by George G. Bear. (Full disclosure: George and I have been colleagues for almost 20 years so you might expect me to be enthusiastic about his work. But anyone who has seen us in meetings together can assure you that we do not accept each other’s work uncritically! Let’s just say the discussions have been known to be spirited.) This clear and concise book begins with a review of the various purposes of school discipline and contrasts the goals of controlling students’ behavior with developing students’ ability to make responsible decisions in the absence of direct adult control. Bear notes that many schools take the either/or approach, focusing exclusively on a teacherdirected, externally controlled PBIS model or an internally focused, moral reasoning, character education/SEL model. He argues persuasively that what is needed is a balanced, comprehensive program that capitalizes on the strengths of both approaches while compensating for the relative weaknesses of each. Such a program addresses four key areas: (a) developing self-discipline, (b) correcting behavior problems, (c) preventing behavior problems, and (d) addressing the needs of students with chronic or severe behavior problems.

The book provides a review of evidence-based strategies across these areas and provides multiple checklists and recommendations to guide implementation. Significantly, and consistent with the convention theme, when done successfully, the methods advocated here will produce safe, orderly schools that also have positive climates and relationships among students, educators, and families.

Helping school leaders adopt and implement effective discipline practices can be a key role for school psychologists. We frequently are involved at the ground level (when a student gets in trouble) and we are almost always involved when a behavioral issue reaches a crisis point. But it would be better if we were more involved with the teams who design the policies, guiding them toward effective school discipline that prevents most problems. When we communicate what works and what doesn’t, and why, we can contribute to this process. I encourage you to check out the September Communications Matters column and to use the related article/handouts for your school newsletter or website. This material was adapted from two handouts from the soon to be released Helping Children at Home and School III CD-ROM. You can further adapt them to be specific to your school community. George Bear’s handout provides a very brief overview of the recommendations contained in the School Discipline and Self-Discipline book and it is complemented by Russ Skiba’s handout on zero tolerance, outlining the negative effects a strict application of this approach has on discipline and student functioning. These resources are extremely valuable in your advocacy for best practice and are available in the September Communiqué Online at http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/cq391index.aspx.

I also encourage you to attend the Friday morning book discussion at the convention. Terry Molony, who does an outstanding job of coordinating the discussions, calls it “the best kept, yet advertised, secret” at the meeting. Over the past few conventions, authors have included George McCloskey, Donald Meichenbaum, James Garbarino, Sam Goldestein, Beth Doll, and Martin Seligman. The group is usually relatively small and the conversations are informal and lively. It is a terrific opportunity to talk directly to an author and other colleagues who share your interests. It is great if you read the book in advance, but it is not required to participate and benefit. If your school engages in Professional Learning Community discussions, you will get a nice head start on leading a conversation with your colleagues back home about the critical issue of school discipline.

The convention will be here before we know it. I look forward to meeting many of you there. In the meantime, I hope that all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday surrounded by family and friends.


Kathleen M. Minke, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of education at the University of Delaware.