Establish Discipline Policies that Promote SEL

Students communicate their needs through their behavior (Jones et al., 2018), and even in schools with optimal systemic SEL supports, misbehaviors will occur. How schools respond to these behaviors can have a large influence on school climate and students’ social and emotional development.

When discipline policies and practices are supportive, developmentally-appropriate, and equitable, they reinforce SEL and support stronger relationships, student engagement, and equitable outcomes.

The Effects of Punitive, Subjective, and Exclusionary Discipline

Punitive, subjective, and exclusionary approaches to discipline can often be damaging to students and undermine schoolwide SEL implementation. These types of disciplinary approaches include taking away recess, detention, suspension, or expulsion.

Studies have consistently revealed that punitive discipline:

  • Is not effective and often do not deter misbehavior (Mendez, 2003; Dupper et al., 2009).
  • Often has a negative impact on students, including a loss of connectedness to school and instructional time, greater risk of academic failure, and higher levels of dropout and school violence (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Allensworth et al., 2014; Fabelo et al., 2011; Balafanz et al., 2015, Skiba & Peterson, 1999; Perry & Morris, 2014).

Compounding these issues are disciplinary policies that are open to interpretation (e.g., policies in which students can be cited for things like disrespect, insubordination, etc.). These subjective policies leave students vulnerable to staff’s implicit biases, which can lead to inequities in student’s educational opportunities.

  • Black students are almost four times as likely as white students to be suspended for the same behaviors.
  • Black students are more than two times as likely as white students to be referred to law enforcement for school-related behavior.
  • Students with disabilities are suspended at disproportionately higher rates.
  • Black boys with disabilities, who account for 36 percent of suspensions, represent only 19 percent of the population.

From: U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, 2016

Supportive Discipline to Promote SEL and Equity

In contrast to punitive and exclusionary approaches, the most effective discipline policies focus on:

Helping students understand the impact of their behavior and build their social and emotional competencies.

Being respectful and encouraging while interacting with students to maintain the student’s sense of belonging and significance.

Considering what the student is thinking, feeling, learning, and deciding about themselves.

Encouraging the constructive use of personal agency and autonomy.

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These types of instructive and restorative approaches to discipline lead to better behavioral outcomes while helping maintain positive school climate and student-teacher relationships (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Gottfredson et al., 2005; Steinberg et al., 2011). They are also more likely to result in deeper social and emotional learning that’s transferable to new situations.

As a school team, review your discipline policy to see how well it aligns to your SEL efforts:

  • Collect and analyze data to understand trends and uncover any inconsistencies in disciplinary practices and disparities between student subgroups.
  • Eliminate subjective or unclear rules and policies where implicit biases can arise (e.g. policies around disrespect, insubordination, defiance).
  • Establish procedures for addressing the root causes of behaviors. Root causes may include inconsistent schoolwide norms or rules, a lack of knowledge or skill, or poor relationships with adults or peers. Procedures that include taking time to listen to students’ perspectives help school personnel understand the root cause.
  • Provide structured ways for staff to support students in reflecting on the impact of their behavior, problem-solving, and repairing any harm they have caused.
  • Establish clear policies for using suspensions and expulsions only as a last resort when safety is a factor, and ensure that students who are suspended or expelled have opportunities to make academic progress.
  • Ensure that students and families are familiar with the school’s discipline policies and know their rights.

Also watch out for these common pitfalls that can fuel disparities and compromise relationships among staff and students:

  • Dress code policies that disproportionately impact specific groups of students.
  • Demerit systems or progressive discipline policies that allow for a student to potentially receive harsh punishment (e.g. suspension) for minor behaviors (e.g., 1 tardy = a warning, 2 tardies = a detention, 3 tardies = one day suspension, etc.)
  • Zero tolerance policies that issue automatic punishments for certain behaviors without addressing root causes.

Chicago Public Schools Student Code of Conduct

In 2014 Chicago Public Schools updated their Student Code of Conduct to reflect a less punitive, more restorative approach to discipline. These efforts resulted in a dramatic reduction in suspensions and expulsions. To see what discipline looks like in CPS, watch “A Restorative Approach to Discipline.”

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