School discipline

School discipline relates to the actions taken by a teacher or the school organization towards a student (or group of students) when the student's behavior disrupts the ongoing educational activity or breaks a rule created by the school. Discipline can guide the children's behavior or set limits to help them learn to take better care of themselves, other people and the world around them.[1]

A Harper's Weekly cover from 1898 shows a caricature of school discipline.
This Punishment Book, from the school attended by Henry Lawson, is one of the earliest surviving examples of this type of record.

School systems set rules, and if students break these rules they are subject to discipline. These rules may, for example, define the expected standards of school uniform, punctuality, social conduct, and work ethic. The term "discipline" is applied to the punishment that is the consequence of breaking the rules. The aim of discipline is to set limits restricting certain behaviors or attitudes that are seen as harmful or against school policies, educational norms, school traditions, etc.[1] The focus of discipline is shifting and alternative approaches are emerging due to notably high dropout rates, disproportionate punishment upon minority students, and other educational inequalities.

The importance of discipline

Discipline is a set of actions determined by the school district to remedy actions taken by a student that are deemed inappropriate. It is sometimes confused with classroom management, but while discipline is one dimension of classroom management, classroom management is a more general term.[2]

Discipline is typically thought to have a positive influence on both the individual as well as classroom environment. Utilizing disciplinary actions can be an opportunity for the class to reflect and learn about consequences, instill collective values, and encourage behavior that is acceptable for the classroom. Recognition of the diversity of values within communities can increase understanding and tolerance of different disciplinary techniques.[3] In particular, promoting positive correction of questionable behavior within the classroom, as opposed to out-of-class punishments like detention, suspension or expulsion, can encourage learning and discourage future misbehavior.[4] Learning to "own" one's bad behavior is also thought to contribute to positive growth in social emotional learning.[5]


    School discipline practices are generally informed by theory from psychologists and educators. There are a number of theories to form a comprehensive discipline strategy for an entire school or a particular class.

    • Positive approach is grounded in teachers' respect for students. Instills in students a sense of responsibility by using youth/adult partnerships to develop and share clear rules, provide daily opportunities for success, and administer in-school suspension for noncompliant students. Based on Glasser's reality therapy. Research (e.g., Allen) is generally supportive of the PAD program.[6]
    • Teacher effectiveness training differentiates between teacher-owned and student-owned problems, and proposes different strategies for dealing with each. Students are taught problem-solving and negotiation techniques. Researchers (e.g., Emmer and Aussiker) find that teachers like the programme and that their behaviour is influenced by it, but effects on student behaviour are unclear.[6]
    • Adlerian approaches is an umbrella term for a variety of methods which emphasize understanding the individual's reasons for maladaptive behavior and helping misbehaving students to alter their behavior, while at the same time finding ways to get their needs met. Named for psychiatrist Alfred Adler. These approaches have shown some positive effects on self-concept, attitudes, and locus of control, but effects on behavior are inconclusive (Emmer and Aussiker).[6] Not only were the statistics on suspensions and vandalism significant, but also the recorded interview of teachers demonstrates the improvement in student attitude and behaviour, school atmosphere, academic performance, and beyond that, personal and professional growth.[7]
    • Appropriate school learning theory and educational philosophy is a strategy for preventing violence and promoting order and discipline in schools, put forward by educational philosopher Daniel Greenberg[8] and practiced by the Sudbury Valley School.[9][10][11]

    Some scholars think students misbehave because of the lack of engagement and stimulation in typical school settings, a rigid definition of acceptable behaviors and a lack of attention and love in a student's personal life. In the United States, scholars have begun to explore alternative explanations for why students are being disciplined, in particular the disproportionate rate of discipline towards African-American and minority students.

    • Lack of engagement and stimulation – students are curious and constantly searching for meaning and stimulation in the school environment. Classes that are too one-dimensional, that fail to involve students sufficiently, are too challenging or are very much information heavy (leaving little room for discussion and consideration), will not satisfy students' curiosities or needs for authentic intellectual stimulation.[12]
    • A rigid definition of acceptable behavior – Most students, particularly older ones, are asked to sit at their desks for many minutes at a time and listen, read, and take notes. Teachers who fail to offer opportunities for movement and interpersonal engagement are likelier to have to use strictness and rules to maintain law and order.[12][4]
    • Lack of attention and love – When students fail to receive the attention that they crave, they are likelier to find other ways to get it, even if it means drawing negative attention to themselves and even negative consequences. The more teachers let their students know how much they care about them and value their work, the likelier they are to respect a teacher's request and conform to their expectation.[12]


    In the United States, African-American students, particularly boys, are disciplined significantly more often and more severely than any other demographic. This disparity is very well documented and contributes substantially to negative life outcomes for affected students.[13][14] The resulting tendency of minors and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated is widely referred to as the "school-to-prison pipeline".[15][16][17]

    According to data published by the U.S. Department of Education, African-American students are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white peers.[18] Research overwhelmingly suggests that when given an opportunity to choose among several disciplinary options for a relatively minor offense, teachers and school administrators disproportionately choose more severe punishment for African-American students than for white students for the same offense.[18] Even when controlling for factors such as family income, African-American boys are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white boys for the same behavior within the same school.[14][19]

    One recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, which utilized U.S. federal data covering more than 32 million students and around 96,000 schools, showed that "the disciplinary gap between black and white students across five types of disciplinary actions is associated with county-level rates of racial bias."[13] Other high-powered studies have shown "increased racial and gender disproportionality for subjectively defined behaviors in classrooms, and for incidents classified as more severe",[20] and that "Black-White disciplinary gaps . . . emerge as early as in prekindergarten and widen with grade progression."[21] Such disparities in exclusionary forms of discipline have been shown to be mitigated in classrooms run by African-American teachers, with especially strong mitigation of office referrals for subjectively defined behavior such as "willful defiance".[14][22]

    Disciplinary methods also vary based on students' socioeconomic status. While high-income students are often reported to receive mild to moderate consequences (e.g. a teacher reprimand or seat reassignment), low-income students are reported to receive more severe consequences, sometimes delivered in a less-than-professional manner (e.g. being yelled at in front of class, being made to stand in the hallway all day, or having their personal belongings searched).[23]

    Some researchers argue that zero-tolerance discipline policies in effect criminalize infractions such as dress-code violations or talking back to a teacher, and that these policies disproportionately target disadvantaged students.[15][24]

    Corporal punishment

    Throughout the history of education, the most common means of maintaining discipline in schools was corporal punishment. While a child was in school, a teacher was expected to act as a substitute parent, with many forms of parental discipline or rewards open to them. This often meant that students were commonly chastised with the birch, cane, paddle, strap or yardstick if they did something wrong. Around 69 countries still use school corporal punishment.

    Corporal punishment in schools has now disappeared from most Western countries, including all European countries. In the United States, corporal punishment is not used in public schools in 34 states, banned in 31, permitted in 19, of which only 16 actually have school districts actively administering corporal punishment. Every U.S. state except New Jersey and Iowa permits corporal punishment in private schools, however an increasing number of private schools have abandoned the practice, especially Catholic schools, nearly all of which now ban. Thirty-one U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia have banned it from public schools, most recently New Mexico in 2011. The other 19 states (mostly in the South) continue to allow corporal punishment in public schools. Of the 19 which permit the practice, three – Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming have no public schools that actually use corporal punishment as of 2016. Paddling is still used to a significant (though declining) degree in some public schools in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Private schools in these and most other states may also use it, though many choose not to do so.

    A cartoon picture that shows students receiving "Corporal Punishment."

    Official corporal punishment, often by caning, remains commonplace in schools in some Asian, African and Caribbean countries.

    Most mainstream schools in most other countries retain punishment for misbehavior, but it usually takes non-corporal forms such as detention and suspension.

    In China, school corporal punishment was completely banned under the Article 29 of the Compulsory Education Act of the People's Republic of China, but in practice, beating by schoolteachers is still common, especially in rural areas.

    In Australia, school corporal punishment has been banned in public schools in all states, but as of 2019, it is still permitted in private schools in Queensland and the Northern Territory.[25]

    Non-corporal forms of disciplinary action


    Detention, often referred to as DT, is one of the most common punishments in schools in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Singapore, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some other countries. It requires the pupil to report to a designated area of the school during a specified time on a school day (typically either lunch or recess period, or the end of school) and remain there for a specified period of time that should not exceed 45 minutes, but also may require a pupil to report to that part of school at a certain time on a non-school day, e.g. "Saturday detention" at some US, UK, and Irish schools (especially for serious offenses not quite serious enough for suspension).[26] In UK schools, for offenses too serious for a normal detention but not serious enough for a detention requiring the pupil to return to school at a certain time on a non-school day, a detention can require a pupil to return to school 1–2 hours after school ends on a school day, e.g. "Friday Night Detention".[27] Failure to attend detention without a valid excuse can sometimes result in another being added, or a more severe punishment being administered.

    In Germany, detention is less common. In some states like Baden-Württemberg there is detention to rework missed school hours, but in others like Rheinland-Pfalz it is prohibited by law. In schools where some classes are held on Saturdays, pupils may get detention on a Saturday even if it is a non-school day for them.

    In China, long-time detention is perhaps less common than in the US, the UK, Ireland, Singapore, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some other countries. However, short-time detention by the teachers is still common. Teachers may ask the students to do some missed work after school.

    In Australia,[28] the principal must consider circumstances when determining what a reasonable time and place for detention entails and make sure that any special conditions relating to the imposition of detention are specified in the school's 'Student Engagement Policy'. The conditions that schools must ensure are that: no more than half the time for recess is used for detention, when students are kept after school, parents should be informed at least the day before detention, and detention should not exceed 15 minutes.[29]


    Counseling is also provided when students will have to see a school counselor (guidance counselor) for misbehavior. The purpose of counseling is to help the student recognize their mistakes and find positive ways to make changes in the student's life. Counseling can also help the student clarify the school's expectations, as well as understand the consequences of failing to meet those standards.


    Suspension or temporary exclusion is mandatory leave assigned to a student as a form of punishment that can last anywhere from one day to a few weeks, during which the student is not allowed to attend regular lessons. In some US, UK, Australian and Canadian schools, there are two types of suspension: In-School (ISS, Internal Exclusion or Isolation) and Out-of-School (OSS, Off-Campus Suspension, External Exclusion). In-school suspension means that the student comes to school as usual, but must report to and stay in a designated room for the entire school day.[30] Out-of-school suspension means that the student is banned from entering the school grounds. A student who breaches an out-of-school suspension may be arrested for trespassing, and repeated breaches may lead to expulsion. Students are also not allowed to attend after-school activities (such as proms, sporting events, etc.) while suspended from school.[31]

    Schools are usually required to notify the student's parents/guardians of the reason for and duration of a suspension, such as the student being involved in a physical or verbal altercation on campus, or the student throwing a temper tantrum on campus, or damaging or destroying school property. (whether ISS or OSS).[32] Students are often required to continue to learn and complete assignments during their suspension.[32] Studies suggest that school suspension is associated with increased risk of subsequent criminal justice system involvement and lower educational attainment.[33] School suspension can also be associated with psychological distress, and to have a bi-directional link with mental illness.[34] In the United Kingdom, excluded children have been targeted by "county lines" drug traffickers.[35]


    Expulsion, dismissal, exclusion, withdrawing, or permanent exclusion terminates the student's education. This is the last resort, when all other methods of discipline have failed. However, in extreme situations, it may also be used for a single offense, such as setting fires on campus, the activation of false alarms, or assault and battery against faculty and staff members, or school administrators.[36] Some education authorities have a nominated school in which all excluded students are collected; this typically has a much higher staffing level than mainstream schools. In some US public schools, expulsions are so serious that they require an appearance before the Board of Education or the court system. In the UK, head teachers may make the decision to exclude, but the student's parents have the right of appeal to the local education authority. It was completely banned for compulsory schools in China. This has proved controversial in cases where the head teacher's decision has been overturned (and his or her authority thereby undermined), and there are proposals to abolish the right of appeal. In the United States, when it comes to student discipline, there is a marked difference in procedure between public and private institutions.

    With public schools, the school must provide the student with limited constitutional due process protections as public educational institutions operate as an extension of state governments. Conversely, with private schools, the student can be expelled for any reason – provided that the expulsion was not “arbitrary and capricious.” In Virginia, as long as a private school follows the procedures in its student handbook, a court will likely not view its actions as arbitrary and capricious.[37]

    Restorative justice

    In schools, restorative justice is an offshoot of the model used by some courts and law enforcement; it seeks to repair the harm that has been done by acknowledging the impact on the victim, community, and offender, accepting responsibility for the wrongdoing, and repairing the harm that was caused. Restorative practices can “also include preventive measures designed to build skills and capacity in students as well as adults." Some examples of preventative measures in restorative practices might include teachers and students devising classroom expectations together or setting up community building in the classroom. Restorative justice also focuses on justice as needs and obligations, expands justice as conversations between the offender, victim and school, and recognizes accountability as understanding the impact of actions and repairing the harm. Traditional styles of discipline do not always work well for students across every cultural community. As an alternative to the normative approaches of corporal punishment, detention, counseling, suspension, and expulsion, restorative justice was established to give students a voice in their consequences, as well as an opportunity to make a positive contribution to their community.[38]

    Restorative justice typically involves peer-mediation or adult-supervised conversations surrounding a perceived offence. Each student has the ability to contribute to the conversation, the person who has misbehaved has the opportunity not only to give their side of the story but also has a say in their consequence. Consequences defy the traditional methods of punitive punishment and instead give students an opportunity for restoration.[39] Restorative justice focuses on relationship building and the community as a whole over the individual student and their offence, creating a sense that everyone has a part in the community and it is everyone's responsibility to uphold the values of the particular community.[40] This is a method that not only increases an understanding of perceived community values, but is also a method thought to work well in cultures and communities where there is a high value on the community, rather than just on the individual.

    In 2012, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report entitled "School Discipline and Disparate Impact," which was somewhat critical of the Department of Education's approach to school discipline.[41]

    See also

    • Adultism
    • Assertive discipline
    • Child discipline
    • Classroom management
    • Positive behavior support
    • Positive discipline
    • School district drug policies
    • School to prison pipeline
    • School violence
    • Zero tolerance (schools)


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