By Lauren Gentene and Nicole Pfirman
Nicole Pfirman, M.Ed., OTR/L (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a clinically licensed Occupational Therapist currently serving as the Mental Wellness & Support Systems Supervisor of Mason City Schools. Twitter @NicolePfirman
Natasha, a 7th grader, stormed into the office after being kicked out of class for the third time in a week. She had her sweatshirt hood over her head, pulled tightly around her face. Her teacher, she explained, was tired of telling her that hats and hoods were against policy. “This is why I hate school! Guess I’ll be eating in here today!” she told me.
Natasha had already served a couple of lunch detentions for the violation. Exasperated by the repetitive but trivial issue at hand, I asked if she would consider wearing a different sweatshirt, one without a hood. :No! I need the hood, that’s the whole point!” Natasha exclaimed. She finally had a chance to share her story, and I finally took the time to listen. The dress code violation, as it turned out, would not be an issue soon. She shared her hood was up this week because her hair appointment had been interrupted, and she was embarrassed by the unfinished style.
Natasha didn’t need a consequence. She needed someone to listen and make a plan with her.
During the time of this exchange, our school district had begun embracing shifts toward personalized learning, encouraging teachers to work alongside students to co-create learning experiences or learning goals that are meaningful and rigorous, helping students develop their independence and identities along the way. Despite our efforts to put learners at the center, we realized our disciplinary practices continued in the adult-centered traditions of the past. We hand students the code of conduct, identify infractions on the list, and assign consequences. We realized if we want to see real change, we needed to move from infraction-based consequences to learner-centered discipline.
In their text Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments, authors Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock paint a vision for personalized learning environments by comparing three different pedagogies: antiquated, classical, and contemporary. They argue that “antiquated pedagogy refers to dated approaches to teaching and learning that are not designed to engage the learner” while “classical pedagogies support and help students to become more confident, self-directed learners” (pp. 12-13). Contemporary pedagogies, according to Jacobs and Alcock, focus on increasing the learner’s agency, and they write that personalized learning is a “critical consideration for new pedagogical practice” (p. 17).
Though Jacobs and Alcock do not explore the role of discipline frameworks in their text, we believe that schools need to recognize that student discipline is pedagogy. Culture and learners’ behaviors are foundational components of any school. Using the pedagogical frameworks coined by Jacobs and Alcock changed our approach to school discipline. We focused on cutting antiquated pedagogical approaches and leveraging classical and contemporary pedagogies, including a personalized approach to discipline.
The Antiquated Pedagogy of Traditional Discipline
Antiquated discipline looks at the rules, the infraction, and assigns a consequence. Yet assigning consequences as retribution misses the root cause of the behavior and increases the likelihood of a repeat offense. If our ultimate goal is a change in student behavior, we must work together with the learner to understand the root cause of the behavior, the learner’s needs, and how to change the behavior moving forward. Doing this requires that we hear and use the learner’s voice.
An epiphany for us was when Nikhil, an 8th grade boy, sat in our office asking to be suspended. Nikhil’s grades were low, he did not feel connected to school, and he was often referred to the office for behavior concerns. “Just go ahead and suspend me. It’s a day off. Of course I want to be suspended,” he explained. We realized we needed to listen. We knew he was going to enjoy a break from school, he would likely repeat this behavior in the future, and he would not keep up with learning. Yet there we were, drawing up the paperwork. Suspend Nikhil for X number of days based on the code of conduct infraction. The suspension was not going to help anything. We knew this from both research and personal experience. Evidence shows that discipline practices that remove students from instruction—such as suspensions and expulsions—do not help to improve either student behavior or school climate. (Skiba, Shure, Middelberg & Baker, 2011)
In short, what we noticed was that our antiquated pedagogy considered the infraction, not the learner–and none of us got what we needed. We weren’t seeing behavior change, and our students returned from suspension as disengaged as ever. We needed to take what we were learning about personalized learning for instructional strategies and apply it to our approach to student behavior and discipline.
Classical and Contemporary Pedagogies of Discipline
As instructional leaders, we often asked our staff the question “How do you know your learners are engaged rather than just compliant?” Yet, we weren’t asking this question about behavior. Like personalized learning in the classroom, we needed to begin with the end in mind: what is our goal or intended outcome? Often, we can co-create that goal together with our learners. In our school, we built upon belief statements found in Discipline With Dignity:
“We value responsibility more than obedience. Encouraging responsible behavior requires valuing what students think, seeing their input, and teaching them how to make good decisions…We believe discipline should focus on teaching and learning rather than retribution or punishment.” (Curwin, Mendler and Mendler, 2018)
We decided the intended outcome of a disciplinary process should be about learning.
In order to ensure that learning is personalized, even when it comes to student behavior, we had to move from infraction-based consequences to learner-centered discipline. In other words, rather than assigning consequences defined by the infraction, the team collaborates to design learning experiences that will ultimately grow the learner, with the learner as a vital part of that team. In a learner-centered model, discipline becomes an act of learning that is defined by individual learners’ needs and designed alongside the student.
Together, we developed and implemented a pedagogy of discipline for administrators to use. By putting our learners at the center, rather than the infraction, we were able to systematize a personalized approach to school discipline. Personalizing discipline de-emphasizes compliance to authority and emphasizes student agency and intentional decision-making. This approach works at both the system- and classroom-level because it shifts our intended outcomes from rule enforcement to learning.
We have found success in leveraging the following three guiding principles when implementing in learner-centered discipline:
- Discipline should be instructional. Learners will gain specific knowledge and be able to practice skills that will help them in the future.
- Discipline should be restorative. Learners will have an opportunity to restore their sense of self as well as the relationships and/or items damaged.
- Discipline should be reflective. Learners will have an opportunity to reflect and gain insight into their own behavior. Sometimes this requires a change in
When we began implementing this approach, a frequent question from teachers was, “But what about the consequence?” In our experience, this question was really asking either: “What’s the punishment?” or “Will the child be removed from the environment?” In antiquated school discipline, consequences are predetermined based on the infraction, which is based on predetermined codes of conduct. In classical or contemporary approaches, consequences should not be about punishment but, rather, learning and a change in behavior. That said, separation (removal of the learner from the environment) may be used as a means to ensure the environmental and emotional safety of those involved. When separation is necessary, that separation should be viewed as an opportunity for teams to implement the three principles of discipline with fidelity, always focused on learners’ growth through the process. The separation itself should never be the only response (consequence), and it is important to remember that it is unlikely that separation itself will change the behavior at hand. When we change to learner-centered discipline, the purpose of a consequence must align to intended learning outcomes.
A Learner’s Story
Earlier we mentioned Nikhil asking to be suspended, “Just go ahead and suspend me.” This time, he was verbally asking for it. However, we realized he had been asking for it with his behavior for a long time. He had learned what to do to be removed, so he behaved in a way to accomplish that. We had to work together with him to understand why he wanted to be removed from class. It turns out, even though his grades did not reflect it, he was incredibly smart and bored and desiring attention. He would shout inappropriate comments or doodle inappropriate images because he knew his classmates would laugh and the teacher would remove him from class, a double victory.
After facing the ineffectiveness of our antiquated approach, we changed our strategy and used the three components of discipline:
- Discipline should be instructional. When Nikhil used bias-based language, we embedded learning for him and his family at local museums, created learning activities that cultivated empathy, and focused on learning how to gain and maintain positive peer relationships. We also asked his teachers to personalize based on his needs in class. In math class, he was able to create videos to demonstrate his mastery of concepts rather than complete the worksheet he had shredded in defiance.
- Discipline should be restorative. After he learned new strategies for better relationships, he was ready to participate in a restorative circle with classmates and a school counselor, and he explored the ways acts of service can positively impact his own sense of self and those around him. In addition, he chose a personal goal and participated in a two-week check-in/check-out procedure with a trusted adult, which gave him positive attention from adults in the building.
- Discipline should be reflective. Like all learners whose behavior negatively impacts the learning environment, he worked with a school counselor to reflect on the circumstances of his behavior. What was happening before, during, and after? He was able to reflect on the impact of his decisions, why he made the decisions, and what he would do in the future when faced with a similar situation.
Based on what he shared and what we learned from him during this process, we referred him to our local mental health partner within the school to ensure that the learner continued to have support while he worked on sustained behavioral change.
Outcomes of Learner-Centered Discipline
When the authors began personalizing approaches to discipline, it became clear that antiquated approaches not only failed to change learners’ behavior, they also failed miserably in addressing the mental health of students involved, including the mental health of victims and witnesses. Poor mental health is a known factor in increasing repeat offenses, as the root cause of the behavior is not being addressed. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 37% of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older drop out of school—the highest dropout rate of any disability group. Students with a mental illness engage in more frequent risk-taking behaviors and are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. We committed to addressing mental health as a part of our contemporary disciplinary pedagogy. During the 2019-2020 school year, our school district provided mental health support in lieu of expulsion in 38 of 39 student discipline proceedings.
In addition, we were able to see positive trends in other categories. Over the course of a two year period, total discipline incidents decreased 48%. After-school detentions decreased 68%, in-school suspensions decreased 23%, and out-of-school suspensions decreased 66%. Most notably, repeat infractions decreased 74% year over year. We realized it was working; less frequent repeated infractions meant students were learning how to change their own behavior. A contemporary disciplinary pedagogy was in fact increasing learning, changing behavior, and leading to a more positive school climate. Consider Nikhil, whose discipline referrals decreased by 50% over the following three months.
The Messiness of Personalized Learning
Like any pedagogical journey, personalizing discipline has not been without challenges. Though we are committed to staying the course, we also want to acknowledge a few challenges and concerns with which we continue to reckon:
- We must invest more time. Antiquated discipline is more efficient albeit ultimately less effective. It is much quicker to locate the infraction on a chart and assign consequences. Our team believes the time we put in is worth it based on the outcomes we have seen.
- We must provide support to victims and witnesses. When we commit to learning and behavioral change as the desired outcome of school discipline, it is even more important to provide support to victims who may question whether justice has been served. As a school, we must balance justice and learning for all learners involved.
- We must be courageous and committed. The reality is, some believe our purpose should be rule-enforcement and punishment. Like personalizing learning in the classroom, we must remain focused on our purpose, our values, and our desired outcomes. It can be easy to be swayed back into antiquated practices that have been accepted for decades.
We believe our learners deserve our willingness to embrace the messiness of personalized discipline. Don’t take it from us, take it from two of our learners who shared in their reflections:
- I should have thought about what I was going to do and should have told these boys that this wasn’t a good idea.. In the future I want to own the moment and take responsibility for my actions, so my goal is to own up to my follies and always tell the truth no matter the circumstance.
- At my other schools they didn’t like me because I was bad but here even though sometimes I do some bad things, I know you guys care about me and it makes me want to try to do better.
When we shift from antiquated infraction-based discipline to a learner-centered approach rooted in contemporary pedagogy, we are able to fulfill our role as educators—not systems of punishment but systems of student-centered learning.
Jacobs, H. H., Alcock, M., & Kay, K. (2017). Bold moves for schools: how we create remarkable learning environments. ASCD.
Curwin, R., Mendler, A. and Mendler, B., 2018. Discipline with dignity. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
Home: NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/
Skiba, R. J., Shure, L. A., Middelberg, L. V., & Baker, T. L. (2012). Reforming school discipline and reducing disproportionality in suspension and expulsion. In S. R. Jimerson, A. B. Nickerson, M. J. Mayer, & M. J. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of school violence and school safety: International research and practice (p. 515–528). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.