The pursuit of learning can be derailed in schools plagued by discipline problems. This is certainly not news to principals and teachers. Research confirms their intuitions about the connection between discipline and achievement. One recent study found that classroom behavior, rather than class size, was a primary factor associated with improved achievement. On the whole, research suggests that improvements in school discipline will create an environment more conducive to academic achievement.
So, how can discipline be improved in schools and classrooms? Research suggests a three-pronged approach: work to improve the general school climate, target interventions to students who seem to need them most, and train and support teachers in effective classroom management.
Improve the school climate When researcher Kathleen Cotton examined the research, she found several key factors in effective school-wide discipline--commitment, high expectations, clear rules, a supportive environment, a visible and supportive principal, delegation of authority to teachers, and close ties to the community. Other findings suggest that a healthy school climate requires innovation, consistent enforcement of a written code of conduct, and teaching of social competency. One study linked lower levels of misconduct to increased levels of daily academic challenge and increased student perceptions of success.
Generally, studies have shown zero tolerance policies to be ineffective and detrimental to a healthy school environment. Some studies suggest punishment does not reduce inappropriate behaviors among the worst offenders. In many cases, suspensions seem to operate as rewards. Other factors, such as collaboration between teachers and mental health staff, appear to be more important. In short, punishments should be viewed as a consequence--but not a solution--to student misconduct.
Target individual students for interventions A second avenue of reducing misconduct is to target the small number of students who are most at risk for noncompliance. Research supports using positive reinforcement, teaching self-control skills, providing anger management counseling, avoiding suspensions, and engaging in active problem solving with students, teachers and parents. These approaches focus on the roots of misbehavior rather than on the misbehavior itself.
Developing a range of discipline options allows for more personalized and effective approaches. Lunch detention, for example, offers a middle ground. Research has shown it to be effective, and it doesn't cut into instructional time. A behavior modification component should be included, if possible.
Perhaps the most powerful individual student interventions work by addressing poor literacy skills. Until students gain basic reading and writing skills, their negative behavior patterns are not likely to change. Researchers suggest school discipline plans can include social and academic instruction to address skill deficits in both areas.
Reduce classroom misconduct A key factor in reducing classroom discipline is support by and leadership from the administration. Some studies suggest principals should spend additional resources training teachers in classroom discipline and behavior modification techniques. Also important are strategies that help resolve conflicts between students and teachers (mediation, for example). A 2004 Public Agenda survey shows that teachers must face students who constantly assert their "rights" and threaten to have their parents sue the school. Successful principals must manage a school discipline structure that supports teachers as it forwards the school's social curriculum.