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Professional Opinion

Putting a positive spin on school discipline

A therapeutic approach leads K12 students to think more productively when they get in trouble
Alex Fertig is a psychologist for the Parsippany Troy Hills School District in New Jersey. He can be reached at afertig@pthsd.net. Ray W. Christner is a psychologist with Cognitive Health Solutions.
Alex Fertig is a psychologist for the Parsippany Troy Hills School District in New Jersey. He can be reached at afertig@pthsd.net. Ray W. Christner is a psychologist with Cognitive Health Solutions.

Building principals, assistant principals and other school administrators engage frequently with students in conversations to address inappropriate behavior. The goal of these interactions is not only to provide consequences, but also to help students to avoid the initiation of similar infractions in the future.

School administrators are in an ideal position—when setting consequences—to help students build behavioral skills.

Our goal with this column is not to imply that school administrators should take on the role of mental health professionals, but instead it is to impart information on strategies, based on the principles of cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT.

Administrators can employ these strategies to help direct students’ thinking and point them to a productive path in their academic setting.

Redirect negative thoughts

CBT is based on the multidirectional principle that an individual’s situation, thoughts, physiology and behaviors all interact and affect how he or she will respond to challenging situations. Addressing maladaptive or negative thoughts to alter the student’s reactions is an effective CBT technique for administrators to employ.

Students meeting with administrators because of behavioral problems might enter the administrator’s office in an agitated state and leave in a much more volatile state after discussing the consequence of their actions.

The conversation with the school administrator will trigger the student’s expressed or internal thoughts, such as, “He is punishing me because he hates me” or “I am being singled out—again.”

In this situation, the student’s underlying assumptions of how he or she should react during times of emotional stress is activated (e.g., “Everyone thinks I’m a troublemaker.”). An administrator may be able to challenge this belief and redirect the student’s behavior.

For example, the administrator can respond to these thoughts by pointing out the positive interactions they have had with the student: “You may feel that I don’t like you, but didn’t we just have a great conversation at the baseball game?” or “You’ve had such a positive start and we have avoided trouble this whole year, isn’t this just a bump in the road?”

This redirection from negative thinking will deescalate the student and transition the student back to the classroom smoothly after receiving discipline.

Calming the agitated student

Basic CBT interventions might enhance the interactions with students in otherwise difficult exchanges. Even their physiological state can be addressed by the administrator. For example, following a fight between two young people, they are sent to the administrator’s office.

The first reaction of the administrator is to interview each one to find out what happened. Although the administrator would want to start the discipline process, the fighters involved would be in an emotional state where their body and mind are still in “fight mode.”

Interacting with a young person during this heightened state could lead to a confrontation and be counterproductive. Agitated students can be redirected by having them use diaphragmatic breathing and providing time to calm down.

Although we only highlight a few here, there are many other CBT interventions and resources that could be used by administrators. CBT interventions do not have to be used in isolation, and administrators can use CBT techniques in tandem with school psychologists and other counselors with this training.

Again, our goal here is not to infer that school administrators should take on the role of mental health professionals and provide therapy, but instead to provide an understanding that some basic CBT interventions might enhance the interactions with students in otherwise difficult exchanges.


Alex Fertig is a psychologist for the Parsippany Troy Hills School District in New Jersey. He can be reached at afertig@pthsd.net. Ray W. Christner is a psychologist with Cognitive Health Solutions.