How to Handle Student Discipline in School

W. Stephen Parker
W. Stephen Parker
Middle/high school principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership
‘Discipline’ written on a green chalkboard.

What is Student Discipline?

Discipline in general terms is defined as to teach, or teaching. However, discipline in schools is often more of a way to modify behavior so that teaching can occur. The lines are thin and gray between discipline as defined and actual teaching.

In general, discipline in many cases is a means to punish behavior deemed unacceptable in school. Additionally, discipline is also used to curb activity that disrupts the educational process within the school setting.

In defining student discipline, one must explore the reasons that discipline is necessary. In other words, what is it about students’ actions that cause us to need to implement disciplinary measures?

Why Do Some Students Act Out?

The reasons students “act out” in school are probably as many as there are students in the classroom. However, there are a few reasons that tend to show up more often than others. We will list a few of the more prominent issues in behavior in our schools today.

  1. Students seeking attention and acceptance from peers. Often, we see students “acting out” to receive what they envision as popularity or acceptance from classmates. The student is looking for affirmation from his peers which sometimes lead to inappropriate behavior.
  2. Students seeking attention and acceptance from the teacher or other adults within the school. A student that is starving for attention might “act out” to receive a response from a school adult. While the attention they receive might not be positive, in their minds, it is better than no attention at all.
  3. Poor self-esteem. A student that is already suffering from poor self-esteem might “act out” to mask their true feelings about themselves and their situation. Students who suffer from low self-esteem often seek ways to take the attention off of themselves while actually drawing more unwanted recognition.
  4. Dysfunctional home life. Students, who are in the precarious position of living in a dysfunctional home, often “act out” as a way to cry out for help. By calling attention to themselves through inappropriate behavior, the student may be seeking further investigation into why this is happening. If you listen to children both audibly and “between the lines,” often times an educator can begin to unravel the true reason for the behavior problems.
  5. Lack of understanding or fear of being wrong. Students often will mask feelings of not understanding or fear of being wrong, or “not good enough” by “acting out” to get away from the subject at hand. Even though there will be consequences for their actions, in the child’s mind, at least he didn’t have to address the issue causing his anxiety.
  6. Physical or mental problems. Students will sometimes “act out” to cover an undiagnosed physical or mental challenge. While the student may be aware that something is not right, he doesn’t want to call attention to his problem. Again as in other issues, by “acting out” focus can be steered away from the underlying cause.
  7. Similar to a poor dysfunctional home, students will often act out due to abuse outside of school. Again, like the dysfunctional home, inappropriate behavior can be the student crying out for further investigation and the help that is desperately needed.

The above mentioned list is not exhaustive by any means. As said earlier, the root cause of “acting out” by students can be as many and as varied as there are students in school. As with any negative issue with students, we should always be very aware and be willing to investigate further for any underlying circumstances. This is especially true with students whose behavior takes a sudden turn for the worst.

How to Handle Student Discipline in School

It is imperative as administrators that we handle student discipline on a case-by-case basis. Administrators should always fully investigate each incident and be willing to ask questions of all stakeholders when needed. Additionally, strategies for handling student discipline are wide and varied. It is important to strive to be fair and consistent with student discipline.

Discipline should be administered carefully and with as little loss of class time for the offending student and for his peers in the classroom. However, severe disciplinary issues must be handled immediately and of course with sometimes severe penalties.

Some strategies for handling disciplinary issues in schools are listed below.

Student Conference

The student conference is an opportunity for the administrator to ask questions of the student in a somewhat informal manner. The hope here is to get the student relaxed and talking to get to the root of the problem. This is also a great time to have the student reflect on what just happened and upon reflection, hopefully, realize where he went wrong. Often times when this happens the student will vow not to participate in that behavior again and is able to return to the classroom with a warning.

Student/Parent Conference

We as administrators must recognize that our parents are high-ranking stakeholders in their child’s education. We should involve our parents throughout any behavioral situations. Further, parents when involved can often offer insights that the student would never confide to us. This then allows us to understand more the reasons for his “acting out” and hopefully help us devise ways to deflect from it in the future.

Counseling Both in School and Outside Experts

Enlisting counseling services both in and out of school is an effective way to help with student behavior. Counselors can often get to the root of a problem because they employ strategical means to get to the answers we are seeking. Counselors are often seen in a more non-threatening light than the administration.

School/Outside Psychologists

There are times when professional help must be sought for our children. Psychologists can assess and monitor students from a different perspective to help root out the cause of the behavior. These professionals are also equipped to implement remedies for the situation.

Regardless of the means used to correct inappropriate behavior, we must remember that these students are still our students. Students exhibiting poor behavior still deserve our love, support, and help to get them through the tough times just like anyone else.

 *Updated January, 2021
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