How to Approach Discipline in School

Jon Julius
Jon Julius
K-12 Superintendent of Schools; Ph.D. in Education Administration
‘Discipline’ on a blue clored pencil around other colored pencils.

Effectively handling discipline in schools can be as much of an art as it is a science. School administrators and other school staff that have effectively mastered handling discipline in their school will truly have a leg up when it comes to navigating their day-to-day roles. They will also have a positive impact on learning since disciplinary issues are a distraction for student learning. With practice, school staff can become professionals at managing student behaviors to minimize interruptions.

Why Do Some Students Misbehave?

Unfortunately, almost every student will have a time where they may face a school consequence, whether it be large or small. Students are human, so we expect them to make mistakes. How we manage those mistakes may dictate whether or not more mistakes are made.

For example, if school staff does not establish consistent norms by writing and following rules and policies, they open the door for students to behave in ways that won’t serve the school system in positive ways. If students have a standard set for them without firm and consistent consequences, they are probably going to act however they want.

School staff can have a significant impact on controlling behavior, but they cannot always be held accountable for students that misbehave. Rules and norms may be consistently established and enforced, but a teacher may encounter a problem student anyway. There are several reasons why this could be the case. The student could just generally be a problem in any given situation.

In the United States, close to 1% of the population is currently imprisoned. That is a higher percentage of people that have been in prison than at any one time. We have to consider that our students will have similar demographics. In a school of 1,000 students, there may be upwards of 20 that have chronic discipline problems. There may not be much that school officials can do to curb that number.

Some students come from home lives that make it difficult for them to find success in school and later in life. They have little to no guidance, limited food, lack anyone to consistently show them love and care, and must fend for themselves at a young age. This is a recipe for many students in this type of situation to act out, which can cause discipline issues at school.

Other reasons students might misbehave include going through a major life incident. Maybe their parents recently divorced, there is a death they are dealing with, or they recently went through a bad breakup. Other students may just have a hard time getting along with others socially or they may have self-esteem issues. A lack of counseling or social work services in a school could contribute to higher incidences of disciplinary issues.

Using Restorative Discipline

While punishing students for misdeeds has historically been a popular approach to handing school discipline, other ways of navigating these difficult situations have proven to be effective as well. One such way involves restorative discipline, which is a strategy that focuses on more positive results, rather than punitive. It is a way to educate offenders by allowing them to reflect on their actions and encourage them to experience remorse, thereby curbing the behavior in the future.

Bullying situations may be popular instances where this approach can be implemented. The bully can be questioned and asked to reflect on what harm has been done, can be informed of how the victim has been affected, and what needs to be done to make things right. Proposed solutions from both parties can be agreed upon to restore good behavior moving forward. Sometimes, others can be included in discussions such as school resource officers, counselors, or friends for support. There are other ways to implement restorative discipline such as requiring group counseling, journaling, or setting behavior goals with an accountability partner.

Other Approaches to Discipline

Building Relationships

Other approaches are also commonly used and are successful. While some places are still able to use the old fashioned corporal punishment, that may not be available everywhere. Building relationships is always a good way to start. If staff have an established rapport with students and are checking in with them, it can have an impact on their accountability and behavior. Students often don’t want to disappoint the important people in their lives, and having good relationships with staff members can help decrease the chances of students misbehaving.

Deferring Consequences

Deferring consequences is another way to effectively handle discipline issues. For example, if a student gets into trouble for something small like late homework, the teacher could give the student a break by writing a discipline notice but not turning it in. Instead, there would be an expiration clause if the student does not turn in late homework again for a specified time. The notice would only be turned in if the student did not hold up their end of the bargain and correct their behavior.

Doing things like this will establish motivation and goals for the student, develops trust and rapport between the student and the disciplinarian, decreases overall disciplinary infractions, and generally shows care and support for the student.


Students love rewards. No matter what age, a reward is quite motivating. At the lower levels, stickers are quite motivating. How about no homework for the upper grades? Tailoring rewards around student interests can pay off for a positive classroom management situation. It is important for teachers and administrators to get to know their students’ interests. Knowing what drives their behavior can be a huge advantage for achieving lower levels of discipline issues. It would even be worth considering giving students the option of coming up with their own ideas for what rewards they could earn and what they need to achieve in order to earn them.


Of all the strategies for handling discipline, prevention would have to be the most important. I spent a great deal of my time as a dean of students working hard to prevent incidents from ever occurring. Rather than having an “I got you” type of system, focus should remain on setting students up to succeed. Things run so much more smoothly for the school and for the students if we can prevent bad situations from ever occurring. In doing so, we need to make sure we are establishing and promoting good relationships between staff and students, encouraging good behaviors, supervising students efficiently, and curbing small behaviors before they become larger ones by establishing norms and consistent consequences. Doing the little things right will yield big results.

*Updated March 2021
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