As I have described in more detail in my book Schools Where Everyone Belongs (Research Press, 2007), my sense of the relevant research and my experience as a child therapist and school counselor over the past 38 years tell me that effective school discipline approaches for negative peer to peer behavior are based on nine principles:

  • Effective discipline interventions take place within the context of a wide range of school practices that help all students develop positive behavior, and within ongoing efforts to make the school a fair and accepting place for all students.
  • Expectations and goals for acceptable peer-to-peer behavior are specific, concrete, observable and consistent school-wide: they apply to all students and are based on staff consensus, so different staff members have the same expectations of students. Students and parents should have significant input into these expectations and should know clearly what the expectations are.
  • The school differentiates in a consistent school wide manner between:
    • less severe unacceptable student to student behaviors that will lead to an in-the-moment teaching intervention by whichever staff member is present at the time or first hears about the behavior, and
    • more severe unacceptable behaviors that will lead to a referral to an administrator for a more serious disciplinary response
    • Students and parents should have significant input into this decision and should know which actions are in which category.
  • Effective disciplinary approaches are based on continuing, school-wide efforts to build strong, positive relationships between school staff and all students. These efforts should include frequent descriptive praise as described in the work of Dr. Carol Dweck (Self-Theories (2000) and Mindset(2006), staff members initiating positive greeting interactions, frequent opportunities to listen to students, and structures for building mentoring connections for all students. These efforts should also include ongoing efforts to identify and connect with isolated and marginalized youth.
  • Effective disciplinary approaches maintain positive feeling tone and a focus on learning rather than punishing within any disciplinary intervention. Students and their parents need to know about students’ positive actions even during a disciplinary situation (e.g., telling the truth, accepting responsibility for one’s own actions, or even staying calm while discussing negative behavior). The focus of our intervention should be on the behavior rather than including an attack on the student’s character. Our goal should be helping the student change through planning new behaviors rather than compelling change through large consequences.
  • Effective disciplinary approaches teach cause and effect reasoning by using predictable rubricbased consequences and by helping young people see what their consequences will be if they choose to repeat the unacceptable behavior. These two interventions are described in detail in Schools Where Everyone Belongs. We are most effective when consequences on the rubric are small, especially for a student’s first or second negative behavior. Because students may choose very severe actions, any discipline rubric of expectations and expected consequences should include an additional statement indicating that consequences for a specific incident may be larger than the rubric shows based on the actual behavior, on relevant law, or on district policy.
  • Effective discipline interventions treat the consequence as the beginning of a learning process rather than as a complete intervention. We help students to take responsibility for their actions, to learn through reflection what harm their actions caused, and what they could have done differently. We help students identify what goals they were trying to reach through their behavior and find other ways to reach those goals without hurting anyone.
  • Effective discipline interventions are not limited to behaviors where we can clearly establish an intent to harm. I have found that it is often not possible to determine a student’s intent with any degree of certainty. More privileged and brighter students may be quite adept at hiding their intentions, having found that saying “I didn’t mean anything by what I did” or “It was an accident” has worked in the past to absolve them of responsibility for their behavior. Students with fewer verbal skills or more issues with self-control may be less able to make a convincing case that their behavior was unintentional or that they meant no harm. The risk in focusing primarily on intent is that we apply consequences differentially to less able or less manipulative students, while high-status children who are more skilled at making a good impression with adults avoid taking responsibility for their equally negative actions.
  • Effective discipline interventions are not limited to behaviors where we can clearly establish that physical or emotional harm was done. When targets of negative peer actions tell adults: “It’s OK we’re friends” or “I don’t mind,” they may be telling us the truth. It is also possible that they are responding to peer pressure or fear in the same way that women beaten by their husbands often chose in the past not to press charges for fear of retaliation, or people sexually harassed in the workplace may choose not to file complaints for fear of not being seen as a team player.

Applying these nine principles should not mean that all students’ actions lead to exactly the same response by administrators. The following are proposed guidelines for modifying discipline approaches in individual situations:

  • I believe it is not productive to hold different behavior goals for different students. For example, we might say that a student who has certain handicaps or a student with a difficult family situation can’t help hitting others, and that others should learn to avoid being hit by this student. In my view, if we do so we avoid our responsibility to teach these children to flourish in an adult society which will not take these issues into account. We also invite backlash against these students from their peers and their peers’ families because of the accurate perception that these students are
    allowed to hurt others. I believe that holding different behavioral goals for students based on class, race, or other family or cultural backgrounds is similarly unfair to those students, who will have to meet mainstream cultural and workplace expectations as adults.
  • Having said that, some students will benefit from different disciplinary strategies than we use for the majority of students. In helping these students reach the same behavior goals that we hold for every other student, we may use a very different mix of teaching and counseling strategies, positive reinforcement of many different kinds, immediate small consequences like removal from situations, and skill training. We will need to learn more about the meaning of the behavior to a student and to work in creative ways to help the student build more positive responses to situations. Students who need to learn to manage their own behavior positively through different interventions may be on a modified behavior plan from the beginning, or we may create a plan with them after they have not changed their behavior after following three steps of the school wide behavior plan. In either case, we can outline specific predictable outcomes of positive and negative behaviors for these students within their behavior plans, so they can learn to link their own choices
    with the outcomes of those choices. Structured individual plans should be created for students in four categories, as described below:
    • For students who have Individual Educational Plans under special education or 504 plans based on behavior impairments, the PET or 504 meeting should decide on the best approach to work toward the school wide behavior goals. This discussion may lead to an individual plan or may lead to the student following the school wide behavior rubric for peer to peer behavior.
    • We should develop individual intervention plans for students whose unacceptable behavior toward peers continues after three rubric-based interventions. If our best judgment is that these students are continuing these actions because of impulsivity or skill deficits in anger management or social skills, plans should mix immediate consequences with intensified skill-teaching and recognition of positive choices. If the unacceptable behavior seems to be consciously chosen by the student, individual plans may lean toward in-school suspension and the classes-only consequence described in my book.
    • Students under severe stress may have difficulty controlling their behavior and choosing positive actions. If we can identify that a student is experiencing severe family stress our intervention may likely involve smaller consequences and more counseling and emotional support than would otherwise be the case.
    • Students who have been treated badly by peers without effective intervention by the school may see no other option than retaliation. If it is clear that the school has not acted properly to protect students who then retaliated, the retaliating student may receive a written warning or a lighter consequence than would otherwise happen. This one time reduction in consequences should then mobilize more effective protective interventions. It is important here to recognize that students who have initiated negative action toward peers often falsely claim that they were only responding in self-defense to the actions of others. In addition, students may choose retaliation rather than reporting negative behaviors to adults, and this action cannot be encouraged. In neither of these cases should consequences be reduced. It is only if the school should have known what was going on or has not responded effectively to reports of ill-treatment that consequences should be minimized for retaliating students (depending on the form that the retaliation took)––and the adjustment in consequences should be coupled with efforts to protect them and other students more effectively in the future.

This summary of techniques is a work in progress and I welcome your thoughts.

Stan Davis Wayne, Maine, October, 2007