Effective Discipline Interventions for Unacceptable Peer to Peer Behavior

By — Stop Bullying Now!
Updated on Feb 25, 2009

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.
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