School discipline refers to a system of rules, monitoring, sanctions, and rewards implemented by school personnel with the intent of shaping student behavior. Commonly associated with teachers and principals imposing order in classrooms and corridors by exerting control and maintaining student compliance through supervision and punishment, school discipline also plays a role in educational and moral development. There is general agreement that discipline in school is necessary. The extent and nature of that discipline, however, is variable and, at times, controversial.
School discipline has two main goals: maintenance of order and socialization. First, discipline is associated with the need to maintain a safe environment conducive to learning. Misbehavior can distract from the educational function of the school, and particularly disruptive behavior, such as violence, harassment, and theft, victimizes teachers and students. Discipline is also a mechanism of socialization. In addition to teaching academic subjects, schools help inculcate the values that turn children into productive citizens. Discipline is a tool for teaching students socially appropriate behaviors and attitudes.
The most influential theoretical writings related to school discipline come from the sociologist Emile Durkheim, the progressive education scholar John Dewey, and the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault. Durkheim and Dewey were particularly interested in how discipline, defined as restraint placed on human behavior, is related to how individuals internalize the principles that guide attitudes and behaviors. Both theorists viewed the school as an important location for childhood socialization. In contrast, Foucault s discussions on discipline focused primarily on prisons with only a cursory look at schools. His work is more important for how it has informed recent critical analyses of school discipline than for any concrete theory of schooling.
Durkheim and Dewey claimed that discipline, or behavioral restraint, is beneficial for both the individual and society. In Moral Edu cation (1961 ), Durkheim argued that discipline is an essential element of morality, while Dewey argued in Democracy and Education (1966 ) that discipline is important for the development of individual character and social democracy. In both cases, the goal is the development of internal, or self, discipline. The two scholars diverge, however, on their views of school discipline, which instead of being internally motivated tends to be externally imposed upon children.
Durkheim recognized external discipline as an instrument of socialization and a means for inculcating moral authority; a respect for social rules. He believed that respect for school rules helps children develop self-control. He also approved of punishment as a mechanism for preserving disciplinary authority, although he questioned its usefulness as a deterrent. The role of the teacher is to inculcate the belief in the moral authority of social rules and to provide the external sanctioning needed to maintain it.
In contrast, Dewey was critical of teacher directed discipline and acknowledged external discipline only as an instrument of control. He claimed that traditional authoritarian disciplinary practices worked against the socializing goal of the school by alienating students. Self-discipline develops from students active engagement with the curriculum and task completion; teacher imposed discipline subverts this process by serving to dull initiative. According to Dewey, the teacher should not impose ideas or habits on children but rather assist them in selecting and interacting with their environment.
On further analysis, the difference between the two positions narrows. Dewey acknowledged that some external discipline may be necessary to control chaotic environments and Durkheim suggested that excessive regulation can lead to resistance or extinguish initiative. From both perspectives, as internal discipline develops there should be less need for external discipline. For Durkheim, as individuals rely on an internalized respect for the authority of rules, or moral authority, they need less external pressure to behave in a moral manner. For Dewey, when students are engaged, active learners there is less disorder to control.
Foucault approached discipline through the lens of power. In Discipline and Punish (1977), he argued that discipline imposes a diffuse will on individuals with the aim of controlling individuals to efficient and productive ends. Disciplinary power relies on ubiquitous monitoring and the process of normalization, where individuals are controlled through constant comparisons with those who are “normal.” In schools, examinations, grades, and rules serve normalizing functions. Foucault’s approach also stimulates critical discussions about student resistance and how enactments of school discipline may help produce “troublemaker” identities. While Durkheim viewed the power of the social over the individual as moral, Foucault’s aim was to uncover these power relations so that they could be recognized and questioned.
Regardless of whether the focus of discipline is order or socialization, student behavior is usually the measure of effectiveness. Disciplinary systems that lead to less misbehavior and more orderly environments are viewed as effective. In some cases, however, sociologists have gauged discipline by examining academic achievement, such as grades, test scores, or graduation rates.
Social scientists have found that discipline is generally most effective when schools establish and communicate clear expectations, consistently enforce rules, and provide rewards for compliance and punishments for violations. Children appear to respond better to fair disciplinary guidelines that are not overly strict or lenient and are enforced by authority figures perceived as legitimate. Parental reactions to school discipline can also influence its effective ness. When parents are involved and supportive of the school, legitimacy is reinforced. When parents and communities are in disagreement with schools, however, policies and practices tend to be less effective.
Various political, cultural, and institutional forces have helped shape school discipline. Changing perceptions of children, challenges to institutional authority, and fear of violence and crime are three of the most important influences.
Historically, society has vested school personnel with in loco parentis authority. Teachers were expected to assume the parental duties and responsibilities, including discipline, on the absent parents’ behalf. As society and in turn schooling bureaucratized, schools were trans formed. The school became a custodial institution responsible for managing large numbers of children. As such, the control of student behavior became important for the smooth functioning of the organization. Instead of substitute parents, school personnel began acquiring more of their disciplinary authority from their professional position. Although more bureaucratized, school authority remained strong until the 1960s. At this time, a general climate of discontent with the established social order was developing and would give birth to student, civil rights, and feminist movements. These movements, along with changing public attitudes, expanded individual rights and social equality. Within this context, traditional school discipline came under scrutiny.
In the United States, the clearest blow to school based authority came from a series of court decisions that limited discipline practices. One of the most important and best known cases was the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in which Justice Fortas, writing for the majority opinion, states that students are persons under the US Constitution and do not ”shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” While this case was about freedom of speech, other rulings limited activities such as the ability to dictate student appearance and conduct locker searches. School guidelines and sanctions were only legitimate to the degree they could be shown to be directly relevant to the functioning of the school. Another influential US Supreme Court decision, Goss v. Lopez, established students’ right to due process. The court con eluded that because long suspensions and expulsions denied students access to public education, it was necessary to implement procedural safe guards. Consequently, students currently have the right to a disciplinary hearing before being expelled or suspended for longer than 10 days. The discretionary prerogative of the school to control student misbehavior had been curtailed.
Schools also faced challenges from outside the legal arena. Similar to other institutions, schools were accused of maintaining discriminatory policies and practices. Discipline systems in racial and ethnically integrated schools in particular became strained under racial and ethnic conflict. Critics pointed out that disciplinary actions were differentially applied to minority and lower socioeconomic students and argued that race and class based discrimination in education was reproducing social inequalities in the larger society. For example, neo Marxist sociologists argued that working class children were subject to more authoritarian discipline with the goal of producing a submissive, obedient, and disciplined workforce. Today, some children are still more likely to be disciplined than others; boys, children from lower socio economic families, racial or ethnic minorities, and low achievers are all more likely to be subject to authoritarian control and punishment.
Instead of directly challenging authoritarian discipline, some parents and educators established alternative models. Based on Dewey’s educational theories, “free” schools were developed in the United States and Great Britain that minimized teacher direction and control. These schools purposefully deemphasized or attempted to eliminate hierarchical relations between students and teachers. Although a few of these schools have survived, in general the free school movement did not provide a widespread alternative to traditional school organization. More modest attempts at restructuring class room discipline appear to have been more successful. Today, there are a variety of ”classroom management” approaches available to educational practitioners.
In the United States, increasing crime rates and a shift to political conservatism in the 1980s corresponded with changing views on school discipline. In contrast to the anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s and 1970s, public sentiment began to favor stricter school discipline as ”get tough” approaches gained popularity not only in the United States but also in countries such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. Even in the late 1960s there was some indication of concern. Respondents in the US annual Gallup Poll of attitudes toward public schools have ranked lack of school discipline as a top problem since 1969. There is evidence of similar concern in many western countries where formal government inquiries have been made into the matter. In addition, discipline is increasingly being defined as a problem in Asian countries such as Japan.
Images of violence and disorder in chaotic urban schools and later school shootings in several US suburban schools reinforced this trend by spurring concern for teacher and student safety. Policy began to reflect these changes as governments passed tighter controls and schools implemented zero tolerance policies. Under zero tolerance policies, certain punishments are mandatory for designated offenses, leaving little flexibility for circumstance. Proponents of zero tolerance claim that these policies hold students accountable for inappropriate behaviors and serve to deter other students from similar behavior. Opponents of zero tolerance argue that these policies disproportionately affect poor and minority students, are overly harsh and unfair, and alienate students without any clear evidence that they effectively reduce misbehavior. While strict controls are generally targeted at serious misconduct, more mundane behaviors are also increasingly being restricted. Drawing on arguments that general ”disorder” is at the root of more serious disorder and violence, some schools have implemented stricter codes of conduct and dress.
Stricter discipline and policies providing teachers with the explicit authority to remove students from their classrooms have not reinstated the teacher as the primary school disciplinarian. Teachers continue to have the most interactions with students in the classroom but much of the responsibility for formal sanctioning resides elsewhere. Teachers often send misbehaving students to the principal and larger or more disorderly schools designate an administrator to handle disciplinary issues. Mandatory punishments in zero tolerance policies take authority away from educators. In some schools, the punitive control of the justice system has replaced the authority of teacher and administrators as schools increasingly employ police officers, fences, security cameras, and metal detectors.
Although the meaning and purpose of school discipline are variable, in popular and political contexts “discipline” often refers to the sanctioning of children who disobey school rules. What is defined as misbehavior may be different from school to school and classroom to class room and can range from chewing gum and talking in class to more serious criminal behaviors. Some regulations are codified into school or classroom rules but others may be unwritten and subject to interpretation. Similarly, while most schools have formal sanctions for rule violations, sanctions also occur informally and can be idiosyncratic. Because schooling in the United States is decentralized, disciplinary pol icy can vary significantly between states and school districts. Where schooling is more centralized, such as Europe, policies tend to be more consistent.
At the most mundane level, teachers and administrators frequently correct behavior by asking or demanding that students alter their behavior. Punishments for misbehavior may take many forms, including verbal reprimand, humiliation, the removal of privileges, lower grades, corporal punishment, and permanent or temporary discharge. At the primary school level, sanctions often include such actions as scolding, placement in ”time out,” or withholding play time. Some schools also apply corporal punishment in which school personnel strike misbehaving children with a hand or object such as a paddle or cane. At the secondary school level, school discipline tends to take a different form. Detention and suspension are common disciplinary measures for adolescents. Students in detention are required to spend additional time at school, usually before or after the official school day or on the weekend, studying or per forming a task assigned by the teacher. In some schools, administrators may impose formal removal from the classroom by placing offenders on suspension for a designated amount of time. For in school suspension, students spend time in a segregated room within the school. Out of school suspension requires that students stay home from school. Schools also sanction students by barring participation in extracurricular activities such as athletic events, clubs, or field trips. For serious infractions, schools are increasingly referring the situation to law enforcement. Students may be expelled or transferred to an alternative educational institution.
Corporal punishment is the most controversial type of sanction. Reflective of discipline in the home, prior to the nineteenth century corporal punishment was common. Supported by the Christian ideology that to ”spare the rod” was to ”spoil the child,” teachers were free, and often encouraged, to physically punish students. While there were limitations to the amount of force that could be used, physical force was common and severe according to today’s standards. In the early 1800s, the United States witnessed successful efforts to limit corporal punishment and by the end of the nineteenth century some urban districts had banned its use. In the third quarter of the twentieth century, a concentrated challenge to corporal punishment resurfaced. Since then a little over half of all US states and several school districts have banned its use. Today, all industrialized countries, except Australia and the United States, as well as many developing countries have eliminated the official use of corporal punishment in schools. The current trend is toward restricting corporal punishment, with countries such as Canada, India, and South Africa only recently banning its use. Consistent with the ”get tough” approach, some areas in the United States, however, have actually seen an increase in the use of corporal punishment.
Corporal punishment remains controversial. Opponents argue that corporal punishment should be eliminated on the grounds that it is inhumane and teaches children that the use of violence is acceptable. Proponents argue that corporal punishment is an effective tool for controlling misbehavior and teaching authority and self-control. While the empirical evidence is mixed, the majority of research suggests that physical punishment is ineffective. Some studies even suggest that corporal punishment may possibly lead in the long term to alienation and increases in antisocial behavior.
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