8 Ways to Discipline with Dignity

School discipline is often a hotly debated topic of discussion. If viewed simply as punishment, it is often ineffective in changing behavior. But if viewed as a way to measure, check, and coach, the results are often more positive.

Measuring time
Measuring, Flickr photo by Aussiegall

Toward the end of school this year, I had a situation with a student that involved some out-of-school discipline. A couple of days after the meeting, one of my teachers stopped me in the hallway.

She told me that the boy’s mother had confided in her that at a prior district her child had been in trouble before. The mother said that this time, she was pleased with the outcome. The way she put it was, “I have never been treated with so much dignity.”

That statement caught me off guard.

I thought back to how we handled his discipline. All I could think of was how I tried to treat them like I would want to be treated if the tables were turned.

With that in mind, I began to think about how we manage discipline at our school and wanted to share 8 ways students can be disciplined with dignity:

1. Set high expectations
Before school begins each year, we hold a freshman orientation meeting for students and parents. It gives us an opportunity to welcome them and explain what our expectations are for their time in high school.

We introduce them to our leadership team, school sponsors, and representatives from other organizations like Career Technology or other recruiters. After school is in session, our leadership team visits every English class to pass out student handbooks.

These classroom meetings usually take at a week to complete, but they are so worth it. By the end, we have had face-to-face interaction with every student. They also sign that they have received and understand the expectations for the year.

2. Let the consequence fit the infraction.

In addition to expected behaviors, in your student handbook, you should decide and publish ahead of time what are common responses to expected misbehaviors. We have pre-set actions set for infractions like skipping, tardies, disruptive behavior, etc.

Here’s a common rule of thumb: As the infraction increases in threat to school or student safety, so does the discipline action response.

For instance, any student who commits an act that is either criminal or violent can expect the most severe of consequences.

On the other hand, a student who is late to class is disciplined appropriately but never like a student who hurts or injures someone else.

The bottom line: Use common sense in the discipline you choose.

3. Be consistent.

One of the worst lessons you can teach students is that there are no consequences for wrong choices.
When you decide ahead of time what are the common discipline actions for an offense, it makes it easier to assign them consistently from student to student.

Discipline must be firm, fair, and consistent if you are going to create an atmosphere of safe learning.

4. Be creative when necessary.

Occasionally, I work with students who may not have the same resources as all other students. For instance, some kids don’t have a way home other than the bus. Thankfully, that is rare in my school, but if I am working with a student who is unable to attend an after school detention, for instance, perhaps I can let him/her opt for some lunchroom or campus clean-up time. Or his parents may prefer I assign him time in our In-School Placement room instead.

The point is that being consistent doesn’t always mean every student ends up in the same discipline assignment.

Don’t be afraid to be creative when necessary. Offering different but equal-in-time choices also help put the final decision in the student or parent’s hand, which can be both empowering and helpful.

5. Be polite
I try to make it a habit to welcome students when I call them to my office. Often I will greet them with a handshake or a ‘how are you doing today?’ exchange.

Especially in situations where I know a student is going to receive serious discipline, I make a special effort to deliver the news in calm, polite terms.

Occasionally, I will confront a situation where I need to speak in stronger and clearer tones to a student. But I try to ask myself how I would want to receive this kind of talk if I were in his/her shoes.

A funny side note: Once after disciplining a girl for multiple cell phone violations, she visited her counselor afterwards to complain about me.

She said I smiled too much and seemed to be enjoying giving her discipline. She had tried to argue her way out of the discipline, and apparently, I smiled while telling her I wouldn’t change my mind. One of my teachers heard about the incident and promptly sent me a photo-shop poster of myself with a huge Cheshire-cat smile on my face and the words “Service with a smile” blazoned across the poster.

6. Be Specific and Document.

When you administer discipline to a student, make sure there is documentation of the incident. If it is not recorded, it didn’t happen. When a student admits to a serious infraction, also have him/her put it in his or her own writing. When discipline involves out of school placement, parents should be provided documentation for signatures.

Documentation serves three purposes:
a. It provides evidence of everything that is being discussed or decided in regards to a student.
b. It provides you legal protection that you have not violated anyone’s rights to due process.
c. Most importantly, it makes it clear to all parties involved exactly what is expected for the student to be successful.

7. Serve and Teach.

Every situation can be an opportunity to serve and teach. Student discipline is an especially key time to try to assist parents or guardians in teaching strong life lessons to their children.

Whether that is coaching a student on how to raise grades, or connecting them with a good counselor, disciplining students is much more fulfilling if you are exploring ways to help students in the process.

The goal is not just to punish; the goal is to discipline, improve, and serve.

8. Communicate Trust
I am honest with students that if they have violated my trust or the trust of their parents or teachers, they will only earn back that trust over time. And long-term patterns of doing what’s right will earn trust back more than anything else.

I also try to let them know that I still like them and expect them to be successful. Even though I am holding them accountable and letting them suffer consequences, my end goal is to proudly watch them walk across that stage at graduation knowing they will have a great future.

Discipline is so much more than just assigning detentions, Saturday Schools, etc. Like a good classroom, school-wide discipline is greatly affected by relationships and rapport. When students feel like you still like them even when having to correct them, they are so much more likely to work on improving their own behavior.

The same holds true in all relationships of life. I like to be shown dignity and respect, and it is my responsibility to model what I want to see in others.

Now It’s Your Turn: Student discipline is both an art and science. What are some ways you have learned to discipline with dignity? What ideas would you add to this list? What are some new steps you can take to see the positive behaviors you would like to with your students?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker