Why Most School Discipline Doesn’t Work

Billy, age eight, has trouble focusing at school. He struggles to sit still and quietly for long and is often in trouble for interrupting and talking over his teacher, ‘being silly’ and disruptive in class. Billy’s teacher finds it difficult to manage his behaviour, even though she implements the school’s behaviour policy to the letter. The school uses a traffic light system of behaviour control, in conjunction with Golden Time. When children misbehave they are moved from the ‘good’ green light onto the amber warning light. If their behaviour continues to deteriorate they are moved onto the red light. The red light is where the naughty children’s names sit. Alongside the humiliation of seeing their name on the red light, children also lose ten minutes of their Golden Time. If they are on the amber light, they lose five minutes. Only children on the green light get to keep all of their golden time. Golden time, twenty minutes of fun activities – chosen by the children, happens once a week, instead of regular lesson time. Activities vary, from free time in the playground, to nail painting, or play doh modelling. The presumption here is that ‘good’ children are rewarded for their behaviour and ‘naughty’ children are punished by being excluded from the fun. Billy quickly falls into a pattern of sitting on the red traffic light and rarely gets his full twenty minutes of golden time. Instead he is kept inside to do extra work, or complete that which he didn’t finish. He stares wistfully out of the window at his friends, having fun at Golden Time, and wishes he could be more like them. He isn’t though. He’s useless. There’s no point in him trying anymore.

Evie is fourteen. She hates school. She doesn’t see the point in going, her grades are poor and everyone knows she’s going to do badly in her GCSEs. Every day she gets told off. She gave up trying a long time ago. Even when she did try they said she needed to try harder. What her teachers don’t know is that she struggles to keep up in lessons and she often doesn’t understand what they are trying to teach her. She would rather die than admit this though. Instead she plays the fool. She makes wise cracks, doodles in her exercise books, passes notes to her friends and makes rude gestures behind her teachers’ backs. All of the teachers know who Evie is. She’s always in the deputy head’s office, in the detention room and often in the isolation booth. If her behaviour continues, without improvement, the next step is a temporary exclusion, or suspension. The school’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy seems to have no effect on Evie. Her behaviour continues to worsen despite the strict and consistent use of behaviour management techniques. Even heaping on the praise and offering rewards make no difference to Evie. She’s a lost cause.

Billy and Evie may be fictional, but their stories are all too common. They exist in every school nationwide. Sadly, they are the produce of our current education system and attitude towards behaviour management. Too often today children – and their parents – are blamed for their poor behaviour at school. The onus is put almost entirely on them to change. What if I said it’s the schools that should change though?

Current school behaviour policies and procedures don’t work. In fact, they often make behaviour worse. The biggest flaw behind them is that they all presume that children are able to act better, but choose not to. They all presume that a lack of motivation to behave better is the problem. That lack of motivation is presumed to either come from the child, or from the parent in terms of lacking the motivation to get the child to behave, or more than likely – both. School discipline puts the problem firmly on the shoulders of parents and children, while absolving the school of responsibility.

The reason that children continue to behave poorly in spite of school discipline is that it falls at the first hurdle, because the belief that poor behaviour is caused by children choosing somehow to be naughty is wrong. In fact, most poor behaviour that happens at school happens because the child cannot behave better. The motivation isn’t the problem, ability is. Billy, our eight-year-old with the lack of focus and respect, actually has undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. While most children his age struggle to sit still in a classroom for hours on end, he struggles significantly more. It will be another four years until he receives a diagnosis. In that time his self-esteem will plummet even more. He wants to behave, but he can’t.  He often goes into school and vows to be better. He wants to get a head teacher’s certificate, he wants to make his parents proud, he wants his full twenty minutes of golden time. He can’t do it though. The motivation is there, the ability isn’t. He can’t change, even though he desperately wants to. Eventually he will give up trying. His confidence will be so dented he’ll decide it’s better to avoid the hurt of failing and just accept that this is who he is – the naughty boy.

Evie has undiagnosed learning difficulties. They are not severe, which is why they haven’t been picked up on, but they are enough to cause her problems on a daily basis, mostly in lessons that require her to use abstract and critical thinking, like maths and science. What Evie needs is extra learning support. What Evie gets is a never-ending stream of punishment. Whether she’s punished by detentions, isolations or exclusions, or by the failure to ever earn the rewards that are offered to her. Evie’s confidence and self-esteem are at rock bottom. She really wants to do better. She covers her pain by acting the class clown, but she wishes she could focus and do well in lessons. She protests at doing homework, frequently causing arguments at home, because she wants to hide how much she struggles with it.

Both Evie and Billy – and hundreds of thousands of other school children are being failed by our current system every day. A system that places the onus on them to change, to behave better, to ironically ‘foster a growth mind-set’. They endure hour upon hour of detentions, loss of golden time, the shame and embarrassment of sitting on the red light, the sad cloud or the warning board. It really doesn’t have to be like this though.

What schools need to do is to shift the focus away from motivating and demotivating children to behave in a certain way. They need to scrap the rewards and punishments and outdated authoritarian approaches to behaviour management. Instead, they need to focus on building honest and open relationships with children without fear of retribution. They need to ask why, how and what. Why is this child not thriving at school? How is the child feeling? And What do they need in order to thrive? Of course, this individual approach to behaviour management takes more time than simply sending a child to the red light, or to an after school detention. It requires a bespoke solution to each and every ‘problem’. This effort however saves time in the long run. Conventional school discipline techniques don’t work. If they did children wouldn’t end up repeatedly in detention or on the red traffic light. Think of the time wasted employing these ineffective techniques time and again. Think of the time spent in class on these seemingly ‘un-disciplinable’ children. Now imagine if that time was spent more productively, asking why, how what. Bespoke, compassionate, empathic solutions are ultimately much more effective. The time taken overall is no more than for current authoritarian techniques, but it works! With this in mind, the question we need to ask is why aren’t they employed by more schools?

What Can Parents Do?

1. Be your child’s advocate. Be prepared to stand up for your child and their rights, even when you feel uncomfortable doing do. Your child needs you to be their voice and in their corner. Always approach discussions with the school as a team with your child.

2. Your child’s class teacher should always be your first port of call. If you still have concerns after speaking with them the next step is to request a meeting with the school’s year coordinator, deputy or head teacher. Make sure you write down your concerns before heading into the meeting and take notes while you are in there. You could also follow this meeting up with an email detailing the key points discussed, ask them to place a printout in your child’s file. Emails create paper trails that are much harder to ignore.

3. Consider joining your school’s board of governors. Sometimes it is easier to petition for change from the inside.

4. Discuss with your child’s teacher if they would be happy to read an article or book if you could source one. The more referenced and supported by evidence, the information the better. Opinion pieces are not convincing. THIS is a great website to share.

5. If, after, following points 1-4, you still feel unhappy then you could consider moving your child to another school. Or, you may decide to leave the schooling system completely and home-educate.

For more information on school discipline, how to challenge it and how to help your child to cope with it  – see my Gentle Discipline Book (links to buy: UK/ROI, AustraliaUSA, Canada and Rest of the World).


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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