Discipline in School: What Works and What Doesn't

By Sherry H. Bowen

It doesn't take a lot of research to tell us that discipline in school is different today than it was in the 1950s. But it does take some investigation to find out why. Various studies have shown that students who act up in school express a variety of reasons for doing so: Despite these hurdles, students agree that discipline is needed in schools. One high school student stated: "If there were no discipline, the school would not be distinguished from the street." So if everyone agrees that discipline is key to safety in school, why do we still have a problem?

Student-Teacher Relationships

In many schools, teachers are intimidated by their students. Out of fear of retaliation, they fail to report problems or ignore them hoping that the students responsible will quit the bad behavior by themselves.

Troubled Students

State and Federal laws require that some special needs students receive special attention. Many adults and school systems believe that "troubled students" are not responsible for their actions, thus they're not punished as severely as other students.

Legal Procedures

Because of the raised awareness of the civil rights of children, the law requires adults to go through expensive, time-consuming and confusing procedures in regards to school discipline. These legal procedures do protect the rights of children, but make it very difficult to stop school discipline problems.


Very simply, too many adults fail to model the behaviors they want from students. Modeling the rules that students are to follow should be required of all adults. All adults in a community, especially parents and teachers, need to model integrity, honesty, respect and self-control.


Because of internal administrative problems or lack of procedures, many school officials fail to enforce the rules or punish students for infractions. Some fear lawsuits from parents; others just don't care, or they're "burned out."

Time-out and Detention

In-school suspensions, time-out and detention have been age-old solutions for troubled students. Yet today, many students don't mind detention, preferring it to going home to an empty or abusive household. Many consider time-out a quiet place to work. Detention lets them socialize after school. And both time-out and detention get them attention from caring adults.

"Fuzzy" Rules

Studies have shown that many rules are not strictly enforced. Lots of school and classroom rules don't make sense to students. Some discipline codes are "fuzzy" and not clear on expectations and punishments. Some disruptive students are labeled with codes like ADHD (Attention Defecit/Hyperactivity Disorder) or Emotional Impairment. This leads some school staff to mistakenly assume that they cannot enforce positive behavior and instead must resort to asking parents to "medicate" them.

Self Esteem

Many schools have emphasized self-esteem over and above everything else. Some teachers are afraid to discipline or demand good behavior because it will hurt the child's self esteem. The result? Now we have ill-behaved, rude kids-but they feel good about themselves.

Discipline Trends that Show Promise

Some schools are taking control of and finding ways to confront the problems of discipline and school violence. Here are a few programs that seem to be working: Basically, school discipline has become lax over the years as our relationships have weakened. Consolidated school systems and mega schools have made the separation between family and school wider than ever. These mega schools have largely ignored the local community. Also, some parents have lost touch with their children for many different reasons. For school discipline to be successful, we need to restore those relationships. Parents and schools need to work together to instill the importance of education into children of all ages. Finding discipline procedures that work is a job for students, parents, and teachers to explore together. In today's society, working together within the school and community will help teach children that working as a team can effectively solve the problem.  Sherry H. Bowen is a school media specialist and freelance writer in Buford, Georgia.