Reduce Punitive Discipline

TIPP 6: Reduce Punitive Discipline

The use of harsh, punitive disciplinary practices tears at the fabric of trust between students and school professionals and erodes students’ sense of connection to school itself. In fact, research shows a strong connection between the use of punitive discipline in schools, high school completion, and post-secondary education: Fewer students who are punitively disciplined complete high school and pursue higher education. There is also a link between the use of extreme strategies, such as suspensions and expulsions, and involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice system—a dynamic known as the “school justice pathway.” Sadly, there are also well-established connections between the use of punitive discipline and student disengagement, distrust, depression, and suicide.

Students of color are more likely than white students to be punitively disciplined and receive harsher punishments for similar conduct violations. The disproportionate use of punitive practices with Black children is a well documented, highly concerning trend that stems from implicit bias and racism. Notably, the use of punitive and exclusionary practices, such as suspension, neither modifies behavior nor makes schools safer.

Students who have experienced trauma are also particularly vulnerable to the use of punitive discipline because of their tendencies toward angry and explosive outbursts—common manifestations of dysregulated emotions and behavior. If school professionals are unaware of the ways that trauma manifests in the brain and body, they can respond to traumatized children with little regard for how their actions can be triggering to already marginalized students.

School professionals who are aware of and oriented toward skillful de-escalation of conflict and problematic outbursts are less likely to rely on punitive disciplinary practices. Innovative practices such as sensory-integration activities can assist by helping students learn to de-escalate and regulate their emotions.

In addition to de-escalation strategies, some schools have begun to use restorative practices as an alternative to punitive practices. In school settings, restorative justice is broadly defined as an approach to discipline that engages both school staff and students in a balanced approach that brings together all people impacted by an issue or behavior. It allows students to work with others to resolve conflicts and improve school safety. Restorative justice practices in schools are often viewed as complementary to other non-disciplinary practices, such as peer mediation. Rather than punishing students for wrongdoings, restorative practices focus on helping students learn how their behaviors affect others and what alternative behaviors they might choose instead.

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