A Schoolwide Approach to Student Discipline

An alternative to get-tough measures that shows promise for dealing with disruptive students with disabilities by ROBERT H. HORNER, GEORGE SUGAI AND HOWARD F. HORNER

In September 1998, every school administrator in the United States received "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools," a report from the U.S. Department of Education describing the need to reduce violent and disruptive behavior in schools.

The report describes both the challenge posed by dangerous and disruptive behaviors in schools and the need for new solutions. It is not difficult to build consensus around a need to reduce such behavior. Highly visible tragedies across the country and a less visible but compelling mountain of statistics on juvenile violence document the challenge facing public school leadership.

Reducing violence in schools, however, will not be a simple or quick task. We believe three basic disciplinary systems can address the current challenge and overcome administrative obstacles to establishing effective school–wide discipline.

The basic messages are familiar. Schools with effective disciplinary systems observe several key practices. They invest in prevention of disruptive behavior; establish efficient systems for identifying and responding to at-risk youth early; build the capacity for highly intense interventions with the small number of students with chronic problem behaviors; and collect and use information about student behavior to guide ongoing improvement.

These efforts to build effective school–wide discipline serve not only to establish a positive school environment for all students, but also to provide the foundation for special education discipline practices recommended by the 1997 amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

We know school–wide discipline requires the sustained use of effective classroom and behavior management practices by teachers, staff members and families. However, we also know that workshops on classroom management procedures, anger management training and crisis management strategies will produce minimal effects without clear, consistent leadership. The building principal is the key person affecting establishment of school–wide discipline.

Creative Enthusiasm
Recent assessments of disruptive behavior in schools suggest a multifaceted challenge. Hill Walker, a professor of special education at the University of Oregon, identified three distinct needs--prevention, efficient at-risk programs and high-intensity interventions--when he assessed discipline problems in 40 elementary and middle schools.

  • A culture of competence.


    Schools need to define, teach and support expected student behaviors. It is naïve to assume students will arrive at school with the necessary social skills. Rather than waiting for students to fail and then use punishment procedures to control disruptive behavior, effective schools define a small number of clear behavioral expectations (for example, be safe, be respectful, be responsible); teach these expectations; and provide ongoing social recognition to students who display these behavioral expectations.

    Among the most compelling messages from current efforts to address disruptive behavior in schools is to be pro-active. Schools that invest in building student competence, thereby preventing discipline problems, have documented up to 50 percent reductions in office discipline referrals. The goals of these efforts are threefold: (1) reduce the large number of minor behavioral offenses committed by students who are generally compliant; (2) identify clearly the relatively small number of students who are unaffected by general disciplinary practices and who require more targeted behavior supports; and (3) build a social culture among students where there is great clarity about what is appropriate and inappropriate. All effective responses to school violence begin with prevention.

    Susan Taylor-Greene, principal of 530-student Fern Ridge Middle School in Elmira, Ore., once fielded more than 2,600 office disciplinary referrals in a single school year. The following year, her faculty developed and implemented a pro-active system in which appropriate behaviors were defined, taught and rewarded. The effort--called the High-Five Program--resulted in a 52 percent reduction in disciplinary referrals and a sharp increase in faculty and student morale.

  • Rapid, efficient support for at-risk students.


    A separate and distinct discipline system is needed to address the needs of students at risk of disruptive behavior. Many students can be expected to display disruptive behavior after initial training on school–wide behavioral expectations. Fortunately, the majority of these students can succeed in school under more controlled conditions without high-intensity interventions.

    Schools with effective discipline systems have low-effort procedures for responding rapidly to students who repeatedly violate school expectations. These procedures often involve increasing the level of adult monitoring. For example, three schools in the Bethel, Ore., School District established daily check-in and checkout routines so students begin and end each day connecting with a trained educational assistant. The schools also modified the individual student curricula to match student skills and created more effective communication between home and school. These simple procedures required a minimal staff commitment, yet resulted in improved structure and educational success for a small group of targeted students in each school.

  • High-intensity support for high-intensity behavior problems.


    The third discipline system typically found in effective schools focuses on that small number of students with a high rate of high-intensity problem behaviors. Although relatively small in number (ranging from 1 to 7 percent of school enrollment), these students require more than their share of adult intervention. These students are capable of destabilizing a classroom or school and are unresponsive to school–wide disciplinary practices or low-cost intervention strategies.

    The faculty of Guy Lee Elementary School in Springfield, Ore., had done a superb job of implementing school–wide disciplinary systems and had seen impressive improvements among most students. However, one 4th-grade boy remained highly disruptive. His lewd comments and overactive behavior led to recommendations for an alternative placement. Yet when the teacher assistance team conducted a functional behavioral assessment and started a self-management program for the child, they noted a dramatic turnaround. The youngster’s problem behaviors dropped by more than 80 percent, and he began completing academic assignments. The combination of the school–wide system as a foundation, combined with a targeted intervention for the individual child, proved effective.

    Unfortunately, most schools are ill prepared to design specialized behavioral supports for these high-intensity students. The result of this shortcoming is a high rate of referrals to alternative placement options. Effective school administrators are building the capacity in their schools to conduct functional behavioral assessments, deliver specially designed positive behavioral interventions and match the level of intervention support to the intensity of the behavioral challenge.

  • Administrative Traps
    As the visibility of school disciplinary problems has increased, a growing number of expert solutions have been proposed. These include architectural redesign of schools, installation of metal detectors, school uniforms, peer mediation, individual counseling and locker searches. To date, however, these efforts either have not been empirically validated or have been evaluated and found to be ineffective.

    Thus, a simple, clear roadmap for building school–wide discipline has yet to emerge. Without this roadmap, establishing pro-active and safe school disciplinary systems in schools is formidable and forbidding. As principals and district administrators lead the design of effective disciplinary systems, care is needed to navigate around at least six administrative traps.


  • Trap No. 1: Getting tough is enough.


    A major theme in education over the past decade has been a "get tough" policy with respect to problem behavior. The assumptions are that disruptive behavior should not be tolerated because it inhibits the education of other students and that raising the intensity of punishment for disruptive behavior is the most effective way to curtail that behavior in the future. At this time, reprimands, detention, suspension, expulsion and loss of privileges remain the most common responses to disruptive behavior. They also are among the least effective.

    Unfortunately, a strong and consistent policy of punishment and exclusion for problem behaviors without a balanced system of teaching and rewarding expected behaviors actually is associated with increases in aggression, vandalism, truancy and dropouts. Making schools less pleasant places for disruptive students has not proven to be an effective approach for reducing dangerous and disruptive acts.

    While traditional disciplinary procedures may be necessary for maintaining day-to-day educational activities (it is appropriate to send a disruptive student to the office or another location), they should not be expected to change the future likelihood that the student will perform similar acts. Get tough policies maintain order within a school. However, they are ineffective for promoting the social climate that meets current educational expectations. The basic message is that it simply is not enough to get tough without a pro-active system for teaching and supporting appropriate behavior.


  • Trap No. 2: Focusing on the difficult few.


    Every school can identify a small number of students who are the most disruptive and dangerous. They may or may not have individualized education plans, but they are well known by the faculty, administration and staff. A tempting and common administrative trap is to assume that if the behavior of these few students could be contained (or relocated), the school climate would be acceptable.

    One of the three pillars of an effective disciplinary structure is a system for addressing the small number of students with chronic and intense disruptive behavior. It is not an error to focus on these students, but it is a mistake to focus on these students without first implementing prevention and at-risk practices.

    Schoolwide discipline is not achieved one student at a time. Procedures must be in place to build schoolwide social competence, and only from that foundation will efficient and effective support for the most challenging students be successful. Too often efforts to remove or contain the small number of the most disruptive students simply results in identification of an ever-increasing number of these students.


  • Trap No. 3: Looking for the quick fix.


    Building effective schoolwide discipline takes time. A reasonable period to design and establish the three major disciplinary systems is from 3 to 5 years. A dangerous administrative trap is to embark on a schoolwide disciplinary effort with the assumption that a program can be identified, adopted and implemented within a few months.

    Schools with effective disciplinary systems typically built them over an extended time.


  • Trap No. 4: Finding one powerful trick.


    Schoolwide discipline is not achieved through a single strategy. The three different systems address three different procedural elements of the disciplinary challenge. As such, any single procedure or package may do a superb job of meeting one of these elements but will have little impact on the others. Effective schoolwide discipline involves the development of at least three distinct systems.

    The role of the faculty, the level and type of professional competence and the personnel resource demands change across the systems. No single strategy (uniforms, camera surveillance, anger management training) exists to meet all the needs of a school. Effective leadership will involve the design of an action plan that builds and integrates the multiple components of a complete schoolwide disciplinary structure.


  • Trap No. 5: Believing someone else has the solution.


    An impressive array of strategies and procedures for establishing schoolwide discipline are being developed and tested across the country. Over the next several years successes will be reported in professional and media outlets. Important and useful information will be generated by these efforts.

    Unlike a math or reading curriculum, however, it is unlikely that a unified model for discipline will emerge. Given the multiple disciplinary demands a school faces, it is far more likely that school teams will need to develop and adapt disciplinary systems that meet the unique features of each school. School size, grade levels, ethnic and cultural diversity, geographic location and the social expectations of the community are only a few of the variables that would modulate the procedures used in a specific school.

    School administrators committed to building effective disciplinary systems need to lead the integration and ownership of those elements that establish the social culture of a school. Durable schoolwide discipline procedures will come from the indigenous units within the school. Current research and model development efforts will provide a useful menu of options, but the final constellation of procedures that are effective within a specific school will require (1) active self-assessment, (2) design of procedures for all three of the key discipline systems and (3) an ongoing system of information collection and evaluation.


  • Trap No. 6: Believing more is better.


    Effective administrative leadership involves careful allocation of faculty and staff resources. A common trap is to add more and more reform initiatives to an already overburdened staff. It is less difficult to identify a new idea that needs implementation than to identify the existing activities that will be terminated to recover resources needed for the new initiative.

    As the intensity and diversity of disciplinary problems in schools increase, educators become vulnerable to the lure of the newest fad. In many cases, the innovation is added with no consideration beyond surface-level appeal (packaging, ease of use, cost). It is not uncommon to see the accumulation of multiple disciplinary practices that are inconsistent and together simply overwhelm an otherwise competent faculty. The uncoordinated addition of more and more procedures actually may increase inefficiencies and decrease effectiveness.

    A good administrative rule of thumb is to adopt practices for which evidence of effectiveness is known; a problem is clearly identified and matched to the practice; and ineffective intervention components that are not producing desired effects can be eliminated.

  • Validated Practices
    Schools nationwide are feeling pressured to create environments where children are safe and can learn. The current preoccupation with school violence, along with the expectations of the 1997 regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has established a clear need for reforming disciplinary measures.

    The time is right for building pro-active schoolwide disciplinary systems that emphasize prevention by establishing competent learning and teaching cultures; provide rapid, efficient and effective behavioral supports for students with at-risk problem behavior; and increase the intensity of behavioral supports as the intensity of problem behavior increases.

    To establish pro-active schoolwide approaches, leaders must facilitate adoption and sustained use of research-validated practices. Administrators, in particular, need to define schoolwide discipline as a major goal within their school, build disciplinary systems to complement traditional reactive systems and establish the assessment and intervention capacity needed to work with that small number of students who engage in the most intense and frequent problems.

    Robert Horner is a professor of special education, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403. E-mail: robh@oregon.uoregon.edu. George Sugai is a professor of special education at University of Oregon. Howard Horner is a former superintendent and principal in Oregon.