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School discipline: pay me now or pay me (more) later

July 27, 2011

Virtually everybody today has an opinion aboutwhat we need to do to improve public education in this country, and at the same time, a corresponding reason for why it can’t be improved under present circumstances. You can’t go a single day without hearing about how the economy is affecting funding to schools; or how classroom sizes are too large to allow for quality learning; or how we aren’t focusing enough on STEM; how teachers  are overworked and underpaid; or that our students should be in school for longer days, even a longer year.

These are all commonly debated topics on why education isn’t working, yet aren’t the primary reason our system is failing.  A recent article published in the NY Times got somewhat close to the issue, but didn’t go far enough. “School Discipline Study Raises Fresh Questions” discussed the impact of student suspensions and expulsions in Texas middle and high schools. The data shared in the article was troubling; one in seven students was suspended or expelled roughly 11 times in their upper-school career.  However, what the study didn’t discuss was the overall problem of classroom order and discipline. Suspensions and expulsions are on the extreme end of discipline. What else is going on in the classrooms before it gets to that point?

I can tell you. Classroom discipline and behavior is literally robbing our education system of productive time, energy, money, and results. When repeated studies show teachers lose, on average, 30/40/50% or more of what should be teaching time to managing student discipline and behavior, it’s no wonder Johnny can’t read. To put this in perspective, even a “modest” loss of only 30% of classroom time is the equivalent of 60 full days out of our average 180 day school year. If we only consider the financial impact of loss of productive teaching time, it  represents $100B or more of educational funding that goes out the window each year nationwide. It’s  consistently within the top three reasons for why teachers leave the profession, regardless of what they are paid, and it hurts the learning environment for everyone in it.

In spite of this massive impact on all aspects of the system, this issue receives precious little attention.  It is responsible for everything from the “ordinary” level of disruption and noise in the classroom; to issues of ethics,  integrity, cheating and plagiarism; to the extreme end of the continuum of bullying, harassment and school-based violence.  Our usual response is to deal with it once it’s a problem when it’s harder to fix and more costly. It may cost a school district $500 or more to suspend a student, but one suspension frequently leads to more, so clearly there’s no “fix” in that. And, in spite of the billions that are being spent on anti-bullying policies, procedures and legislation, bullying remains an epidemic in our schools today.

The typical solution proposed to fix this problem is for teachers to receive better training in classroom management. Yet, that only addresses half the equation. What’s missing is the focus on the students’ part in it: when too many students enter the school system today ill-equipped with the social skills and character development they need to participate effectively in the classroom environment, we have to address this lack in order to improve discipline overall.

In the face of this evidence, why aren’t more schools adopting broad-based social skills education? Administrators generally cite lack of time and lack of money. Many also argue that this type of education shouldn’t be in the schools, that it belongs in the home.  While I am the first to agree, the reality is that students’ inadequate social skills has become the problem of the schools. We can no longer assume that students have any “lowest common denominator” of social skills abilities and learning, and the resulting impacts on schools is huge.

The good news is that investing in social skills learning pays off quickly and measurably.  A recent study by the University of Chicago, examining the results of 213 school-based studies, showed that students who participated in social skills education improved in grades and standardized test scores by 11 percentile points as compared to non-participating students. Further, other benefits from these programs included less student stress, fewer conduct problems such as bullying, and reduced suspensions and expulsions. When you consider that students’ time-on-task increases as much as 40% after integrating social skills education in core curriculum, the time it takes to teach these programs is recouped in the gains of productive teaching time.

For the past 40 years, we’ve decreased classroom sizes, spent more money on education, and spent more time on academic curriculum for virtually no positive gain. We have to create better environments for learning.  Even a few disruptive and unruly students will ruin the educational experience for everyone. Solving student discipline and behavior issues can be done within current budget and time constraints. However, if we don’t address it whatever else we do will continue to under-perform or outright fail and that means more waste of time, energy, money…and our children’s future.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 7:47 am

    In most states, children must have certain immunizations before they are allowed to enter kindergarten. Few balk at this requirement. We tend to look everywhere except at the parents when they send a child with no social skills to school. Children who don’t know how to behave because they have never been expected to do so disrupt the classroom. The teacher is left with the responsibility to teach the child social skills. Although you mention you acknowledge this, putting the responsibility on the parent is overlooked once again. What if the law stated that children had to have social skills just like immunizations before being accepted in school? There would be an uproar like never heard before. And yet, we need to stop blaming school and teachers for the increase of discipline problems. Bad behavior begins in the home and parents sit back and watch as the schools try to figure out how to handle these kids. It is always left up to the school to solve many problems that should be and could be taken care of at home. In the good old days, kids knew they would be in more trouble at home if they got into trouble at school. Now parents have their lawyer’s number on speed dial so they can sue. Let’s start a conversataion about parent responsibility. Then perhaps teachers can teach academics.

  2. July 27, 2011 2:28 pm


    True … parent responsibility is what is needed but the fact is many are not responsible so the burden is left with the school. If the gov’t mandated social skills be taught in the home prior to entering school …. how would that be done, how would it be monitored, and what happens when it falls short? Is the child denied an education because they had the bad luck to be born to irresponsible parents. I am sure we can agree that bad behavior due to just not knowing how to act causes a snowball effects as the child goes through school. If not caught by the time the child enters adulthood, you have a disfunctional adult. No matter how you look at it the burden will be placed with society for those children whose parents have not instilled social skills. Hence, Corinne’s title “…pay me now or pay me (more) later”

    We all wish it would not be the way it is, we all wish every parent would be a responsible parent, and every child happy, healthy and without discipline problems. There are multiple problems that children face entering school … some show up so hungry, they can’t think and these societal problems have to be addressed somewhere. So we have gov’t intervention to immunize children and we have a school breakfast and lunch program to address children lacking basic needs … but teaching a child how to act to survive in the group is different because if the parent didn’t receive those skills they can’t pass them down.

    The best part about having a curriculum for social skills in the schools, especially in the lower grades, is that you nip the problems before they can get too bad and the bonus is that, more often than not, the parents will be beneficiaries of their child’s increased skills.

    Certainly this adds to the teachers work load but without it the educational system will remain in disarray.


  3. August 7, 2011 6:47 am

    Again, Corinne you have nailed it. I have been so emotionally attached to several educational causes, one of them being social/emotional wellness. Administrators generally see the need for this but I think are not sure how to make it happen. Any focus on this type of education takes away from “actual class time” dedicated to achievement. The disconnect comes from the fact that building social and emotional wellness does contribute to student achievement. The path is not so obvious so teachers and administrators don’t often buy in.

    The truth is, as I have said before, students need to come to school ready to learn, and those who provide education need to make that happen. Behavior is a huge issue and I think the single largest impediment to learning. It detracts from the ones who are behaving as well. It robs them of learning time, and of course, those who are not behaving or get suspended repeatedly cannot learn. I realize this version of events is simplified, but I have experienced it on both sides–those who are ready to learn where discipline problems are minimal and those who aren’t at all. The spectrum is huge from those with basically no manners who are continually disrespectful and disruptive to those who bully and use subtle detractors from learning.

    The how to make it happen is not so easy. I don’t believe you can require pre schoolers to participate and pass some kind of social/emotional wellness training. There will be too many parents who protest that the school is taking away their job. I do believe this learning can be combined into everything through role-playing, manners and building respect from the time kids are small. It is the only way. However, you can’t take away the first teachers who are the parents at home. What they do in reality is a huge model for kids and it may take years to reform. Administrators may say “kids can do whatever at home, but not in school.” Well not so easy to do. You may be able to effect change and teach through example, but the power of a parent’s love is very strong. Most kids, especially young ones, want to model their parents. So how do you accomplish this? Education for all?

    As much as I hate to say it, I believe you are right. All the great programs and curriculum in the world won’t make a difference if no one is sincerely participating. Some kids will get it anyway, and of course, some won’t. What is needed is extremely hard to accomplish: tolerance, respect and enlightenment to the acceptance of the differences of others with kindness and manners (EMPATHY). I love all the integrated programs and promotion of STEM and believe in it with all my heart, but I also have to face the fact that it isn’t going anywhere if no one is listening.

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