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How principals can make discipline a teachable moment

Discipline should be a teachable moment, not just a quick consequence. Jim Dillon explains why, and what to do differently.

7 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

person choosing between two paths in a forest for discipline a teachable moment

Vladislav Babienko/Unsplash. Misbehavior often occurs when a student takes the wrong path.

As a principal in an elementary school, I interpreted “discipline” as a verb consistent with its dictionary definition: “to train by instruction and practice, as in following rules or developing self-control.” The words “discipline” and “disciple” come from the Latin word for learn. This definition guided how I addressed inappropriate behavior by students. Discipline means so much more than simply providing consequences to students when they break the rules. I developed a way to make discipline a teachable moment.

When faced with “disciplining” a student who was sent to my office, I asked myself, “What does this student need to learn so that he/she will not repeat the behavior that precipitated being sent to my office?” To answer that question, it became clear to me that consequences alone do not teach the skills that the student needs to learn. 

An example

I often used this analogy when asked to explain my approach: If a teacher walked around the classroom and saw a student make a math error, the teacher would not tell the student to go to a timeout space for several minutes and then return to the math problem. A timeout would not magically teach the student to solve the math problem. That student would need to learn why he/she made the error and be instructed how to get the answer right the next time he/she had a similar problem. It calls for making discipline a teachable moment.

Yet, an intervention that makes no sense academically is typically applied to social-emotional learning. But what poses more of a challenge to students: academic problems or social-emotional ones? When a student learns a skill or acquires knowledge, it is usually retained; e.g., once you learn 2 + 2 = 4, it never changes. This is not so with social-emotional problems.

For example, a student interacts with a peer who one day acts friendly and the next day is mean and hurtful. The student can be confused and upset, which lessens the likelihood of him/her responding appropriately to an unfriendly attitude. It can be difficult for students (and adults) to figure out the ever-changing social environment and learn how to adapt to it.

Why to make discipline a teachable moment

Social-emotional skills are more challenging to acquire and master than academic ones.

Learning to recognize, label and regulate one’s emotions and select an appropriate response to a confusing problem is quite a challenge. Students need to be taught, coached and supported much more than just receiving a consequence. 

The common occurrence of a student being sent to the principal’s office can present a teachable moment for social-emotional skills. Most situations that result in a referral to the principal’s office begin and end quickly. The student usually acts impulsively, driven by emotions that arise (often without warning). They need help in understanding what happened and their own response to it.

Trying to help a student learn from a social-emotional problem is compounded by the fact that heshe typically is not in the right state of mind to respond to any such attempts. Most students sitting outside the principal’s office are usually worrying about what will happen to them and figuring out what to say to get out of trouble. Most students, however, do not like being sent to the principal’s office and would like to avoid it in the future. If they had a do-over and were offered a better way of reacting to the problem, they would welcome it.  This can be the best leverage for motivating a student to learn from the problem — hence, making discipline a teachable moment. 

Discipline strategies for the principal’s office

To apply the original meaning of discipline in my response to inappropriate student behavior and use a referral to the principal’s office as a teachable moment, I adopted the following strategies:

  1. Give the student a problem-solving sheet with simple questions adapted for their age level before interacting with them. It should ask: What problem were you having? How did you respond to the problem? What happened after that? Did it solve the problem? What do you think you could have done differently to solve the problem? This gives the student time to reflect on what happened. It also provides information about the student’s perception of the problem.
  2. Keep emotions in check, remaining calm and matter-of-fact. This can help the student shift from an emotional state to a more rational one. 
  3. Avoid shaming the student or making them feel bad about him/herself. The goal of this time should be to focus on the problem, the situation and the student’s response to it. This approach helps the student view problems and mistakes as opportunities for learning. It also helps them know that everyone makes mistakes — including the principal.
  4. Use a dry-erase board to visualize the problem. Drawing some type of diagram illustrating the problem can help a student see what happened more objectively. The diagram can include stick figures and arrows to represent those involved and how they interacted.
  5. Use a diagram of a “conflict escalator.” Most problems quickly create other problems. Use an illustration of an escalator to see how the behavior led to greater problems (escalated) for each person. There could be many steps to the escalator, including the referral to the principal’s office and parents being notified.
  6. Work with the student to generate a variety of ideas for how to better respond to the problem. A student might need coaching to come up with ideas. Very often a student fails to realize that there are alternative ways of responding to problems. You could ask the student to select the response that they think would have worked better.
  7. Use the analogy of instant replay. Most students know about instant replay from sports. Ask: “If you could rewind the problem to the start, what would have happened differently if you had used an alternative response?”
  8. If consequences are necessary, explain them and provide a rationale for them. Some students might require a natural consequence, such as taking a day’s break from eating in the cafeteria. Explain that the purpose of the timeout is to help them reflect and prepare for the next time they would be in the cafeteria. 
  9. Select one or two alternative responses and write them down on an index card as a takeaway. This gives the student a concrete reminder of what they learned. They could keep the card in their pocket to review when they return to the environment where the problem happened.
  10. Make sure the student apologizes and makes amends to anyone negatively affected by their behavior. When this last step comes at the end of this review process, students are more likely to be sincere about feeling sorry for what happened. This allows them to repair relationships that might have been negatively affected by their response to the problem.

These alternatives to traditional discipline evolved over my many years as a principal. However, each principal should develop their own response and adapt it to their school and students. Whatever form these alternatives take, they should be guided by the basic question of what discipline means to them as school leaders. Whatever the answer, thinking about the question and making discipline a teachable moment is preferable to just accepting the traditional default version of discipline used in schools.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement and the author of several books, including “Peaceful School Bus” and “No Place for Bullying.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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