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How I Handled...

Changing Attitudes About
Student Discipline by
Developing a Code of Conduct

I was new to the school and teachers were looking to me to discipline their students who were misbehaving and not performing. To me, the atmosphere seemed too focused on punishment; the atmosphere seemed more negative than positive. I saw an opportunity to increase discipline and students' self-respect.

The Problem:

After 10 years' experience as a principal, I found myself in a new assignment where I was experiencing staff-student-parent issues that I had not dealt with in previous schools. My predecessor was a friend who had served nearly 15 years at the school, so many teachers were bound to have a difficult time with the change.

Right away, teachers wanted to know my plans for discipline of their students. What I soon realized is that they really wanted to know how I would punish their students for behavior and lack of work. When my responses were not black and white enough for some, I sensed their frustration, which added to mine. It wasn't long before there were inferences that my "discipline" was not adequate and that I was not supporting teachers.

I also found too many students emotionally beaten down. They were neglected in their homes; they were given little slack in many classrooms. I observed too many children being yelled at in hallways. Student Council leaders described some of their teachers as boring and said they had been told to "shut-up." The school lacked a positive reputation in the community.

The Solution:

I had been involved in a statewide Classroom Management Project in my former school, and I encouraged a team from my new school to participate with me in off-site training. There we gathered ideas from other teams along with data from the project, and, with the support of Project trainers, we initiated several reforms at school.

First, we developed a new vision and mission statement for our school. We boldly stated that our school existed to help our students gain the basic skills that will enable them to

  • get a job,
  • become good citizens in the community, and
  • enjoy their leisure time and the finer aspects of life.

Next, focusing on the development of good citizenship skills, we helped the staff understand that discipline implies teaching punishment most often creates negativity. We were determined to work within our realm of influence and create an atmosphere within our school where rules did not beget more rules. Instead, we desired a school where children could learn from mistakes, make good choices, and internalize concepts necessary for success in life.

Many meetings led to the development of a school Code of Conduct, which was summarized in four beliefs:

  • Work for Quality
  • Earn Respect
  • Safety First
  • Treat Others Kindly

We even created a mini-drama and introduced "The Code" at a school-wide assembly. Students role-played inappropriate behaviors followed by desired responses to each concept. The audience loved it. The PTO endorsed it. The kids responded to it from the beginning.

The Reflection:

Now, when I see kids in my office, I ask them to explain how their behavior has violated the Code of Conduct. We don't need restrictive rules, as the concepts are broad enough to cover most incidents. We have less yelling. Kids are caught being good. We recognize our successes. The students are helping each other. They know they can't run up the steps because it violates 'safety first.' Lack of performance in the classroom, forgetting homework, and laziness all detract from achieving our standards related to 'working for quality.'

We strongly believe that if we stress these concepts in a variety of ways and model them as adults that, over time, most children will reflect what they see and hear. Believe me, they were reflecting what they saw and heard before!

Things are not perfect by any means. Sometimes punishments are still an alternative. But the hostility has diminished, there are fewer crises, the focus is more positive, and kids are acquiring more self-discipline and receiving less punishment.

Our approach requires time and teaching. Perseverance produced many positives, and students and adults are being treated with the respect they deserve.

And the principal is a lot less frustrated.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.