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Three Alternative Approaches for Correcting Student Misbehavior

Three popular new ideas in education that might help resolve discipline issues are closely linked, experts say, and support each other in expansive school-wide plans or in smaller efforts to help a student struggling in the classroom.

Educators increasingly are looking for alternatives to removing students from class or school, and have turned to new approaches for classroom management. Beyond that, however, there is more attention being paid to changing student thinking through mindfulness, social and emotional learning (SEL), and restorative justice.

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of programs and practice for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), one of the leading organizations supporting SEL, points out the approaches are all related–mindfulness, perhaps, being one part of the SEL skills that CASEL believes are critical. “Mindfulness is directly connected to the things we think that students need to succeed, and then we also believe learning social and emotional skills is a critical part of restorative justice,” she says.

Peter Montminy, a Penn State professor and child clinical psychologist who specializes in mindfulness techniques, agrees. “They are very much connected–and they represent the best new thinking about improving behavior,” he says.

Both also note that while there should be a school-wide or district commitment to these efforts and a structure for training and supporting administrators and teachers, the approaches can be undertaken on a smaller scale in the classroom.          

Here’s a quick primer on each with links to a lot of resources.


Schlinger says there is an increasing amount of research showing SEL helps improve behavior and school culture, particularly a University of Chicago review of 213 studies of school-based SEL programs that reported that:

“SEL programs yielded significant positive effects on targeted social-emotional competencies and attitudes about self, others, and school. They also enhanced students’ behavioral adjustment in the form of increased prosocial behaviors and reduced conduct and internalizing problems, and improved academic performance on achievement tests and grades.”        

CASEL has just published a new review of tools for educators on its site with recommendations from schools who have implemented SEL awareness programs.

This exhaustive report spells out general policies to develop SEL programs and highlights resources for a host of information, including these specific guides.

Specific lesson plans are available from a number of sources, and this detailed report lists CASEL’s five core competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making)  and specific goals for each, many of which focus on behavior.

It is critical, Schlinger says, for students to improve their skills in these fundamental SEL abilities if educators want them to reduce conflict and improve behavior, particularly empathy which allow students to be more aware of others and their own responses to situations.


Montminy says new research increasingly shows mindfulness works in the classroom and some data specifically shows it improves behavior, which included a study that shows it reduces brain activity related to aggression. Other research shows that with students having behavior disorders “mindfulness training provides a treatment option that helps an individual focus and attend to conditions that give rise to maladaptive behavior.”

An elementary school and a nearby high school in Baltimore have reported fewer discipline problems, better attendance, and even better academic performance by providing mindfulness lessons, a specific time for mindfulness each day, and a mindfulness center rather than a detention room. University of California at Berkley research recommends a few moments of mindfulness to “calm emotions and focus attention” to help meet Common Core requirements and improve behavior.

Montminy suggests schools make certain that educators have an opportunity to learn and practice mindfulness, understanding that it can reduce stress, make their work more focused, and ensure that their responses to situations more thoughtful and effective. Then, he says they can develop ways to bring it to the classroom and to individual students.

There are a host of techniques and training available for teachers, but he says it often simply involves pausing to be conscious of your current situation, particularly your emotions and feelings, and accepting them. He said stopping a moment before school or before class can relieve stress and allow teachers to handle behavior problems better, which teachers sometimes escalate and could handle more effectively. “The time that we most need to relax when we don’t feel we have any time for it,” he says. “It takes just a minute to notice what is going on around us and what is going on within us and that helps prepare us for classroom challenges.”

UCLA and the University of Massachusetts have two leading mindfulness research centers with resources. Two good books on the subject are Mindfulness in Plain English and The Mindful Geek.

For students, Montminy suggests three lessons:

  • STOP (with a STOP sign on the wall, perhaps). Reminding students to stop and “push the pause button”; take a quiet, deep breath; observe what's going on around and within them; and proceed thoughtfully rather than emotionally react.
  • Anchor Breaths. Students take time to become very aware of their breath moving in and out of the body as “an anchor to gently bring a wandering mind back to the present, just like an anchor keeps a boat in place.”
  • Name It to Tame It. When distracted, have student pause and remind themselves they are thinking rather than participating, listening, or learning. “Let go of your distracting thoughts and return to focusing on what you need to do, here and now.”

There are a number of other activities for students of all ages in this article and more at the Association for Mindfulness Education. Other good resources include: Learning to Breathe, The Mindful Teacher and this Huffington Post article highlighting approaches to engage students.

Montminy notes it takes practice for teachers or students to develop these skills, but even initial exploratory efforts will begin to help.         

Restorative Justice

A recent report may provide the best research and description of restorative justice (RJ) programs, which can range from talks between teachers and students using RJ techniques to formal restorative conferencing that involves students, staff, and often community members, including family. The focus is on the root causes of the issue, according to Trevor Fronius, a senior researcher who directed the detailed survey of recent research for the education research firm WestEd.

In the school setting, it often serves as an alternative to traditional discipline, including removing students from class, suspension, or expulsion. He says it “establishes a voice for all involved but also makes offenders accountable for the harm caused, and requires a plan to repair and restore relationships.” Fronius’ research finds good results from the practice (though it suggests more thorough research needs to be done) in addressing school culture and the social-emotional growth of students.

His group found that programs must focus on ongoing staff training with adequate time and funding for an internal RJ coordinator at the school. “Buy-in is critical,” he says, “when a school leader who champions RJ leaves, it often does not get sustained if the school hasn’t committed to it.”

This guide from the state of Illinois offers a thorough overview of restorative justice in schools. A variety of education groups collaborated on this report that provides specific approaches, including community conferencing, peer juries, peer mediation, and “informal restorative practices that focus on social-emotional learning.” The San Francisco Unified School District also developed a comprehensive guide for its schools, which have been enthusiastic about adopting it, and this site, which serves schools in California, has information about implementing an RJ program.

One way teachers can introduce RJ into their classroom is by having their students at the start of the year write a “respect agreement” that spells out how they will treat each other as well as the teacher in positive way, which avoids having teacher develop rules and make students comply. If a student violates the respect agreement, the teacher reminds them and asks if they want to honor it. Ninety percent of the time, the student does, experts say, and the problem ends. If further action is required, they then would meet with the student and make them responsible.


Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at