Save the Rod, Spare the Child

Punitive v. Restorative Discipline: What’s the Difference?

The early 21st century is an amazing time to live. Compared to one hundred years ago – 1918 – life for the average person in the U.S. is straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. High-speed planes, trains, and automobiles allow us to cover previously unimaginable distances. We carry powerful devices around in our pockets that give us instant access to a vast repository of human knowledge while simultaneously allowing us reach out to friends and family for pedestrian purposes or call the authorities for help in emergencies. In the 21st century U.S., women can vote, schools are integrated, and we have a social safety net designed to support the most vulnerable among us.

Not to be Pollyannaish about the world or naïve about the state of our country: yes, there are still big problems. We have a lot of work to do to guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all our citizens. People with conflicting opinions make legitimate arguments on every side of virtually every issue. But it seems, for the most part, like we’re heading in the right direction.

Our social advances play out in the way we educate our children, too. We understand that rote memorization is not the only way to learn new material. Differentiated instruction and project-based, interactive learning techniques fill our classrooms. Nationwide, creative teachers and principals seek to unlearn old habits and replace them with methods based on evidence and direct experience, rather than doing things the same old way just because that’s how things have always been done. We now know you can learn physics by throwing a football, biology by turning over rocks in a muddy stream looking for salamanders, and civics by visiting the state capitol or watching a Senate hearing on C-Span.

Where We Can Improve

In one area, however, the old paradigms rule: the way we approach school discipline. It’s true we’ve mostly eliminated questionable practices like corporal punishment – sour nuns patrolling classroom aisles slapping wrists with rulers is pretty much a thing of the past – but the broad strokes of how we handle behavioral issues is, to put it mildly, not very evolved. And it may well be a serious problem. We’ll outline what the problem we see, offer an alternative, and let you decide which you think benefits children more: the traditional approach or the new approach.

Old School Discipline

Here’s how most of us remember getting in trouble at school:

  1. We broke a rule.
  2. For serious infractions, we went to the principal.
  3. The teacher and the principal huddled. They talked through the events that led to our visit to the principal’s office. They may have talked to other students and teachers about what happened. In a nutshell, they investigated the incident.
  4. The principal decided on a consequence: a firm warning, detention, in-house suspension, outright suspension, and in extreme cases, expulsion. They may have called our parents. At which point we knew things weren’t going your way. We were in big trouble.
  5. We received a consequence. Typically, this involved us sitting in a hard, wooden chair in the principal’s office, full of fear and shame – often leading to bitterness, anger, and resentment. The principal likely delivered it lecture-style, a fait accompli. Our possible responses were limited to “Yes, I understand,” or “I promise not to do it again,” or “I’m sorry.

If you were never sent to the principal’s office, or if you went to an alternative school with a different approach to discipline, then you’re one of the fortunate ones. For most of us, that’s how it was. And if you never got in serious trouble, you knew people who sat in that chair and got detention or got suspended. Then, when they went home, they most likely went through the entire process again, except this time the authority figures were mom, dad, or their primary caregivers. The end of this second process likely resulted in a new set of consequences or punishments.

A Closer Look

Now, let’s compare that process with how our criminal justice system works:

  1. Someone breaks the law.
  2. If it’s serious enough, they get arrested.
  3. The police investigate. If they gather evidence they think proves a crime, they turn their findings over to the District Attorney, who decides whether to prosecute or pass.
  4. The DA takes the accused to trial. At the end of the trial, the jury comes to a verdict. The judge determines the consequence.
  5. The accused – now convicted – individual is informed of the consequence: fines, probation, community service, or maybe prison. The judge delivers the formal sentence, and the individual is either led off to jail or released, depending.

Notice the similarities?

It’s hard not to, because the process is almost identical. If you read between the lines, you see that an accused criminal has far more power in the situation than a child in school has. They have lawyers, they get a trial by twelve of their peers, and the consequences are determined by case law or norms that, in some instances, go back centuries to English common law. Granted – there’s more at stake in a criminal case than in a classroom fight or a case of cheating on a test – but you get the idea. We approach school crime and punishment in the same way we approach crime and punishment out in the world.

Why Do We Do That?

Because we’re operating under an assumption that doesn’t match the situation.

Here’s the assumption upon which we base our approach to school discipline:

The stronger the punishment, the less likely the chances are the individual will repeat the behavior.

This is the punitive model of discipline.

It’s what most of us grew up with, and it’s what most of us think of when we consider crime and punishment in the abstract. Though we may not know it, it’s also the way most of us consider the school or family version of discipline. We use different words – rules and consequences – but the model is the same: big transgressions merit big consequences. A consequence, or punishment, is designed to deter future behavior.

But does is it work?

Problems With Punitive Discipline

We’ll leave questions of criminal justice aside and focus our answer on kids and schools. Research shows a broad range of problems associated with punitive discipline that many teachers, school administrators, and parents don’t fully consider:

  • The focus is on determining guilt and assigning blame
  • Punishment and accountability are synonymous
  • The process focuses on the student who broke the rule, and largely ignores the victim
  • Punitive consequences often remove of the student from the learning environment and exclude the student from all school activities. One school principal points out that practices like suspension amount to giving kids a “Playstation Vacation.”
  • When the student returns to the learning environment, there are no replacement skills offered and there’s rarely a re-entry plan.

Research also shows that punitive consequences have consequences of their own. Students who receive repeated punitive disciplinary action show:

  • Increased drop-out rates
  • Lower GPAs
  • Poor morale
  • Disrespect toward teacher and staff

Finally, repeated punitive consequences increase chances a student will:

  • Attend alternative, punitive-based reform-type schools
  • Participate in risky, illegal behavior
  • Go to prison

With all these negative consequences, you’d think there must be a better way. After all, we’re living in the 21st century. We put a human on the moon last century. And you’d be right. There is a different way: it’s called restorative discipline.

We’ll let you decide which works best.

New School Discipline

In a handbook on restorative discipline created for the San Francisco Unified School District, author and educator Amos Clifford connects restorative school discipline with its progenitor, restorative justice:

“Restorative Justice brings persons harmed by crime and the person who harmed them, along with affected family and community members, together in dialogue that aims to build understanding, explore how the crime has impacted those involved, including the community, and develop agreements for what will be done to make things right. The result: truly meaningful justice for all involved.”

When transposed to the school environment, Clifford suggests the practice of restorative discipline engenders three powerful transformations:

  1. Classrooms move away from the idea that failing students or teachers cause misbeahvior, toward the idea that each instance of misbehavior creates a teachable moment that presents an opportunity for social and emotional learning.
  2. Schools move away from authority-driven discipline that focuses only on the misbehaving student, toward practices that create a sense of community and promote communication between teachers, students, and families.
  3. Disciplinary practices move away from the idea that punishment and exclusion controls misbehavior and promotes positive behavior, toward the idea that dialogue leads to understanding and promotes positive behavior not out of fear, but out of mutual respect and the desire to make things right.

Clifford goes on to identify the positive outcomes of restorative disciplinary practices:

  • Reduction in referrals to the principal
  • Reduction in suspensions and expulsions
  • Increase in instructional time
  • Higher teacher morale
  • Higher teacher retention
  • Improved academic outcomes

A Model for the Future

A school that practices restorative discipline creates an environment of open communication and mutual respect. It teaches students how to resolve conflicts in the exact setting and under the same set of circumstances in which they arose. It motivates students to follow rules not simply because the rules exist, but because they understand the social and emotional impact breaking community norms has on others. Restorative discipline focuses on healing and moving forward, as opposed to assigning blame and looking backward. Restorative discipline reintegrates the rule-breaking student back into the classroom environment while guaranteeing the emotional and physical safety of everyone else, including teachers, students, and staff.

All of those outcomes sound good to us.

Now, you decide.

It’s the 21st century. Do we apply the same process to misbehaving students that we apply to accused adult criminals? Or is it time to try something new? After you think about that, think about this: can you apply restorative principles to your family life? We’ll give you a hint: the answer is yes.

It’s called restorative parenting.