School Climate & Safety Opinion

Beyond Compliance: Rethinking Discipline and Codes of Conduct

By Maurice J. Elias & William H. Trusheim — July 25, 2013 7 min read

Pressures for academic achievement have ratcheted up the need to reduce acting out, distraction, and anything else that might thwart academic time on task. As a result, schools have been concentrating on approaches such as positive-behavior supports and other compliance-oriented discipline systems, rather than on teaching students the attitudes, values, and skills they need to control their emotions and direct their behavior. Often, the focus is on compliance and conformity in discipline systems and codes of conduct, instead of engaging students and staff members in a dialogue about appropriate behavior in order to use it as a learning opportunity.

“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We have all heard this, and we should take it to heart. There is a corollary: Kids don’t care about your rules until they feel some investment and ownership in those rules.

Students can tell whether the purpose of a code of conduct is to maintain order or to guide students to learn the difference between right and wrong, and how to act appropriately when it counts and when no adults are around.

As we look at American culture and think about the future, we can clearly see a need for much more than improved test scores. Reading any daily newspaper will reveal instances in which civility is threatened by a lack of virtues, ranging from white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement, insider trading, hostile work environments, and other improprieties, to acts of violence, such as shootings in shopping malls, movie theaters, and schools, and, most recently, the senseless bombing at the Boston Marathon.

These incidents do not result from cognitive deficiencies or sub-par content knowledge (indeed, planning and executing a successful attack requires intellectual acumen, including know-how in STEM subjects), but rather derive from an underdeveloped ability to manage interpersonal relationships, a lack of empathy, or faulty values.

Employers and corporate leaders have been consistent in asking schools to better prepare students with noncognitive skills, such as social-emotional competency and strong interpersonal skills. Job dismissals rarely result from a lack of intellectual capacity. More often, they result from a failure in social or emotional skills, leading to dysfunctional relationships in the workplace.

An employment and job-search expert, Alison Doyle, cites the “top 10 reasons employees get fired,” and only one in 10 is due to poor job performance. The others have to do with character issues and inappropriate behavior.

Our students deserve a balanced, well-rounded education that will help them deal with societal demands beyond the pressure to score well on standardized tests. Testing pressure has increased to the degree that now the start of standardized testing each year has become front-page news.

Schools have an obligation to provide young people with a safe, supportive, challenging, and inspiring climate—one that considers academic, social, and emotional dimensions of student development. But, as with most things, the how of providing for these basic developmental needs is at least as important as the what that is needed to get there.

Recognizing and valuing student (and teacher) voice in creating that climate is much preferred to a top-down, compliance-oriented approach.

Research that one of us (Maurice) wrote about in a Commentary for Education Week earlier this spring shows that students want to be treated with respect. They want to be heard, and they want some control over their own learning. In school-climate surveys, students often rank having a voice in what happens in their school, including setting rules and policies, lowest in terms of satisfaction.

In working with hundreds of schools through two programs—Rutgers University’s Developing Safe and Civil Schools and the National Schools of Character, sponsored by the Washington-based Character Education Partnership—we have seen many examples of how adults’ listening to student perspectives and ideas has transformed attitudes, increased engagement, and improved the educational environment.

The best examples of transformation come from schools that use multiple-intelligences pedagogy, which suggests reaching students through their preferred modalities for learning and expression. When students are given a chance to demonstrate what they learned about a particular topic in an area of strength, they exert more effort than when they are asked to show what they know in an area of relative weakness.

In one instance, students in an urban New Jersey high school were asked to write an essay about their “laws of life”—the values and principles they aspire to live by every day. When they had the opportunity to think about and express these values through art, sculpture, or choreography prior to putting their ideas into words, most students produced better-written products than by writing alone. The opportunity to choose to work in an area of strength is a powerful pedagogical tool from which students come to feel that adults care about their preferences.

Empirical research has demonstrated that the responsive-classroom approach to student learning can lead to more consistent and lasting gains than a compliance-oriented approach like schoolwide positive-behavior supports. In the former, students are the co-creators and periodic reviewers of school rules. The latter, however, has had more success reaching schools because it fosters compliance and provides teachers with structures to reward desired behaviors and punish those that are not desired. Yet, it does not build the skills students need for success in school and life.

Our students deserve a balanced, well-rounded education that will help them deal with societal demands beyond the pressure to score well on standardized tests."

Our current choice of compliance over competence represents a significant step backward for education. Over 20 years ago, in the journal Teachers College Record, Eliot Eisner, a Stanford University professor at the time (and now emeritus), wrote that schools “do not exist for the sake of high levels of performance in the context of schools, but in the context of life outside of the school. The significant dependent variables in education are located in the kinds of interests, voluntary activities, levels of thinking, and problem-solving that students engage in when they are not in school.”

Even earlier—almost three decades ago—in the same journal, the educator Maxine Green wrote: “As I have been suggesting throughout these pages, the very charge to think about what we are doing is a charge to rebel against mere acquiescence, the project of functionaries and clerks. ... [T]here remains a great deal teachers can do to empower the young to reflect critically on what happens to them and around them, to identify what is possible for them, and move to make it real. It may even be that those of us who can awaken the young to go beyond in their sense-making and their risk-taking may make some contribution to the transformation of their worlds.”

These educators understood that our schools do youths a disservice by not looking beyond compliance. We must enlist and support students in becoming engaged in the social issues that affect their schools, their communities, and the world around them.

Service learning is a vehicle that allows students to do just that. This works for all young people, including those who are at risk because of conditions beyond their control. It gives them a voice, brings relevance to their learning, and engages them in the learning process. Service learning empowers students by giving them a mission and by connecting their learning directly to work they feel is important.

Knowledge that is gained through compliant reception is easily displaced by the next authoritarian source. From such learning, vibrant democracies wither.

The dangers of a culture of compliance resonate in the present. We know how the great pressure to teach to the test and the resulting quest for better scores have led to dishonesty in test-taking by students and staff alike. In such an environment, teachers are discouraged from taking a wider view of student growth and development, as well as from sharing significant experiences that are so necessary for preparing students for lifelong success.

Perhaps educators need a version of the Hippocratic Oath to refocus their actions. Ask yourself, “Are compliance-oriented schools what I would want for my own grandchildren?” That standard alone would lead codes of conduct and discipline systems to focus on compassion, collaboration, competence, and character.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Beyond Compliance: Rethinking Discipline and Codes of Conduct


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