School & District Management

Research on Discipline Not Reaching Schools, Experts Say

By Debra Viadero — November 06, 2002 3 min read
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After four decades of research, experts know a lot about what some of the risk factors are for discipline problems in school and even how to prevent some of them.

The problem, some of those researchers said at a forum held here last week, is that the message has yet to penetrate schools.

“The lesson here is that education research and public-health or mental-health research are indeed one thing, and we have to learn how to integrate what we’re doing into the school building,” said Dr. Sheppard G. Kellam, a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Medicine. “Our mission should be to help teachers effectively do their mission.”

Organized by the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington-based think tank, the Oct. 29 meeting was intended to be a step toward bridging the gap between research and practice on an issue that teachers and parents alike see as a top concern.

Conference organizers noted, for example, that more than three-quarters of adults surveyed for this year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on education cited a lack of student discipline as either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.

“Student discipline is one of the real reasons many people give for opting to put their kids in nonpublic schools,” said Nat LaCour, the executive vice president of the institute, which was established by the American Federation of Teachers to honor the late president of the union.

At least some discipline problems could be prevented, experts said, if educators knew more about how to recognize potential trouble signs and about proven strategies for heading off aggressive classroom behavior.

Peer Power

For example, Hill M. Walker, a special education professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said studies have shown that explosive classroom confrontations with some problem students take on a typical pattern. A seemingly calm student might, for example, respond to a teacher’s command by becoming agitated. When the teacher repeats the command, the student’s misbehavior escalates, then peaks, begins to recede, and finally returns to normal—all within about a minute.

“This ‘behavioral escalation game’ is one that teachers should not play,” Mr. Walker said. “If the student gets the better of you, it compromises your ability to control the classroom.”

If the reverse happens, he added, the teacher will have created an enemy. The best course—one that most teachers are often not aware of—is to short- circuit the confrontation.

His research also shows that students’ aggressive behavioral patterns often form before they set foot in a classroom. Those tendencies, however, can also be reinforced in school when difficult students become more isolated from better-behaved peers and are lumped together with other misbehaving students. Left untended, such problems often balloon in middle school, when reports of disruptive behavior multiply.

Dr. Kellam’s longitudinal studies affirm the influence that the classroom and peer environment can have in disciplinary problems. As part of his study program, which began in the late 1980s, 1st graders in 18 schools were randomly assigned to classrooms and tracked through middle school.

The researchers found that boys who were rated among the top 25 percent of the group in aggressiveness fared much worse if they started out in chaotic 1st grade classrooms. By the time they reached 6th grade, those students were 59 times more likely than the average child to exhibit severe aggressive behavior.

In comparison, students from that same quartile who started school in calmer, better-managed classrooms were only 2.7 times more likely than most children to act up in 6th grade.

What made the difference, Dr. Kellam said, was an intervention program known as the Good Behavior Game, through which teams of students could earn rewards, such as erasers or certain privileges, for positive behavior.

The researchers have since tracked the same students through ages 19 or 21, Dr. Kellam said, and the effects appear to be holding. Investigators plan to present the results from that latest wave of data collection next year.

Dr. Kellam said that other classroom-management strategies might be just as effective at preventing behavior problems. Yet half the teachers in his study did not have any effective tools for managing classrooms.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 137,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school district, which borders Washington, agreed that teachers need strategies to handle classroom behavior.

“I don’t think there’s a very good marriage between practice and research,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Research on Discipline Not Reaching Schools, Experts Say

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