Students Behaving Badly? A Trip to the Principal Could Be the Wrong Approach

By Ross Brenneman — January 26, 2015 1 min read
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As educators become more versed in what kinds of discipline have little effect on student behavior, many are left to wonder what exactly they should do when students act out.

Writing for Slate, Dani McClain recounts the story of a teacher at Mission High School, in San Francisco, having trouble addressing misbehavior by students. The teacher, Henry Arguedas, recalled sending a student to the principal’s office for throwing a book on the floor.

The school didn’t agree with Arguedas’ decision, though, and a colleague and an administrator suggested to Arguedas that he may have misunderstood the emotional underpinnings of the student’s actions, which might have included frustration with the instruction. Addressing those frustrations in a more positive way, the educators said, would have been a better path.

Mission Hill’s work reflects a broader cultural change in the San Francisco area to address student discipline, which is often tinged by racial disparities. San Francisco adopted a ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” last spring, and California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a similar bill into law in September affecting students in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

But banning an action without offering other help can leave teachers in the dark, and what teachers should do is the part that San Francisco and other districts are trying to address. Per Slate:

This is not as easy as telling teachers to act and react differently. The effort requires significant support and mentoring. 'If we are going to be asking at a policy level for a shift in disciplinary practices and disciplinary outcomes, then there has to be support all down the line,' said Russell Skiba, the director of the Equity Project at Indiana University and an expert on racial disparities in school suspension rates.

Mission Hill created a team of coaches who address behavioral issues, helping teachers find solutions for even some of the most disruptive classrooms, McClain says.

Over the past two weeks, Education Week Teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo has been soliciting educator advice on classroom management. (Ferlazzo, it’s probably worth mentioning, works in California.) The suggestions offered, though, all seem to carry an underlying theme—that misbehavior is all but synonymous with disengagement. A motivating environment and a good lesson plan can solve many of a teacher’s problems. As educator Bethany Bernasconi writes:

When students are safe, supported, and challenged, when they are engaged in learning and feel valued in their community of learners, classroom management issues become a thing of the past. This community doesn't develop on its own. It requires guidance and nurturing from the teacher. It requires understanding that what a teacher is, is so much more than an information provider.

Not that behavior always mirrors the level of engagement. As a 2013 study points out, students with good behavior might also be less than enthusiastic about a lesson.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.