Discipline, Part 2: Understanding the Children

PASS Parents and Friends –

Our e-mail on Saturday about the discipline situation generated more interest than anything we’ve written in a while. We envisioned a series on this topic. The piece below was written by Gina Stetter, a former teacher and principal who is currently Director of Special Education for SCPS. Gina helps us understand that the discipline situation has changed because the population of kids has changed, and the kids have changed because society has changed. Tomorrow, we will have another post from Gina on efforts to address this – stay tuned.


There is little dispute that students in our classrooms and on our buses are different than those from a generation or two ago. One theory suggests, in part, that if the adults (parents, teachers and administrators) would hold students to higher standards and mete out appropriate and fitting consequences, misbehaviors would be curbed. This “decline in discipline” theory misses a larger reality.

An additional lens through which to view this decline in discipline is to look at the increase in the quantity, magnitude and complexity of the emotional and behavioral needs of our students. In every classroom, there are students communicating their unmet needs through inappropriate behavior. It disrupts the learning environment. It is exhausting for the teachers who must plan lessons while also trying to keep 24 emotional beings regulated so as to prevent and minimize outbursts and then deal with the aftermath when a blow-up does occur. Compassion fatigue leads to burnout and contributes to teachers leaving the profession.

To be effective, this conversation about discipline must recognize these undeniable changes in the type of students we are serving. Our schools are microcosms of our society. Our students bring with them parts of the homes and communities in which they live. A decline in civil discourse and tolerance for others. Lack of respect for those in authority. Violence. Mental Health. Addiction. Sexual assault. Trauma.

A middle school student exposes himself and smacks girls on the buttocks. Sexually molested as a preschooler, he has never received counseling or services. A high school girl “goes off” without the slightest provocation. She uses alcohol and pills to self-medicate; it helps quiet the auditory hallucinations that keep her from sleeping at night. An elementary boy tries to leave the classroom, yells, throws items, and hits other students. He wants to go home; he is worried about his mom and baby brother. Step-dad hit his mom more than usual last night.

For which of these students would an office referral and suspension change their behavior? They will each come back to school with the same unmet needs that caused the last referral. At best, being kicked out just puts a <pause> on the behavior. At worst, it increases alienation and sets back the work teachers have done to build relationships. At its very worse, it sends some students into the criminal justice system. The “School to Prison Pipeline” has garnered state and national attention.

Unfortunately, there are more and more students in our hallways and on our buses who have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences and who lack the supportive adults and resiliency they need. These students are not exceptions. Any tuned-in school administrator can name three students a day who are simply struggling to hold it all together and are emotionally not available for instruction.

Our schools are microcosms of our society. Our students bring with them parts of the homes and communities in which we live. Violence. Mental Health. Addiction. Sexual assault. Trauma.

This is much bigger than a decline in discipline. It is much bigger than a school problem. It requires community awareness and multi-disciplinary solutions. Students must still be held to high expectations socially and academically. They also need that safe place to land and adults who will help them build resiliency. They need trauma-informed solutions which address the root causes of the behaviors.

Gina Stetter

Tomorrow: What are we doing about this?

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