Is there actually a difference between schoolwide discipline and classroom management?

When I first started this blog, I wanted to write exclusively about schoolwide discipline. There are already countless blogs, books, and websites about classroom management, and I don’t have anything particularly new to add to the discussion. But there is a distinct lack of resources out there about schoolwide discipline for administrators and teacher leaders.

Yet, if you look back over what I’ve written, much of it revolves around interventions that could or would generally happen at the classroom level. In fact, it’s almost impossible to write about schoolwide discipline without writing about what happens with teachers and students in individual classrooms, which raises the question: does schoolwide discipline apart from classroom management even exist?

Yes and no.

Teachers spend by far more time with students than administrators do, and thus generally have the greatest leverage and potential influence with students. And yet, in most schools, discipline is “subcontracted” out to a dean or assistant principal who has far less contact with and knowledge of students. Why? I think because the positional authority bestowed upon these leaders results in a perceived power that is thought to give these people a special “deterrent power.” The old-fashioned fear of being “sent to the principal” or “sent to the dean” is thought to be able to prevent problem behaviors.

And in a way, it does. For the 85 percent of students who always behave adaptively, being sent to the dean and the accompanying parent contact is surely a consequence to be feared. But let’s also remember that these are the students who are generally very skilled at behaving adaptively, and would largely do so even if this fear were removed–because they know how. For the students lacking key cognitive skills, this fear is not a deterrent, because these kids would do better if they could.

So administrators don’t have the deterrent power we usually attribute to them. But they do have the power to levy harsher consequences. Again though, fear of consequences is also not a strong deterrent for students who have lagging skills and unsolved problems.

So just what is an administrator’s role in schoolwide discipline? Well, if you’re starting to think that it’s teachers who actually have the greatest role to play in schoolwide discipline, then you’ll say that the administrator’s role is to guide, teach, and train teachers to create and implement effective interventions. This is absolutely true, but an administrator’s ability to do so will depend largely on the school context. In a new school, or a small school, or a school with a largely new and inexperienced staff, the administrator can be very hands-on in dictating policies, procedures, and general philosophy as relates to schoolwide discipline. But what about an established school with a veteran staff? In this setting you’re likely to find a hodgepodge of policies and approaches to discipline (especially in a suburban school without a history of excessive discipline problems). Is it practical for an administrator to attempt to impose a schoolwide system of approaching discipline issues when staff can point to the school’s low number of disciplinary incidences as proof that the individual approach is “working”? Is it worth the leadership capital it would take to get everyone dealing with issues in exactly the same way? Probably not.

What about the operational aspect of schools? Students aren’t always in classrooms, and the structures that administrators put in place can promote adaptive behaviors and eliminate challenging behavior. Scheduling, transitions, communication systems, effective large-group supervision, creation of schoolwide policies for dealing with minor infractions–all of these have a part in the schoolwide discipline picture, and none can be done by teachers alone (although they should obviously include teacher input). These are the minutiae of schoolwide discipline, the unglamorous nuts and bolts that seem to be at the margins but can be extremely impactful.

At this point, you might be thinking that a lot of schoolwide discipline comes down to “setting the tone” for a building. But this is hard to unpack. The “tone” in a building doesn’t come from one person or one process, but is the result of thousands and thousands of “micro-interactions” that comprise the mood of a building (and this will be perceived differently by different stakeholders).

At the end of the day, individual classroom management will always be the biggest piece of schoolwide discipline, which makes the fact that non-teachers are usually vested with the title of “head of discipline” ironic. How frustrating, then, it must be for the head of discipline to be only able to impact discipline indirectly.  Maybe this is just a logistical requirement; after all, when an angry parent comes in demanding to speak to whoever is in charge of discipline, you can’t respond “we are all in charge of discipline here.” The buck has to stop somewhere. But the fact that schoolwide discipline can’t truly be separate from classroom management speaks to how complex this role is, and the way in which inclusive and collaborative leadership (after all, we just proved the job can’t be done alone) is crucial if there is to be hope for success.



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