Why ticketing students in school is counterproductive

Aug 23, 2011

School Psychologist Eric Rossen discusses how students react to various forms of discipline, and why he thinks sending students to court for misconduct in the classroom is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

Ask questions and submit your opinions.

Related: Texas students sent from classroom to courtroom

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If ticketing is not an effective means of discipline, what is a better way for schools to handle problematic behavior?

This is a seemingly simple question with a complex answer, although the good news is that we do know what works. First, we should always consider the goal of any disciplinary action. Are we attempting to build skills and competencies within the student? Are we hoping that the student will never engage in the behavior in the future? Are we trying to make others safe? Are we demonstrating power and authority? Is the aim to set an example for others?


I would argue that, among other things, schools are in the business of teaching, and this extends to social, emotional, and behavior skills. As Dr. George Bear notes in his article “Discipline: Effective School Practices” (http://www.nasponline.org/publications/booksproducts/HCHS3_Samples/S4H18_Discipline.pdf), a comprehensive school-wide plan promotes the development of self-discipline. This is often achieved through explicit instruction in social, emotional, and behavioral competences; providing opportunities for practice; and offering feedback as needed. This mirrors the traditional model for instruction of academic competencies.  Unfortunately, there is often an assumption that students enter school actually knowing how to problem-solve, resolve conflicts, manage social and emotional pressures, and follow school rules and policies.


In addition to explicit instruction, effective school policies are those that create a strong sense of school connectedness, employ authoritative (vs. authoritarian) discipline practices, utilize "teachable moments", encourage and reinforce appropriate behaviors, and aim to replace inappropriate behaviors rather than dole out punishments. Replacing behaviors sometimes requires experts in the schools, such as school psychologists, to help determine why a behavior is occurring in the first place.

I don't think all ticketing is bad.  Some kids, who bring stuff like knives to school or beat up other students, deserve to go to court.  Don't you think?

You raise an interesting point - how do you handle severe behaviors, especially those that threaten others? In some cases, schools may be required to call authorities if a student breaks a law (e.g., stabbing, bringing a gun to school, making death threats). However, the research is clear that zero tolerance policies and harsh punitive discipline policies, even for serious behavior violations, lead to worse outcomes for the schools, including the student who violated the rules and the other students in the school.

Certainly, many rely on their logical opinion that harsh punishment teaches students a lesson. However, research argues against this logic.

Our kids are not victims of themselves. They made a choice and perhaps if they learn early that there are serious consequences to those choices perhaps they'll spend less time in prison as adults. - Post reader weavermichaels

This applies the logic that students a) know their behavior was wrong; and b) know how to behave differently. These are dangerous assumptions given that many students have never actually seen appropriate modeling of behavior, or had instruction on how to behave in a school setting.

One must be careful in implying that giving consequences, in isolation of any other remediation, actually "teaches" a lesson. Consider what would happen if you started writing something on a piece of paper and I said, "Don't write on that!" Would you have any idea what to do instead? Would you know why I didn't want you writing on that paper? Probably not. However, this interaction often occurs when dealing with inappropriate behaviors. Going further, consider what would happen if you were teaching multiplication to a 6th grader, and the student never learned multiplication before in his previous school. Would you simply punish him for not completing his multiplication homework the night before? The obvious answer would be that someone would need to help this student develop multiplication skills. Why should we treat behavior differently than how students learn basic academic skills?

I think more importantly, the research unequivocally shows that harsh discipline (i.e., kicking students out of school) leads to higher risk of dropout, later incarceration and criminality, and lower education attainment, and this sets a tone for a negative school climate that impacts the entire school building.

You may be interested in reading the article Zero Tolerance and Alternative Discipline Strategies from Dr. Russell Skiba: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/handouts/Zero_Tolerance_35-1_S4-35.pdf


Is it the parents or teachers...or governments....responsibility to make sure these kids know what they are doing is wrong? i.e. punishing them.  Any reserach as to what works best?

When we are discussing behavior, and social-emotional skills, we are often referring to skills that allow people to function in the world. I don't recall the exact quote, or who said it first, but one of my favorite lines is, "The ability to read and write will get you your first job, and knowing how to behave will allow you to keep it."

I mention this quote because it illustrates that what students learn about behavior, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and social-emotional functioning transcends all areas of their lives, including the school, home, work, and the community. In this regard, one could argue that it is a joint responsibility of caregivers, teachers, coaches, community leaders, and any other adult in a student's life.

I assume when you mention "government" you are referring to the court system. Unfortunately, the courts offer little opportunity for students to learn new skills, and may not actually help ensure students know what they did was wrong - this may simply teach them that it was wrong to get caught.

As I read this I was reminded about last school year when my 3 year old Grand son and a friend of his got carried away with themselves in Pre-school. Both were sent to the principal's office, which made me smile as I wondered if he had any idea of who and what the principal was. In Texas would they have been taken to court? - Post user rons316

Thank you to those who submitted questions. I will be signing off in a few minutes, although I encourage all readers interested in this topic to visit the National Association of School Psychologists website (www.nasponline.org) to explore the various resources related to school discpline, zero-tolerance policies, and a host of other topics associated with schools and mental health.

In This Chat
Eric Rossen
Eric holds a Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Florida, and is currently serving as the Director of Professional Development and Standards at NASP. Eric is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist as well as a licensed psychologist in Maryland. Prior to his position at NASP, Eric worked as a school psychologist in Prince George’s County Public Schools outside Washington, DC, and in the private sector with the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland, a clinic that specializes in working with individuals experiencing attention and learning difficulties. Eric has taught at the post-secondary level as adjunct faculty at the University of Missouri and Prince George's Community College. He has published numerous papers and book chapters, and presented regionally and nationally on various topics within school psychology. Eric is currently co-editing a book titled Educating Traumatized Children, and co-authoring another book on obesity. Eric lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb bordering Washington DC.
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