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How to fix the growing discipline problem in U.S. classrooms

Children listen to their teacher as they sit in a classroom on the first day of the start of the school year, at the Chaptal elementary school in Paris, on September 2, 2019. (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)
Children listen to their teacher as they sit in a classroom on the first day of the start of the school year, at the Chaptal elementary school in Paris, on September 2, 2019. (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

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Kids lost in school time during the pandemic. When they went back, they brought new behavioral challenges with them.

"It’s gotten to the point where I’ve left jobs at schools because I was afraid for my safety," Amber Blevins of Bloomington, Illinois, who quit teaching after 20 years in part because of discipline problems with students, says.

However, student discipline problems were on the rise even before the pandemic.

"It’s a balance between working with the student on correcting those behaviors. But at the same time, the teacher still has to teach," Craig Witherspoon, superintendent of the South Carolina school district Richland County One, says.

Should classroom culture change? Should discipline be more proactive, less bureaucratic?

Lots of possible remedies, but many states are headed down one particular path: they want to crack down on disruptive student behavior.

Today, On Point: How to fix the growing discipline problem in U.S. classrooms.


Ben Court, senior director of K-12 research at the education consulting firm EAB. (@BMcourt)

Patrick Wall, senior reporter at Chalkbeat, an education news publication. (@patrick_wall)

Elizabeth Errico, executive director of the Children’s Mental Health Resource Center.

Interview Highlights

On behavior concerns before the pandemic

Ben Court: "It's important to frame this, to go back for a second and look at the 2010's. The decade that was actually a really hard time for many students and families. And there's a wide range of factors affecting students. Following the Great Recession, from economic turmoil to the opioid epidemic. Steady rise in mental health crises among students and adults. And also, if we look at know family structure, we saw more students living with grandparents, for example. When we look in schools specifically, they were also facing an increase in academic pressure and testing, in large part stemming from No Child Left Behind.

"And then as a result, we saw oftentimes, you know, fewer opportunities to engage in free play and physical activity and more time spent on screens. So by the time we got to 2018, we already had superintendents and school leaders from across the country coming to us saying, you know what? We're seeing the results of this. We're seeing a steady increase in disruptive behavior in our classrooms, especially at the elementary level. And so when we surveyed teachers originally back in 2018, we saw around 70% of teachers say that they'd seen an increase in disruptive behavior in their classrooms over the past three years. And about half of those saying that the increase had been significant."

On a rise in mental health challenges in teens  

Elizabeth Errico: "We can't separate the rise in difficult behaviors in the classroom from the rise in mental health challenges and mental illness in children and teens. Very often it's really just simply misunderstood what symptoms of mental illness look like in kids, because for the most part, we use adult models to understand symptomology. But the fact is that in kids major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and even ADHD can appear as symptomatically as irritability, oppositional behavior, difficulty making transitions, difficulty with social interactions with their peers, difficulty with interacting with adults.

"And what many people look at and see as choices, behaviors that are willful, I hear a lot of people use the words the child decided to do X, Y, or Z. They're really totally misplaced. Because in many cases we're looking at kids who are dealing with involuntary symptoms, don't have coping mechanisms, don't have management strategies. And as a result of these involuntary symptoms that are really hitting them like a wave, they're being disciplined, told their bad kids, told that they are causing problems for their peers. It creates embarrassment, it creates humiliation, and it doesn't teach them any of the skills that they need in order to succeed.

"And if there's one thing that psychologists understand, it's that discipline and punishment don't work to change behavior. They're fixated around the idea of stopping something. But you can't stop something without knowing what you're supposed to be replacing it with. It's why ... you don't tell a little kid in a store, don't touch anything.

"You tell them, put your hands in your pockets or put your hands on the top of your head, because it gives them a replacement behavior. Kids, when they're being disciplined, particularly for symptoms, and there's no integration of what type of behavior it's supposed to be replaced with. And they're not being taught how to engage that replacement behavior. The discipline is going to be ineffective and it's going to, in this particular case, put teachers in a position of having that revolving door on their classroom without things improving."

On a survey of 1,100 educators about discipline in American classrooms

Ben Court: "There are a couple of things to note. So during that first survey, the behaviors we saw most frequent or reported most frequently were things like oppositional defiance and tantrums. And you know, around 15, 16% of educators at the time were saying that they were seeing more severe what you might think of as fight or flight behaviors. So physical violence between students in the classroom and fleeing.

"If we fast forward to 2022, what we saw was across the board, no matter which type of disruptive or concerning behavior, we asked about rates. It increased by at least 50%. But among those more concerning behaviors. ... Things like physical violence between students, you're seeing those rates at least double or more. So there's definitely an increase across the board and the number and frequency of disruptive incidents in classrooms. But we're also seeing a slight change in the types of disruptive behavior that we're seeing in classrooms as well. So more severe incidents."

On effective forms of discipline

Ben Court: "Over time what we've learned is that punitive and exclusionary forms of discipline, which have historically been the norm. If you go back, you know, 20, 30 years, we all went through school in which we were used to detentions, suspensions, etc. What we've learned is that, A, there are significant equity concerns associated with that approach. B, It doesn't work when we look at exclusionary forms of discipline that say you hold a student back from recess because they were disruptive in class. That just removes their opportunity to get some of their energy out and ends up exacerbating the situation.

"We know that sending kids home, so suspensions lead to lower academic performance for those students and an increased likelihood of them dropping out of school altogether. When we look even at in-school suspensions or classrooms with high rates of exclusionary discipline, there's some interesting studies to show that not only is it worse for the student who is the recipient of that discipline, it's also worse for other students in the classroom.

"We see overall academic achievement go down in schools with high rates of punitive discipline. And so while I want to be clear that every teacher and student deserves a safe learning environment, we also need to have more informed discussion around what happens after a disruptive incident. A more nuanced discussion about the fact that there are many different forms of what is perceived to be disruptive behavior that occur for different reasons. And so right now there is a lot of. Straight forward, you know, seemingly simple messages being put out into the ether that miss the important nuances of the conversation."

On how lawmakers are approaching student discipline problems

Patrick Wall: "They range from a kind of a crackdown on behaviors ranging from just talking back to teachers to more serious things like attacking a staff member or other students. But I'd say the common theme in these bills is trying to make it easier for schools to remove students from classrooms and from schools. And so some examples are Arizona wanting to allow younger students as young as kindergarten to be suspended, which earlier law had prohibited. Florida would empower teachers to remove disobedient or disrespectful students and even to use reasonable force to protect themselves.

"Kentucky, which as you mentioned, this bill was just signed, would allow schools to permanently remove disruptive students and put them in alternative settings, which could be online programs. Nebraska would let teachers physically restrain and remove disruptive students, and then North Carolina would change a law where less serious behavior stings, just like dress code violations. Things like that would ... trigger long term suspensions, which until now had not been allowed. And so kind of in a range of different ways ... they are making it easier for schools to kind of take tougher action when they believe that students have broken the rules or misbehaved."

How to provide mental health support in classrooms

Elizabeth Errico: "If we open ourselves to the possibility that schools are no longer just about ... reading, writing and arithmetic, and we recognize that children spend the majority of their lives in school, that schools can be resource hubs for children's needs. It sort of changes how we conceptualize the role of school. And the truth is that schools, the public school system, does not meet the needs of most children who have mental health disorders.

"And in our community, parents of kids who have mental health issues very often wind-up home schooling, wind up having to turn to private schools that can provide smaller classrooms with fewer students, with teachers, aides in the classroom, with more support around specials like art and music and physical education. And the problem with that is ... that means that there is a class issue related to who gets access to education that recognizes and addresses issues regarding mental health."

On how to support student needs 

Ben Court: "Schools are focused on helping students to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful, beyond high school and through into their lives. We have to define what that is. When we look at the systemic change that Elizabeth referenced, parents are a part of that. Making sure that we are forming effective partnerships for developing the right expectations and right skills at home and within schools is absolutely essential.

"And lastly, districts need to focus on making sure that everybody is on the same page around the expectations, the skills that we're trying to develop and the ways that we're going to address those skills in disruptive situations in a classroom and then have honest discussions around tradeoffs. What does it look like to make sure that we're helping teachers be successful in the classroom? Well, creating the time and space to support student needs today."

Related Reading

Chalkbeat: "Lawmakers across U.S. push for harsher school discipline as safety fears rise" — "Lawmakers across the country are moving to make it easier to kick disruptive students out of school, a get-tough turn toward stricter discipline that reflects mounting fears about school violence and disorder."

This program aired on April 6, 2023.


Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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