Double trouble: COVID plus bad behavior in class equals a recipe for disaster

Traditional ways of disciplining students—including corporal punishment—must be examined and revised in order to effect lasting changes in behavior.
By: | September 16, 2021
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Teaching remotely. Learning new technology. Juggling childcare and the job. Teachers have had to deal with a lot over the past 18 months, since the onset of the pandemic. Add figuring out how to properly discipline students in the current climate to the list.

With the resumption of in-person learning—and all the drama surrounding whether to mask or not—comes the responsibility of disciplining unruly, disruptive, and in some cases outright belligerent students. Add to that the fact that so many of these students are also burdened with having to cope with the stress, disruption, and weariness with the pandemic-induced restrictions they have been experiencing, and the workday becomes even more taxing for teachers. How they can, and do, handle it often depends on where in the country they work.

In May, educator, writer and advocate Tate Henderson Aldrich wrote on educationpost.org about a bill proposed by Louisiana State Rep. Gabe Firment (R) that would ban corporal punishment in public schools, disallowing the practice of state-sanctioned paddling. The bill did not pass.

The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics both oppose corporal punishment, with researchers asserting that “paddling students can induce toxic stress…resulting in impulsivity, defiance and cognitive problems.” Yet 19 states still permit administrators to paddle students; among those states, reported Aldrich, 70% of all paddlings occur in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. In Arkansas in 2021, discipline policies in 67% of school districts continue to endorse hitting students—for everything from excessive tardies to “rough play.”

“By definition, spanking is intended to cause bodily pain as a way of correcting or punishing a child’s conduct,” writes Susan H. Bitensky in Corporal Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation. “Most child-care experts agree that spanking does absolutely nothing to further the main disciplinary goals of developing the child’s conscience and inclination toward peaceful conflict resolution.”


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Zero-tolerance policies, which may include being kicked out of the classroom, calling in school security or even suspension—for arguably minor infractions like refusing to turn off a cell phone, speaking out of turn, or, more currently,  improperly wearing a mask—are also considered excessive in their severity, as they often result in inequities such as Black and Brown students being punished more often and more harshly than others for breaking the same rules as White students. In addition, writes Raymond Pierce, President and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, in “Ain’t Misbehavin’—How Do We Handle Student Discipline?”, those policies not only don’t work, but they’re also detrimental to student learning and undermine education equity.

This emphasizes the need for comprehensive SEL training for both students and teachers, whose training traditionally has focused more on how to discipline student misbehavior than on taking a positive approach; for example, forging positive teacher-student relationships. Above all else, writes Tricia Maas on EdSurge, education leaders need to establish high-trust environments in their schools; leaders may begin this work by implementing an SEL program for adults that helps staff members build trust, manage stress and attend to equity.

Alternatives to the aforementioned disciplinary measures that are supported by research include:

  1. Replacing zero-tolerance policies for low-level offenses with strategies that teach social-emotional skills.
  2. Providing targeted support for educators to help them learn proactive classroom management and other approaches that encourage and enforce positive classroom behavior.
  3. Providing training on implicit bias for all teachers and administrators, school resource officers, police, juvenile court judges and others who deal with youth.
  4. Developing and implementing a model school discipline policy that clarifies when educator discipline vs. law enforcement discipline is warranted.
  5. Creating relationship-centered schools that support strong family and community engagement.

Aiming to discipline, rather than punish, can create sustainable changes in behavior. In the states and districts that have successfully adopted these approaches, according to a National Center for Education Statistics’ Indicators of School Crime and Safety survey, schools have become safer.

As we begin to recover from recent events and the continuing pandemic, Maas says, many education leaders are reconsidering their systemic approaches, and some are calling to “reclaim” SEL’s power and promise.

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