How Can We Handle Tough Discipline Issues While Preserving Student Trust?

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Trust is Paramount in Education

By Michael Janatovich

We must strive to provide our students with an education that focuses on the whole child.  In order to How Can We Handle Tough Discipline Issues While Preserving Student Trust?produce lifelong learners who can think critically within the world that encompasses them, we have to educate the child beyond the content of the curriculum.  As we create a learning space that fosters these beliefs, we also need to be simultaneously creating a culture of trust.  Trust will be the force that allows students take chances in learning to grow, but more importantly, trust will be the force that holds the bonds of the relationship together when something goes wrong.

What Can Go Wrong?

As educators, we are inspired by the joys of student success, but what happens when students do something wrong and gets into major trouble?  More importantly, how does that affect the student and how does that affect the trusting relationship that you have worked so hard to create?

These are some of the toughest, but most important questions to answer in education. The reality is our actions when students make negative choices can affect a student for the rest of their life. While each school has their own policy for the handling of major discipline, I think that as whole child advocate we must include the following elements into each case:

  1. Listen
  2. Find the ‘why’
  3. Communicate with honesty
  4. Use a team to support

Chill Out and Listen

Kids are smart.  When there is a major discipline situation, they usually understand that they made a bad decision.  They do not need somebody screaming at them.  This will only build upon their frustration, make them anxious, and cause them to shut down.  When students shut down, then adults can get frustrated, and we become trapped in a counterproductive cycle.  Cool heads must prevail, so no matter how furious you may be, chill out.  Stop and listen.  This is the critical moment where all the work you have done to build a relationship with a student could come crumbling down.  You need to collect information, document, and ensure that you are getting every piece of evidence you can.  The calmer the situation, the better the conversation.  If we can get a conversation going, we can make progress.

The Underlying ‘Why’

Once you have listened to the student, it is your turn to ask questions.  Too often, when disciplining students, educators will just lecture a student about what they did was wrong.  To me, this is a waste of time.  As a stated before, kids are smart.  They know when facing major discipline that what they did was wrong.  Now is the time to find out why.  My rule is that a student does not leave my office until we have some understanding of why they did what they did.  Discipline needs to be restorative. In life, we learn from our mistakes, so we need to model that process for students in all situations at school. Focusing on the ‘why’ begins the restorative process, and can help to reduce internal and external factors that can bring the ‘why’ back into light.

Communicate Honestly

Trust is paramount in educational relationships.  In tough discipline situations, we need to maintain trust. Clear, honest communication must be maintained at all times in the discipline process.  Even when the situation can potentially be serious, we cannot be vague.  The student and the parents deserve to know what the school policy is and if there are any potential unseen, unintended consequences.  These are very difficult conversations, but they must happen.  Sugar coating, dancing around the subject, or leaving pieces of information out are the quickest way to lose trust.

I do caution – Do not be blunt and impersonal either.  Parents love their kids and want what is best for them.  Even in the most negative situations, communicate with 100% honesty in a positive tone.  Let parents know that you worked with their child to understand the why, and ensure them that we are all in this together.

Use a Team to Support

Throughout the whole process of tough discipline situations, YOU CANNOT DO IT ALONE.  We owe it to the student and the family that even though we are in a tough situation, we are in it together. Your school should have a team that is involved in any major discipline situations to ensure that parents and students never feel isolated in tough situations. It is our duty to offer support and potentially recommend services for the student or family.

Remember the ‘why’?  Once we know and understand the why, we need to put restorative steps into place in order to support the student.  Ultimately, students will be faced with the ‘why’ again in the future.  How they respond the next time is not just a reflection of the student, but a reflection on how the team supported and ensured that the whole child was successfully taught.  Even if students are furious with you because you had to make a hard decision, the next time they are faced with the ‘why’ and they think back to your supported trust, they will understand that you care.  When this happens, we have reached and supported the whole child, which opens doors for all things possible.


Mike Janatovich is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. He is currently the assistant principal at Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio. Janatovich believes that educating the whole child is critical to ensuring academic success and is an advocate for supporting middle-level learners. Connect with Janatovich on Twitter @mjanatovich.

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