Many classes have a student who constantly talks out of turn, or chews gum in class when it is clearly prohibited, or gets into fights with classmates, or peeks at another student's paper during a spelling test. All of these situations warrant some disciplinary action. Most schools have a policy about discipline, and in many cases it is available in writing, often published in the school handbook. Although both students and parents tend to think of discipline as a form of punishment, it actually means to teach in a correct way and has a highly desirable purpose: providing an orderly, safe environment to promote learning. Disciplinary efforts work best when clear explanations are given to both children and parents about:
- the behavior that is expected
- the behavior that is unacceptable
- the consequences of unacceptable behavior
The American Academy of Pediatrics feels strongly that while departures from expected behavior should be dealt with appropriately and firmly, teachers and school staff should also take into account each child's individual temperament, attention span, and cognitive abilities. For example, a youngster with an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have more difficulty sitting still in class than most of the other children. This disorder should be kept in mind when discipline is being considered.
In all cases disciplinary actions should show respect for the youngster and take into account the student's capabilities, effort, and ability to improve and respond positively. While discipline may include an extra homework assignment or a loss of privileges, physical punishment should never be used, nor should a child ever be humiliated in front of others.
If your own youngster has disciplinary problems at school, you need to take a more active role in determining the reasons and ensuring that she behaves appropriately. Make certain she understands the type of behavior you and the school expect from her in the classroom and on the playground.
On occasion you might be unhappy with the school's approach to discipline. In that event, address your concerns directly to the teacher, principal, or other school personnel. Do not make derogatory comments about the school to your child. Your own attitudes and behavior are a powerful role model for your youngster, and if you do not appear to have much respect for the school, your child will not either.
For example, if your youngster is being kept inside at recess as a form of punishment, and you feel she really needs to get outside and burn off some excess energy, be careful how you express your dissatisfaction to your child. Do not say something like "That is really a stupid form of punishment, isn't it?" Instead, talk to the teacher and suggest another form of punishment that might be more appropriate. You and the teacher should try to find a common ground so your child receives a consistent set of expectations and positive reinforcement both at home and at school.
In general, a child should not be kept from play at recess to complete classroom assignments at her desk. She will dislike her work even more if she misses out on outdoor activities that she enjoys. And since her attention will probably be on the playground, she may not learn much from what she is doing. It is very important for children to be outside playing with others at times during the day.
In all cases ask the teacher and/or principal to keep you apprised of disciplinary problems with your youngster. Some principals call home immediately upon the child's first visit to their office; others believe that by the upper grades of elementary school, the youngster should take more responsibility for her own behavior, and thus these principals may try to help the child work out the problem without parental intervention.
If there is a serious problem, you probably will be notified at once; but for more routine behavioral difficulties, you cannot necessarily count on being called. If your child tells you she has been to the principal's office and you want to know exactly what happened, feel free to call the principal. On the other hand, many issues can be resolved effectively without your involvement and without your also punishing your child at home for something that she is already being disciplined for at school.
Finally, keep in mind that behavior problems are often a signal of stress or a call for help or attention. Consider the causes of the behavior difficulties as well as the problems themselves.