Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Discipline or Disorder: Building A Healthy School Climate

by Christopher G. Hennen - February 14, 2005

School disorder and the fear it creates diminish quality of life, violate personal freedoms and undermine efforts to promote healthy school communities. However, reducing student misconduct or reforming school disciplinary practices is not simply or quickly achieved; those who have not attempted it cannot truly appreciate its complexities and burdens. Nevertheless, there are a few common characteristics that underpin any successful model that seeks to affect the level of discipline and disorder in a school.

Educating our nation’s children remains about inculcating values as well as teaching subject matter. Along with the family, schools are expected to instill in children the values that contribute to a law-abiding and productive society. Character traits such as respect, courtesy, and consideration are the foundations of a well-ordered school and a civilized society. As schools often mirror the communities they serve, the conduct and discipline of school children are inextricably linked to these basic values. While good behavior is clearly a precondition for learning, disrespect and defiance by students are alarmingly commonplace in today’s schools. Automatic compliance with rules and standards of conduct, and the schools’ authority to correct inappropriate behaviors are no longer givens. Educators are finding themselves routinely confronted with an entire spectrum of discipline-related challenges that were unheard of only a generation ago. Furthermore, many perspectives on the causes of delinquency focus on the failure of schools to socialize children effectively.

School disorder and violence, and the fear they create diminish quality of life, violate personal freedom, and undermine efforts to promote learning and healthy school communities. It would appear that no locality in America is immune to school-related discipline issues, and no school can claim to be a safe haven from all forms of disorder. In a U.S. Department of Education publication, Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, the authors caution that disruptive school behaviors, when allowed to continue unchecked, can lead to more serious—and potentially violent—incidents (Dwyer, Osher, and Warger, 1998). In survey after survey of the public’s and teachers’ attitudes toward schools, lack of discipline has been identified as one of the most significant problems in secondary schools (Elam, Rose, and Gallup, 1996a, 1996b). The media’s attention to this concern guarantees the issue will not lose its urgency anytime soon.

Ill-equipped to deal with disruptive and delinquent behaviors, many teachers feel defenseless and under siege; students report feeling intimidated or threatened by the conduct of other students. Parents are demanding immediate and effective solutions to the misconduct and, when such remedies fall short, full accountability by school officials. However, reducing student misconduct or reforming school disciplinary practices is not simply or quickly achieved; those who have not attempted it cannot truly appreciate its complexities and burdens. The challenge to school administrators has further been hampered by the courts and the federal government, which have systematically eroded the power of educators to establish a safe and civil school environment.

As the visibility of school disciplinary problems has increased, a growing number of “expert” suggestions and solutions have been proposed. For example, there is no shortage of advice on what ought to be incorporated into a school’s disciplinary plan, including architectural accommodations, metal detectors, school uniforms, peer mediation, and “get-tough” zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. Such approaches in some circumstances have achieved limited success, but when not part of a comprehensive and integrated plan that is understood and embraced by school authorities, their impact is often short-term. Moreover, many of these “solutions” have not been empirically validated or replicated. While it is tempting to suppose that traditional notions of discipline should be changed to embrace the modern culture in which today’s youths are being reared, basic human nature remains a constant, and students’ natural reactions to discipline are unchanged, albeit more vocal and rigorous. It is this writer’s belief that, given the right circumstances, traditional methods of discipline provide the best chance for restoring and maintaining order in the classroom.

There are a few common characteristics that underpin any successful model that seeks to affect the level of discipline, disorder, and violence in a school. Not surprisingly, educational leaders who establish and enforce rules, effectively communicate clear expectations for behavior among school stakeholders, and recognize the value of improving professional competencies in this area can experience lower levels of undisciplined student behavior, enhance opportunities for student achievement, and improve the quality of life for teachers. Life in schools that successfully address school disciplinary concerns is healthier and more predictable; students feel confident in the ability of the adults to ensure their safety and maintain order, while students who violate the rules of conduct know that punishment will be swift and certain.

School discipline research shows that successful school management is directly related to the skill and ability of leaders in creating, communicating, and enforcing rules of behavior (Ramsey, 2002). Order, limits, firmness, and respect are qualities of a positive and effective school. Leaders make clear the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. They establish a hierarchy of sanctions—and rewards—and insist on their firm, fair, and consistent application.

However, comprehensive, effective school discipline management does not just happen. It takes thoughtful planning, implementation, and maintenance. Well-disciplined schools usually balance clearly established and communicated rules of behavior with a climate of concern for students as individuals. Likewise, skilled leaders promote effective faculty behaviors that foster a classroom climate in which students feel safe and motivated to learn. School policies that set reasonable, clearly understood, actively enforced behavioral expectations—for students and staff alike—can be effective tools in advancing the interests of all students as well as in correcting the behaviors of offenders. Working to improve and sustain a school’s climate requires rules to be explained and the consequences of breaking them to be clearly articulated to all school constituencies, for example, in newsletters, handbooks, and assemblies. These rules must be periodically restated, especially after students return from extended breaks. Once a school’s conduct standards have been communicated, fair, firm, and consistent application will assist in maintaining the adults’, children’s, and parents’ respect for the school’s discipline system.

It is important to build capacity within the school so that all stakeholders can deal confidently and effectively with inappropriate student behavior. It is easy for educational leaders to fall into the trap of becoming the “go-to person” or “problem solver” when student misbehavior arises. However, on the frontline of education, knowledgeable and skillful teachers are expected not only to foster improved measures of student achievement but also to provide an appropriate classroom climate for a very diverse student population. Those who understand and can apply a range of techniques in managing student behavior and are supported in implementing them are better able to achieve an appropriate level of student discipline and to assist educational administrators, students, and their parents in making decisions about inappropriate student behavior. Having the tools and the confidence to deal effectively with disciplinary issues is also a factor in improved teacher morale, and, therefore in teacher retention. Yet, to fully enable teachers to respond to the range of potential discipline scenarios, they need to be offered appropriate professional-development experiences.

Harvard professor Roland Barth, in his book, Improving Schools from Within (1991), observed that change that emanates from teachers only occurs when they find a better way. Professional development is an integral component of any educational leader’s effort to transform and sustain a healthy school climate, yet it is often overlooked. With rare exception, many school professional-development programs fall well short of what is needed to effect true change in a school’s disciplinary environment. They lack coherence and often become fragmented as training or operating priorities change. Perhaps the most formidable challenge to institutionalizing effective professional development for teachers may be the prevailing school culture, which often does not place a premium on classroom-management training. Educational leaders must take active roles in defining professional-development priorities and ensuring sufficient time and funding are available. It is essential that the principal, through his/her leadership, develops and sustains a structure and a culture that promotes teacher professional development, integrating it into both the strategic operating and financial plans of a school. With this kind of priority, professional development is certified as important, acknowledging, among other goals, the value of teacher proficiency in handling disciplinary matters in the classroom.

Building effective school-wide discipline is a long-term process, so allowing sufficient time for implementation is also important. Expectations for school discipline often fail due to unrealistic time expectations. A dangerous administrative trap is to embark on a school-wide disciplinary effort with the assumption that a program can be fully implemented over a semester or even a full school year. In reality, schools with effective disciplinary systems typically have built—and improved—them over an extended time, usually three to five years.

A positive learning environment is the right of every teacher and student. Efforts to build effective school–wide discipline serve not only to establish a positive school environment for all students, but also to provide a foundation for student achievement and character development. While schools have considerable potential to intervene effectively in delinquency prevention, their nonintervention or ineffective intervention can exacerbate the problem. The time is right for building pro-active school-wide disciplinary systems that emphasize the value of educational leadership, community involvement, effective communication, and professional development.


Barth, R.S. (1991). Improving schools from within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dwyer, K., Osher, D., and Warger, C. (1998). Early warning, timely response: A guide to safe schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Elam, S. M., Rose, L. C., & Gallup, A. M. (1996a). The third Phi Delta Kappa poll of teachers’ attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(3), 244-250;

Elam, S. M., Rose, L. C., & Gallup, A. M. (1996b). 28th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(1), 41-59.

Ramsey, R. D. (2002). Administrator’s complete school discipline guide: Techniques and materials for creating an environment where kids can learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11747, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:51:44 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Christopher Hennen
    New York Military Academy
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER HENNEN is the Headmaster of the New York Military Academy.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue