Lamar University’s online Master of Education in Administration program emphasizes the importance of creating cultures of continuous improvement in schools. For modern educational leaders, reshaping disciplinary approaches to be more equitable, responsive and transformative is a central component of these improvement efforts.
Compassionate discipline is one such evolving approach. It incorporates beneficial aspects of traditional, compliance-based discipline models as well as more modern, student-centered approaches while attempting to avoid the pitfalls of both. Implementing such a dynamic combination of seemingly disparate disciplinary approaches can be challenging. However, it can also be essential for fostering diverse, inclusive learning communities to serve today’s students better.
What Are the Pitfalls of Traditional Approaches to Discipline?
To generalize, the main goal of traditional school discipline is affecting student compliance and conformity to behavioral and achievement norms. Educators are authority figures, setting and enforcing behavioral and academic expectations and standards for students.
Non-compliance with expectations is met with punitive consequences like reprimands, time-outs, detention or suspension. While intended to improve student behavior, punitive discipline can negatively impact the student-educator relationship as well as future student behavior, student self-efficacy, academic performance and life outcomes.
This may be further compounded by teacher biases in disciplinary action. Students in minority populations are often disciplined more often and more harshly than their peers. Severe disciplinary measures like suspension correlate with higher dropout rates, leading to long-term negative outcomes and perpetuating societal inequities.
What About Student-Centered Approaches?
Student-centered behavior management approaches that are primarily affirmation- or choice-based emphasize praise and positive student behavior, constructive choice-making and achievement. Such student-centric practices can help students develop autonomy, independence, critical thinking and self-regulation, resulting in preventative behavior management.
Still, overusing these behavioral approaches can also lead to negative outcomes. As the Institute of Child Psychology points out, children may learn “to do what is advantageous rather than what is right.” This can lead to developing manipulative skills rather than internalizing desirable behaviors and learning empathy. It may also foster affirmation-seeking motivation instead of intrinsic motivation.
Furthermore, student-centered approaches may not be developmentally age-appropriate or responsive to cultural norms. They can lack the external structure and guidance some students need to feel safe and supported in educational settings.
What Is Compassionate Discipline?
Compassionate discipline is student-centric, focusing on choice, student needs and autonomy/self-regulation development. Yet, compassionate discipline also provides structure, clear expectations and consequences, creating a safe environment for student development, learning and growth.
In compassionate discipline models, teachers are still authority figures, set expectations and hold students accountable for their behavior with consistency and clarity. Still, a teacher’s authority, the expectations set and the consequences given are not arbitrary or unnecessarily punitive.
In this model, teachers communicate the meaning behind expectations and consequences. They help students understand how behaviors and consequences impact themselves and others. Whereas punitive discipline surrounds conformity and compliance, compassionate discipline fosters student understanding of and active participation in their behavior management. Students learn that their behaviors are choices, and choices have dynamic, negative and positive consequences.
A teacher using compassionate discipline will focus on displaying personal interest in the student and offer just as much positive feedback as negative to a student. For example, they may tell a student that their feelings are valid and heard by saying, “I understand. I have felt that way, too.” Then teachers can remind the student that they are valued when correcting behavior by saying, “that was not a very good decision you made. However, I know you will be smart and make the right choice next time.”
The Behavior and the Person
Another fundamental component of compassionate discipline is the way it separates the behavior from the person. Teachers must ensure a student understands that discipline is attached to a specific behavior or choice they make, not them personally. This empowers students to make conscious, informed choices, internalizing their understanding of how their choices impact their own experiences and those of others.
To create a safe and predictable environment for students, teachers must show students trust, respect and empathy, especially in difficult situations. Students will often test teachers — consciously or unconsciously — expecting the teacher to fail and prove untrustworthy. When a student “acts out,” there are generally underlying causes, struggles and stressors that may have nothing to do with the situation.
Teachers must consider these dynamics constantly, keeping calm, listening for subtext and trying to uncover what lies beneath a student’s behavior. This involves active listening and asking students open-ended questions to determine what is going on at a deeper level. Compassionate teachers who listen to and validate a student’s feelings separates the person and their feelings from the behavior, illustrating the choices students have when acting upon their thoughts and feelings.
Compassionate discipline also requires making consequences consistent, relevant and constructive, providing students with opportunities for growth. This can help internalize positive behavioral development, furthering essential social and emotional learning.
Compassionate discipline is complex and requires commitment from educators, administrators, principals, students and the school community. Yet, such practices can have a transformational impact on student emotional development, engagement, achievement and future well-being.
Learn more about Lamar University’s online Master of Education in Administration program.