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Unconditional Positive Regard and Effective School Discipline
By Dr Eric Rossen
Image credit: Blackboard by kyasarin. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.
In a recent 45-minute presentation to school counselors, administrators, and school resource officers (SRO), I had the opportunity to talk about the impact of childhood adversity, toxic stress, and trauma on children and youth in school. I shared some important components of cultivating trauma-informed schools, including avoidance of overly harsh discipline policies. I discouraged the audience from mistaking punishment for discipline, and from over-using suspension and expulsion for high-frequency/low-impact problems (e.g., insubordination); and encouraged listeners to make strides toward positive discipline approaches. While making up only 5 to 10 minutes of the presentation, the discipline discussion consumed the next hour of follow-up questions.
While the majority of audience members nodded their heads in agreement, I noticed a handful scattered throughout the crowd rolling their eyes. Upon completing my presentation, one of the first questions was something like, “If we continue coddling students as you say we should, how will they learn the skills to avoid being put in a patrol car when they turn 18?” Another comment followed, “I don’t care what happened in their lives; if they can’t follow the rules, then they don’t belong in the classroom.” Others later commented on how parents need to instill fear in their children, and respect for authority, and on how punishment is the only true way to teach children a lesson and protect others in school.
I responded to the questions with as scientific a response as I could, citing replicated research on how ineffective suspension and expulsion are at changing behavior or even making schools safer or more disciplined, particularly for minority students and students with disabilities (e.g., See American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Cowan, Vaillancourt, Rossen, & Pollitt, 2013; Fenning & Rose, 2007; Nicholson-Crotty, Birchmeier, & Valentine, 2009; Maag, 2012; Mendez, 2003; Mowen & Brent, 2016; Skiba, Arrendondo, & Williams, 2014). Such measures benefit the adults in the building more than the students, and only do so temporarily. I further stated how adverse childhood experiences put students more at risk for the behaviors that often result in such exclusionary punishments at school, despite these behaviors presenting as somewhat adaptive, predictable, and unconscious responses to their environment and experiences. Yet, for a handful in the audience, we never met halfway.
That was approximately five months ago, and I have thought about that experience quite a bit. First, I had to recognize the role of cognitive dissonance in these exchanges. The distance between my perspective and that of some of my listeners was so far that it seemed easier to dismiss each other’s views than to make radical shifts in our own. Second, I acknowledged that some in the audience were reflecting an important perspective that may originate from their own upbringings, culture, training, or experiences. It’s a perspective that should be respected, nurtured, and explored in those conversations, and I missed that opportunity as well. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I missed the opportunity to emphasize what I now view as a simple but essential ingredient often missing from discipline, especially for traumatized students: unconditional positive regard.
Unconditional positive regard is the idea that you always give value and respect to all individuals, including students. This does not necessarily mean you have to like them, or respect their choices, or approve of their actions. It does, however, mean you accept them and welcome them unconditionally.
In hindsight, I should have acknowledged during the presentation that moving away from suspension and expulsion requires a significant shift in policy and educator beliefs within that system. Doing so is hard work, and takes time, coordination, and commitment. I would have also said that in some cases, suspension or expulsion may, in fact, be warranted, and those decisions should be made within each individual context. However, if school personnel decide to suspend a student, they should nevertheless always apply unconditional positive regard. When that student returns to school, express to him that despite what happened, you still respect him, value him, want him at school, care about him, and are there to support his education and development. I liken it to how I treat my children. Even when I get mad at them, they never have to question whether they will still be fed or have a place to sleep, or somebody to love and care for them. This is critical to reintegrating students into a classroom, even after a day (or less) of suspension.
After I shared this idea at a more recent presentation, a school psychologist approached me to say how much she had appreciated this concept. She shared a story about a first grader at her school that had repeatedly been suspended for spitting, punching, and throwing chairs. During a recent suspension, the teacher and students wrote out a card for the student upon his return that bore only five words, “Welcome back. We missed you.” She said that this simple gesture completely changed the tenor of the student’s return. It communicated that while misbehavior is not something we want to accept, we still respect all students and care about them as members of our community.
Eric Rossen, Ph.D., is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist in Maryland. He currently serves as Director of Professional Development and Standards at the National Association of School Psychologists.
Read an introductory sample chapter from this book.
American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852–862.
Cowan, K. C., Vaillancourt, K., Rossen, E., & Pollitt, K. (2013). A framework for safe and successful schools [Brief]. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Fenning, P., & Rose, J. (2007). Overrepresentation of African American students in exclusionary discipline: The role of school policy. Urban Education, 42, 536–579
Maag, J. W. (2012). School-wide discipline and the intransigency of exclusion. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 2094–2100.
Mendez, L. M. R. (2003). Predictors of suspension and negative school outcomes: A longitudinal investigation. New Directions for Youth Development, 99, 17–33
Mowen, T., & Brent, J. (2016). School discipline as a turning point: The cumulative effect of suspension on arrest. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 0022427816643135.
Nicholson-Crotty, S., Birchmeier, Z., & Valentine, D. (2009). Exploring the impact of school discipline on racial disproportion in the juvenile justice system. Social Science Quarterly, 90(4), 1003–1018.
Skiba, R.J., Arrendondo, M.I., & Williams, N.T. (2014). More than a metaphor: The contribution of exclusionary discipline to a school-to-prison pipeline. Equity and Excellence in Education, 47(4).
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