Welcome Wave of Change: Positive Discipline and SEL in Schools

by Tonje Molyneux, M.Ed.

I bet you can easily conjure up an image of a school teacher rapping the knuckles of a naughty girl with a ruler. Or a principal paddling the bottom of a boisterous boy. For a long time, this was how students were disciplined in school. They were physically punished with rulers, straps, paddles, or hands. Or shamed by being made to stand in the corner, wear a dunce cap, or write lines on the board. Perhaps you think these harsh, punitive discipline practices are a relic of a past, something we now only see in old movies or on episodes of The Simpsons. But in 19 states it’s still legal to use corporal punishment in schools.1 And since the late 1980s, zero-tolerance policies have resulted in thousands of students being excluded from schools, their right to an education stripped away for infractions sometimes as minor as chewing gum.

Shocking, isn’t it? But take heart because a wave of change is cresting in schools and districts around the country. People are no longer buying the old argument, “Well, that’s how it was when I was in school and I turned out okay!” We know more now about why harsh discipline practices do not work and how they can actually cause students harm. We know they’re used disproportionately on students of color or those with disabilities and can push them into the pipeline to prison. And we know about effective approaches to discipline in schools that can actually help create the safe and supportive environment students need to learn. We also know that teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) skills to students can help these approaches to discipline work even better.

What’s the Harm?

A traditional approach to discipline in schools entails punishing the student for breaking a rule. Examples of punishments include expulsion, suspension, detention, physical restraint, paddling, verbal reprimands, and so on. Ostensibly the goal of the punishment is to teach the student not to break the rule again. But when the penalty for breaking the rule is harsh and punitive, what the student learns is to distrust or downright fear authority figures.

A tragic and extreme example of this happened recently in Greene County, Virginia, when a four-year-old boy with attention deficit disorder was hauled out of his pre/k classroom in handcuffs by the sheriff after the principal failed to calm an outburst that included throwing blocks and climbing over desks. The boy was later put in leg shackles at the sheriff’s office. The use of physical restraints in schools is still legal in Virginia, but thankfully lawmakers are considering introducing a bill this year that would limit the use of handcuffs and require more training for school staff. But the damage is done for this student, who has been suspended indefinitely and continues to suffer from nightmares.

In states like California where zero-tolerance discipline policies are enforced, they’ve been handing out more suspensions than diplomas every year.2 And students are not being suspended for school safety issues; on the contrary, close to half of the suspensions were for “willful defiance,” which can include things like disrespectful behavior or dress code violations. Or even chewing gum. An analysis of suspensions in a Midwestern state found that only 5 percent were for drug or weapon offenses; the other 95 percent were for minor infractions such as tardiness.3

These punishments are harsh, sure, but are they working? Research has yet to provide us with the national-level data that demonstrate the extent of the ineffectiveness of punitive discipline practices. However, case studies and state-level analyses have shown that zero-tolerance policies, for example, are not reducing problem behaviors in schools.4 In fact, an analysis in Tennessee found that drug and violent offenses actually increased in the first three years of statewide zero-tolerance policy implementation. As for corporal punishment, it’s been found to be no more effective than nonviolent forms of punishment.5

That we’re not seeing a drop in misbehavior is not the only issue. The harm this inflicts on our students is cause for even greater alarm. Here are some of the negative outcomes research has linked to harsh, punitive, exclusionary discipline practices:

  • Higher dropout rates4, 6
  • Higher likelihood of entering the juvenile justice system6
  • Increased “student shame, alienation, rejection, and breaking of healthy adult bonds”7
  • Lower academic achievement4, 8
  • Increased risk of involvement in violent crime2, 9
  • Negative emotional and behavioral effects10

In short, these discipline practices don’t work. They can harm students, and they don’t reduce problem behaviors. Another alarming trend is that students of color or those with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to punitive discipline practices,2, 8 which the U.S. Department of Education has recognized as a civil rights violation.

What Are the Alternatives?

So if hitting, shaming, or expelling kids doesn’t reduce problem behaviors, what will? Three strategies are emerging as promising alternatives to punitive discipline practices in schools:

  • School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS)
  • Restorative practices
  • Trauma-sensitive strategies

School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports

In a nutshell, SWPBIS entails establishing specific behavioral expectations and consistent consequences for problem behaviors schoolwide. Appropriate behaviors are taught directly to students and regularly modeled, reinforced, and rewarded. Other features include a multi-tiered support system (primary prevention for all students and targeted or intensive supports and interventions for at-risk students) and data-based decision making. Research shows that implementing SWPBIS results in a significant drop in discipline referrals and suspensions, as well as increased academic achievement, lower dropout rates, higher teacher retention, and improved school culture.11

Restorative Practices

An approach with roots in the justice system, restorative practices (also known as “restorative justice”) in the school setting involves: “1) repairing harm, 2) bringing together all affected to collaboratively figure out how to repair harm, and 3) giving equal attention to community safety, victims’ needs, and offender accountability and growth.”2

Community- and relationship-building are at the heart of this approach, and this happens through practices such as circles, mediation and conferencing, and peer juries. Schools that have adopted restorative justice in California’s Oakland Unified School District have seen suspensions drop by half in just a few years. Graduation rates are on the rise and at two schools the disproportionate discipline of African-Americans has been completely eliminated!12 It’s also endorsed by the American Psychological Association’s Zero Tolerance Taskforce as an effective alternative to zero tolerance.7

Trauma-Sensitive Strategies

At least one in four students has experienced a traumatic event that can potentially affect his or her ability to learn.13 In school, these students may act out, withdraw, or have difficulty paying attention. Using trauma-sensitive strategies—such as training staff in the impact of trauma on learning, reframing behavior through a trauma lens, and using positive, proactive discipline strategies—can help prevent re-traumatization and create the safe and supportive environment students who have experienced trauma need in order to learn.14

Where Do SEL Skills Fit In?

SWPBIS, restorative practices, and trauma-sensitive strategies are all promising approaches to positive discipline in schools. That they’re effective in preventing and reducing problem behaviors makes the use of harsh, punitive, exclusionary discipline practices unnecessary. This is good news for students, school staff, and the wider community. And social-emotional learning (SEL) can boost the effectiveness of these welcome initiatives.

The goal of SEL is to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes students need “to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”15 Schools that implement SEL programs tend to be safer16 because socially-emotionally competent students have more positive attitudes toward themselves and others, show more positive social behaviors in school, and have fewer conduct problems.17

Simply implementing an SEL program can help reduce problem behaviors. At Kirkwood School in Toppenish, Washington, they saw discipline referrals drop from seven per day to only two or three after only a few months of teaching lessons from the Second Step program in classrooms.18 But when SEL is part of a system that’s also using prevention-focused approaches to discipline such as SWPBIS, restorative practices, and trauma-sensitive strategies, the positive impact can be greatly enhanced. Teaching SEL skills serves as a recognized and recommended universal-level support for supporting students’ trauma and behavioral health needs.2 It’s the vehicle for directly teaching students the skills they need to meet the behavioral expectations established with SWPBIS. And it’s SEL skills that students need to build relationships, show empathy, manage emotions, disagree respectfully, solve problems, and resolve conflict—all aspects of restorative practices. SEL goes hand-in-hand with these positive, supportive approaches to discipline.

Welcome Wave of Change

The move away from harsh, punitive, exclusionary (and, let’s face it, ineffective) discipline practices in schools and districts across the country is a welcome wave of change. Instead of being punished for misconduct with methods that can be harmful to their social, emotional, and academic development—and even violate their civil rights—students in schools that implement SWPBIS, restorative practices, and trauma-sensitive strategies will feel safe and supported. And staff will have more time to focus on helping students learn. Add SEL to the mix, and the benefits for students, school staff, and the wider community will only be amplified.


  1. Strauss, V. (2014). 19 States still allow corporal punishment in school. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/18/19-states-still-allow-corporal-punishment-in-school/
  2. Public Counsel Law Center. (2014). Fix School Discipline: How We Can Fix School Discipline, Toolkit for Educators. Sunnyvale, CA: Joomag. Retrieved from www.joomag.com/magazine/fix-schools-discipline-toolkit-for-community-members-educator-toolkit-2014/0084655001395695192
  3. Skiba, R., & Rausch, M. K. (2004). The Relationship Between Achievement, Discipline, and Race: An Analysis of Factors Predicting ISTEP Scores. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. Retrieved from http://iub.edu/~safeschl/ChildrenLeftBehind/pdf/2D.pdf
  4. Boccanfuso, C., and Kuhfeld, M. (2011, March). Multiple responses, promising results: Evidence-based, nonpunitive alternatives to zero tolerance. Research-to-Results Brief, #2011-09, 1–12. Retrieved from www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Child_Trends-2011_03_01_RB_AltToZeroTolerance.pdf
  5. Gershoff, E. T. (2010). More harm than good: A summary of scientific research on the intended and unintended effects of corporal punishment on children. Law and Contemporary Problems, 73(2), 31–56. Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1565&context=lcp
  6. Leone, P. E., Christle, C.A., Nelson, M., Skiba, R., Frey, A., & Jolivette, K. (2003). School Failure, Race and Disability: Promoting Positive Outcomes, Decreasing Vulnerability for Involvement with the Juvenile Delinquency System. Washington, DC: The National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice. Retrieved from www.edjj.org/Publications/list/leone_et_al-2003.pdf. Wald, J., & Losen, D. (Eds.). (2003). Deconstructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: New Directions for Youth Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  7. American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2006). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools: An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852–862. Retrieved from www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf
  8. 8.U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. Washington, DC: U.S. Departent of Education. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/guiding-principles.pdf
  9. Ashley, J., & Burke, K. (2009). Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools. Chicago: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Retrieved from www.icjia.state.il.us/public/pdf/BARJ/SCHOOL%20BARJ%20GUIDEBOOOK.pdf
  10. Paolucci, E. O., & Violato, C. (2004). A meta-analysis of the published research on the affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects of corporal punishment. Journal of Psychology, 138, 197–221.
  11. Losen, D.J. (2011). Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center (citing Muscott, H.S., et al. (2008). Positive behavioral interventions and supports in New Hampshire: Effects of large-scale implementation of schoolwide positive behavior support on student discipline and academic achievement, Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 10, 190-205). Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/NEPC-SchoolDiscipline.pdf
  12. Westervelt, E. (2014). An alternative to suspension and expulsion: “Circle up!”. NPR Ed. Retrieved from www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/12/17/347383068/an-alternative-to-suspension-and-expulsion-circle-up
  13. Briggs-Gowan, M. J., Ford, J. D., Fraleigh, L., McCarthy, K., & Carter, A. S. (2010). Prevalence of exposure to potentially traumatic events in a healthy birth cohort of very young children in the northeastern United States. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23, 725–733.
  14. Cole, S. F., O’Brien, J. G., Gadd, M. G., Ristuccia, J., Wallace, D. L., & Gregory, M. (2005). Helping traumatized children learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children.
  15. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2014). What is social and emotional learning? Chicago, IL: CASEL. Retrieved from www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/
  16. Osher, D., Sprague, J., Weissberg, R. P., Axelrod, J., Keenan, S., Kendziora, K., & Zins, J. E. (2003). A comprehensive approach to promoting social, emotional, and academic growth in contemporary schools. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best Practices in School Psychology V, Volume 4, (pp. 1–16). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists Publications.
  17. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, D. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.
  18. Guerrerro, R. (2015). “Second Step” curriculum teaches kids social, emotional skills. Yakima Herald. Retrieved from www.yakimaherald.com/news/latestlocalnews/2803498-8/second-step-curriculum-teaches-kids-social-emotional-skills