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A Lesson in School Discipline

Bronx Classroom Tales

Difficult students -- every teacher has at least one.  Generally, disciplining these students requires following the typical protocol for bad behavior which involves a detention, suspension, or even a meeting with the parents

However, I recently learned that in severe cases, new approaches to discipline may be needed.

My Disciplinary Approach for Mario

I held a conference with a mother of a student who won’t stop singing and dancing in class. During a 10th grade team meeting, several other teachers mentioned how this student, Mario, has become a formidable distraction in class.  Having met his mother a few weeks earlier at parent-teacher conferences, I thought a sit down with Mario, his mother, and his other teachers might help improve the situation. I was wrong.

Mario told me that he would not be attending the meeting. When his mother showed up later that week, he refused to enter the room. It’s a terrible thing to watch a parent and child fight, worse in front of crowd of other students, and even worse when the child “wins.”

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Mario refused to enter the room even after a short scuffle and a harsh exchange of words. I told his mom that perhaps it was best if she and the teachers just went ahead with the meeting without him. “That’s the problem though,” she told me. “He always gets his way.” She was right.

Mario marched down the hall and proceeded to cut my class the next two days. If he doesn’t attend next week, it will end with a suspension, obviously not beneficial to his education. On the other hand neither are his failing all of his current classes and preventing others from learning in the meantime.

What Do I Do When All My Disciplinary Attempts Fail?

The problem is what to do with Mario if he’s not willing to change. His mother has taken away his internet, phone and television privileges in the past, but this only keeps him out of the house, where it is likely he will get into more trouble. Not a parent myself, I didn’t have much further advice for his mother. She is like a lot of parents I speak with who have very little influence over their children. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I once had a mother ask me not to tell her son that we had spoken because she was afraid of what he would do to her if he found out.

Positive feedback is universally encouraged as a behavior modification strategy. Yet, sometimes cause for praise can be hard to come by so for now, we’re all at a loss over Mario. I’m not sure when it happens but somewhere in their development, there are teenagers who realize that they can do what they want and still have a roof over their heads and food on their plates. It’s only later that they’ll learn that life can be much harsher than mom’s face of disappointment or a teacher’s negative comments on a report card.

So much of the work in urban education is lessons about resilience, hard work, and respect. Unfortunately, many students score as low in these categories as they do on state exams. While this group is certainly a minority of the entire student population, they make the most noise in both classrooms and newspaper headlines. Until we figure out a way to educate the whole child and help mom do the same, we have to keep trying new things. I was wrong about the conference, but at least I can say I learned because of it.

What lessons have you learned from difficult students? Share in the comments section below!