4 Approaches to Student Discipline (But Only One Builds Trust)

Traditionally, many school leaders approach student discipline in terms of how to best control inappropriate student behaviors. If that control involves cajoling and constricting students into limited behavioral patterns focused on an adult system’s needs and expectations, I would argue there is no place for that type of behavior management within a school setting. Moreover, certainly not within a setting committed to developing a high level of trust. However, suppose when using the word control, school leaders focus on providing guidance and an environment in which children develop thoughtful and reflective self-control. In that case, we approach a child behavioral management theory that supports building trust between leaders and students.

I am not saying that adults should not have authority over children or that school leaders should allow students to run wild. Consider these four theories of controlling or guiding child behavior:

  1. The Permissive Approach Theory
  2. The Uninvolved Approach Theory
  3. The Authoritarian Approach Theory
  4. The Authoritative Approach Theory

Only one focuses on keeping the main thing the main thing. When these theories of student behavior management are analyzed, trusted school leaders champion a balanced, authoritative approach as the most effective and appropriate. Here is why.

The Permissive Approach

The permissive school leader’s profile is reminiscent of the values celebrated and promoted in the 1960s, such as exploration and experimentation. This approach actively encourages students to get in touch with their inner feelings and indulge emotional and physical appetites. These leaders rarely set firm boundaries and very rarely engage in active discipline. The reluctance to administer discipline is primarily due to their very low expectations regarding student behavior or self-control level. These leaders tend to be far more responsive than demanding. Yet, these leaders also tend to be relational and often view themselves as a friend to the students.

The Uninvolved Approach

The uninvolved school leader appears similar to the permissive leader, as student behavior is largely unchecked, but it is quite distinct. While the permissive leader actively encourages students to explore and indulge, the uninvolved leader is distant and perhaps even absent. This leader views managing a student’s behavior as someone else’s job or believes intervention would impede the student’s ability to learn through the course of natural consequences. The uninvolved leader sees the consequences of inappropriate behavior as just deserts and that life will be the teacher. These leaders also value characteristics such as courage, fortitude, and self-defense. Students are encouraged to fight their own battles.

The Authoritarian Approach

The authoritarian school leader highly values setting rules and clear expectations then demanding compliance regardless of the situation. If a student is unable or unwilling to comply, he or she will face punishment. These leaders embrace a theory of control that denies a student’s need to know the whys of rules and expectations. Students must comply “because I said so.” This view holds to a hierarchical view of humanity in which children are of lesser value than adults. The classic phrase, “children should be seen and not heard,” is typical of the authoritarian leader. These school leaders value obedience and self-control. Students are encouraged to comply without explanation.

The Authoritative Approach

Although similar in name, the authoritative approach is vastly different from the authoritarian approach. The authoritative approach recognizes and distinguishes the school leader’s role versus the student, yet they share equal value. These leaders emulate an approach to student behavior management that results in trusted relationships. Consider the following observation made about parents who embrace the authoritative approach.

These kinds of parents are responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. When children fail to meet the expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing. They monitor and impart clear standards to their children’s conduct. They are assertive but not intrusive and restrictive. Their methods of discipline are supportive rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive and socially responsible, self-regulated, and cooperative. [Jennifer Hill, Teaching Kids Self-Discipline: Positive thinking of parenting]

These parents and school leaders understand that the role of authority in the life of a child or student is to provide direction and accountability. They also view their role as protector and guide – helping students understand the eventual consequences of inappropriate behavior without necessarily experiencing those consequences. When these relational elements are in place and roles clearly understood, then not only is the Character of the leader viewed with respect and trust, but character development also takes place in the student’s life. The potential effect on the student’s life goes back to establishing clear goals of what the school is about and keeping those goals visible and central to the school’s operation. The management of each student discipline issue is an opportunity to keep the main thing the main thing.

©Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved

Recommended Reading:

  • Diana Baumrind, “The discipline controversy revisited,” Family Relations 45, no. 4 (1996): 405-414.
  • Brea L. Perry and Edward W. Morris, “Suspending Progress: Collateral consequences of exclusionary punishment in public schools,” American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 (2014): 1-21.
  • Ramon Lewis, “Classroom discipline and student responsibility: the students’ view,” Teaching and Teacher Education 17, no. 3 (2001): 307-319.
  • Jennifer Hill, Teaching Kids Self-Discipline: Positive thinking of parenting (Seattle: Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2014).


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