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School Discipline Is Changing (And That's Good, Say Parents)


In the ongoing conversation about what constitutes effective discipline in schools, Independence, Missouri, poses an interesting case study. 

In January, the district briefly came under fire from a group of agitated parents over the use of the ominous-sounding "isolation rooms." In the resulting furor, several child development experts questioned the practice of isolating students as a way to control their behavior. 

But earlier, the district had attracted a much different kind of attention. Its efforts to bring "trauma-informed care" to teacher practice was highlighted late last year by KCUR 89.3 in the context of a growing national movement striving to understand how stress and trauma affect student learning. 

These two very different examples indicate the complexity of school discipline in education and underline the fact that few teachers, schools, or districts are doing things perfectly. Still, many Kansas City educators and parents think the increased focus on finding what's best for kids is a good thing. 

Here is an overview of some of the latest trends in school discipline, discussed recently on KCUR's Central Standard

De-escalation: Conversation Is Key 

Derald Davis first became a teacher in the 1990s, in the wake of what he calls the "zero tolerance era."  

"The philosophy was that in order to minimize disruptions, students should get harsh, punitive consequences. That resulted in a high number of suspensions. The fear of consequences, it was believed, would keep kids from doing kid things," he says. 

Problem was, such approaches didn't work, at least not for Davis who is now the Assistant Superintendent for School Leadership for Kansas City Public Schools. Over the past five years, he says, the district has made a concerted effort to move away from a "zero tolerance" brand of discipline to something known as "de-escalation." 

While there's no single accepted definition of what this means, Davis says it boils down to prioritizing having conversations with misbehaving students and seeking to understand why they are acting the way they are. 

"When a kid is talking with another student or running down the hall, they're not thinking 'I better not do this because I'll get suspended.' So suspending them won't teach them anything," says Davis. "We need to help them understand why they shouldn't have certain behaviors at school, teach them how to talk to adults, resolve conflicts with peers and so on." 

Davis says in the time KCPS has begun emphasizing "de-escalation," the district has seen a 60 percent drop in suspensions and, overall, they "have had fewer disciplinary problems." 

This type of approach may have helped Kate Beem's son, who is now in college but was an "anxious boy" growing up. She says when he was in second grade in Independence, the district was using a stricter form of discipline than it uses now. He repeatedly had behavior issues and would often get sent to the office. She says it happened so frequently that he fell severely behind in math. He was eventually labeled a "troublemaker" by teachers and other students. 

"Yes, he was responsible for his behaviors," she says, "but my husband and I were working steadfastly on the behaviors at home and trying to work with him and the school. But I felt there was little effort made to understand what was driving his behaviors." 

Trauma-informed Care: Using Your 'Lizard Brain' 

Child development experts suggest bad behavior, like the kind displayed by Beem's son when he was in second grade, is an opportunity for teachers to assess a child's needs. This points to another trend in school discipline methods. 

"A [bad] behavior is an absence of the tools they need to get their needs met," says Molly Ticknor, a trauma-informed care consultant with Truman Medical Center. "What is most beneficial is identifying the root cause of the behavior." 

Ticknor helps train teachers and schools in how to be more "trauma-sensitive." She says everyone carries some level of trauma, and this trauma can drive people to use their "lizard brain." That is, the limbic system, which controls humans' instinctual 'fight or flight' response. 

It's referred to as the "lizard brain" because it's the oldest, most elemental part of the brain. (If you are a teacher or parent of a misbehaving child and you've likened them to an animal, you're not far off.) But Ticknor says understanding these cognitive processes can help in responding to children when they are unruly.

"Once you understand how trauma impacts the brain, you begin to develop empathy," she says. 

Trauma is "anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope," Ticknor says. The less support a student has either at school or at home, the more difficult it is to cope. In this context, harsh punishment can create a negative feedback loop. 

"If we're disciplining in a way that is punishing, the punishment itself could actually become traumatizing. Verbal, physical, emotional triggers could re-traumatize them," she says. 

The trauma of punishment can linger, too. Several KCUR listeners reached out to discuss their negative memories of being disciplined in school, some dating back to the 1950s. 

"I remember being slapped across the face by my first grade teacher," one woman who did not want to be named says. "It had such a powerful impact that I remember it as if it had happened last week and it was in the 1953-54 school year." 

Likewise, Tobi Knight-Daiss of Kansas City says when she was in grade school, kids were often moved out into the hallway, given detentions and sometimes paddled. 

"I felt angry and embarrassed whenever a teacher singled me out. I felt misunderstood and disliked, but I also tried hard to behave myself so that it wouldn't happen again," Knight-Daiss says. 

Considering Race and Ethnicity (Yes, It Matters) 

There's no indication these stories had anything to do with race or ethnicity. But new research suggests race matters in the classroom. How minority students are disciplined also has been shown to have an abiding effect on how students see themselves long after they leave school. 

A University of Kansas study published last year showed African American students who have more African American teachers perceive their school's discipline as fairer. 

The research's author Dr. Don Haider-Markel suggests schools can improve their student behavior by hiring more diverse faculty. For Haider-Markel, the study's results have deeper implications. 

"What are we teaching students through the ways we discipline them? We are teaching them about their status as citizens and their role in society," he says. 

The implication, then, is a harsh punishment meted out by a white teacher on a minority student may be introducing or reinforcing societal power dynamics. 

"Through discipline and punishment, we are teaching students how authority will be exercised in their lives and in their society," Haider-Markel says. 

That emphasizes even more what's at stake in the Kansas City metro's ongoing discussion about school discipline and what is best for kids. Because it may not be just the kids who are impacted. 

A former teacher, Kyle Palmer is now KCUR's morning newscaster. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle

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