7 Communication To-Do’s For Managing Student Discipline

If you had asked me to describe my greatest challenges during my first years as a school administrator, I would have quickly said managing student discipline.

image source: neatoday.org

image source: neatoday.org

When I talk to prospective principals, I sometimes ask them to think back to their most difficult days in teaching–you know, the intense confrontations with students or others that caused you to go home with a knot in your stomach, wondering what happened. Here’s an uncomfortable truth about becoming a school administrator: plan on dealing with these difficult situations on a daily basis.

Over the years, I have managed thousands of discipline incidents, so I know from experience that the process is taxing; however, it can become relatively more manageable. Thankfully, I have learned how some common practices can help improve school-wide discipline management.

Entire books have been written on discipline and managements, so I just want to share 7 quick takeaways on important communication to-do’s for strong school-wide discipline management:

1. Communicate in writing (importance of handbooks)
A principal’s student handbook will be one of his best friends or worst enemies. Just as teachers communicate expectations on processes, procedures, make-up work, and behavior consequences, the same expectations apply school-wide.

Most schools use student handbooks to communicate everything from credits required to graduate to attendance procedures. Here’s a pdf version of the handbook at my school. If you have one from yours, share a link with the rest of us! Handbooks are not just a good suggestion, they are also an important part of ensuring schools follow the laws for due process (discussed in a later point).

2. Communicate in person (power of presentations)
Schools vary on how they present to students. Larger schools often hold assemblies or air pre-recorded videos over SMARTboards or digitally. Over the years, we have tried to visit every English class in our school to begin the year with face-to-face interactions. With a student of population of around 770, this is still possible if I share the task with my other team members.

The benefits of in-person presentations are two-fold. One, we have the opportunity to give and receive information in a smaller setting. Two, we can more easily document that all students have received school rules and expectations when students sign and date forms during the meetings. Sign-in sheets are simple, but they are so important for demonstrating that every student was given a copy of the ground-rules at the start of school. Here’s a copy of a typical handbook signin sheet

3. Communicate consistently (pre-determine consequences and rewards)
Each year our administrative team decides ahead of time what steps will be taken for common infractions. For instance, we spell out discipline steps for violations involving dress code, tardiness, and unexcused absences. We also include consequences for more serious infractions involving substance abuse, weapons or dangerous instruments.

We save ourselves a lot of time by already pre-determining the consequences. It allows us to be consistent in enforcement and students understand ahead of time what to expect.

4, Communicate to parents (before, during, and after discipline)
When ninth graders enter our high school, we hold student/parent orientation meetings. This allows parents to hear our school expectations before school begins. We also post our handbook online, and I share a link in my principal newsletter.

During situations where students are being disciplined at school, we also contact parents as soon as possible. This is expected from teachers who assign discipline and it is procedure for our admin team. Parents want to know what’s happening with their children. Keeping them in the loop also empowers them to support the school in the process just as we are supporting them in holding their child accountable.

It is easy for parent contacts to become negative unless you stay focused on communicating what is best for the student. Don’t take out your frustrations with the student on his/her parent; you’re on the same team. Even when you have a parent who turns difficult in the process, try to maintain consistency and keep the issue focused on the behavior not the child.

For more feedback on dealing with difficult people, see this previous post.

5. Communicate with superiors (eliminate surprises for upper admin)
Occasionally a parent or guardian will be unhappy with the consequences his or her child is receiving. That’s okay. It’s not a perfect world, and you should have a process in place (stated in your handbook or board policy) for appeals especially when they fall into categories involving long-term suspensions.

Even if a parent cannot appeal a “smaller” decision, if he or she is not cooperative, it is important to alert your upper admin. No superintendent likes being blind-sided by an angry patron. When you keep them in the loop, it is much easier for them to support you. Information is power, so share frequently with those who provide resources and support to you and your school.

6. Communicate with your team (keeping your staff in the loop)
Sometimes even common discipline decisions can create confusion if you fail to communicate with your team. For instance, let’s say Johnny has been short-term suspended for fighting. You have contacted a guardian and arranged whatever education plan is appropriate for his out-of-school discipline. Make sure all necessary parties are notified, including office staff who code the absences, team members who have also been dealing with him, and teachers or counselors responsible for any supports provided during his absence or after he returns.

If your state or district requires students to be “withdrawn” while suspended, make sure your registrar or data-entry persons for school records has updated the appropriate codes.

Each scenario has different variables, and student discipline is confidential to non-guardians or other not directly servicing a student. But the more you communicate to parties directly affected, the better chance you have of keeping accurate records and providing necessary or required support.

7. Communicate for future reference (documentation for reports)
If you remember principal training, you were likely told “document, document, and document” when it comes to school discipline. And it’s true. If you have a student information system in place, always enter the specifics as soon as possible. One strategy I have used over the years has been to require the student to remain with me until all the documentation steps are complete. This expectation ensures I have ample time to enter notes, print letters, or update student files while the incident is fresh on my mind.

Inevitably, you will be asked to report student discipline numbers to your state department or federal programs, so maintaining these documents throughout the year make reporting that much easier at the end of a school year.

Documentation also “covers your butt” when it comes to due process questions or ensuring school policy was enforced without violating anyone’s rights.

No one ever “arrives” when it comes to managing student discipline, and so much more is involved than these 7 tips, but the common theme in all of these steps is communication. So here’s a short list in summary:
1. Communicate in writing (importance of handbooks)
2. Communicate in person (power of presentations)
3. Communicate consistently (pre-determine consequences and rewards)
4. Communicate to parents (before, during, and after discipline)
5. Communicate with superiors (eliminate surprises for upper admin)
6. Communicate with your team (keeping your staff in the loop)
7. Communicate for future reference (documentation for reports)

I’ve written other posts you can check out: 7 tips for dealing with challenging students, 8 tips for disciplining with dignity to name a few.

Now It’s Your Turn
What are some steps I’ve left out? What other suggestions would you add to the list, or what questions do you have in reviewing these tips? Share with the rest of us!

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