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It's time to rethink 'discipline'

My personal resolutions last January - when the novel coronavirus was only a potential and still faraway danger - ran to the ordinary, and frankly, the privileged: more yoga (any yoga at all really); more novels, less doom-scrolling; a return to my own creative writing. At work, we were scheduling school visits and conferences and detailing our Radically Reimagined Relationships framework for schools. We were designing our new website and sketching out ideas for upcoming blog posts.

But 2020 changed us in ways big and small. We have opened our eyes a little wider and learned things. With each report of vaccination progress, it becomes easier to cautiously imagine something called normal re-emerging. What 2020 made clear, though, was how much that was previously normal is unacceptable.

Our resolutions for education in 2021 need to reflect hard-won wisdom. One of the things I hope we think about differently is discipline.

Rules and Consequences

Traditionally and historically, discipline in schools has rested on a firm foundation of rules and consequences. The precept holds strong no matter that the consequences are sometimes perverse, and the behaviors we hope to curb continue unabated. According to a 2020 report from the Children’s Defense Fund, every day nearly 15,000 students are suspended from public schools. Every day. We know that these suspensions and other harsh punishments are disproportionally meted out to students of color. And we know that it is often the same students who are referred for disciplinary action again and again. The repetition alone should tell us our approach isn’t working.

What it may tell us instead – one of those things we have opened our eyes to this year – is that everything in our society is racialized: healthcare, policing, housing, access to justice, access to resources, schools and disciplinary policies, the benefit of the doubt. All of it.[1]

We can no longer fall back on platitudes, like “kids don’t learn without consequences” when study after study shows that black and brown children face harsher and more frequent consequences when compared to the same infractions committed by white children. A 2011 study found that children of color in the elementary years were more than twice as likely to be referred for disciplinary action and nearly four times as likely once they reach middle school. A 2017 study examined racially disproportional disciplinary referrals and found that the vast majority of the disproportion could be attributed to how teachers applied the rules when the behavior in question fell into a category where they could use discretion.

The stories we tell ourselves about discipline and fairness are often as false as the narrative we spin about our country.[2] The repercussions of those false beliefs will be ever more dire when millions of children finally return to school.


2020 was a year that inflicted trauma on many people, but poor communities and communities of color fared worse, as they always have. Trauma changes our brains and it lives in our bodies. In many communities of color this trauma is cumulative; racially inflicted trauma has been passed down generation to generation. In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem discusses trauma this way:

“In the aftermath of a highly stressful event, our lizard brain may embed a reflexive trauma response – a wordless story of danger – in our body. This trauma can cause us to react to present events in ways that seem out of proportion or wildly inappropriate to what’s actually going on.” (p. 25)

Think now about the ways in which many students, especially students of color and students from poor and marginalized communities, have spent the past ten months: isolated, fearful, more likely to be infected due to housing circumstances and more likely to have (and have had) inadequate access to healthcare. The adults in these families are more likely to have lower-wage, front-line jobs that put them in greater peril from COVID-19, and/or they are more likely to have been laid off. Once infected by COVID-19, people of color die at higher rates.

Further, many students and families did not enjoy a feeling of safety before COVID-19, not in their homes, or schools, or workplaces. COVID-19 has been tough on all of us, but some of us have been blind to what others have endlessly endured. Trauma is cumulative.

So when students come back to the classroom exhibiting trauma-induced behaviors - none of which are a reflection of the child’s character or nature – it’s time for us to have a better response. If we respond with our usual repertoire of rules and consequences and endless suspensions, we are not going to get the results we want; worse, we will inflict further trauma.

Last spring, I wrote about Stuart Shanker’s book, Self Reg. Shanker’s insights about the differences between misbehavior and stress behavior and about self-regulation versus self-control seem even more profound now. Our “lizard brains” are about survival, and survival mode leads to fight, flight, and freeze reactions, none of which are responsive to reason and logic or threats of consequences. As Shanker points out, "Children cannot be forced to ‘calm down’ and threatening to punish them if they don't can add considerably to the stress they're already under." Some students have never felt calm or safe and don’t even recognize the sensations.

Safety and Connection

Our brains are mighty organs but it’s a fallacy that our brains can logic us through traumatic experiences. Trauma shuts down the pre-frontal cortex where logic resides. In My Grandmother’s Hands, Menakem talks about the importance of healing trauma and metabolizing pain so that it doesn’t lurk in the body, waiting to be activated by even the slightest threat. As we head into 2021 and beyond, we need to think about discipline not as something adults impose on students, but which adults help students learn to manage in themselves. We can help students learn to settle their bodies, metabolize pain, and find ways to calm themselves before their lizard brains take charge. Through compassionate co-regulation, adults can help students learn what calm feels like and how to self-regulate.

Leaning into relationships and connection rather than coercion and consequences is a big shift. But if 2020 taught us anything at all, it is that big shifts are warranted, that America needs to be reimagined and transformed.

[1] If you still have any doubts about this, I urge you to compare the police response to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in Lafayette Square in the summer of 2020 to the police response to the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. [2] It’s important to acknowledge that the “we” of this sentence is white people, well-meaning or not.


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