Alternatives to Zero-Tolerance Policies for School Discipline

BlogYouth & Young AdultsMar 21 2011

Although many schools have adopted zero tolerance policies in order to stem increases in violence, misbehavior or drug use, more and more questions are being raised about the wisdom and effectiveness of such policies (Time, Zero Tolerance, Zero Sense). Some schools have adopted nonpunitive approaches that target social, behavioral, and cognitive skill-building; character education; or provide behavioral supports for students who are at risk for violent or illegal behavior. Evaluations of these programs have found that nonpunitive approaches to school discipline have had positive effects on student behavior and academic achievement, while in contrast, zero tolerance policies have not had similar rigorous research conducted about their effectiveness.  What little research does exist finds a correlation between zero tolerance-style punishment and negative outcomes.

Randomized controlled trial research on multi-tiered approaches to school discipline such as School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports have found positive results. Adopted by more than 13,000 schools nationwide, it is one of the most widely used positive behavior support endeavors in the nation. Evaluations have also identified several other non-punitive discipline approaches that work, such as behavior support programs that involve program leaders who engage students in daily or weekly exercises to build social skills. Several character education and social-emotional learning programs have also had significant, positive impacts on school safety by taking a preventive approach to violence and substance-related school offenses. Overall, some character education programs that include even a single unit on helping students develop specific personal or social skills have been shown to be effective in reducing problem behaviors.

Many nonpunitive and preventive approaches to school violence and student misbehavior hold great promise.  These approaches not only help to prevent or minimize negative behaviors, but also promote positive youth development and skills that will help students in the classroom and beyond.