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School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management: Where it Fits into ESEA

School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management: Where it Fits into ESEA

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA; also called the Every Student Succeeds Act—ESSA) was reauthorized approximately a year ago with full implementation on July 1, 2017. The Act guides virtually all facets of public education in our country, and it is notable in that (unlike its No Child Left Behind predecessor): (a) it gives most planning, execution, and evaluation responsibilities in the curriculum, instruction, and academic proficiency areas back to the states and districts; and (b) it requires districts and schools to look at both academic and non-academic outcomes.

Indeed, in this latter area, every state and district—among other indicators—will need to report the following data as part of an annual Report Card: “measures of school quality, climate, and safety, including rates of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, chronic absenteeism, incidences of violence, including bullying and harassment…”

Moreover, every public school nationwide will need to address at least one “non-academic” indicator of “school quality or student success” which may include student engagement, educator engagement, or school climate and safety.

Finally, to receive federal ESEA funding, every district must have a written, state-approved plan that includes strategies

  • to close the achievement gap between children meeting versus not meeting the state’s challenging academic standards;
  • to provide additional educational assistance to students who are at-risk for or are failing academically;
  • “to strengthen academic programs and improve school conditions for (at-risk) students’ learning;” and
  • “to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from classroom.”

Relative to students at-risk of academic failure, ESEA states that there should be a school-wide plan that facilitates the “implementation of a schoolwide tiered model to prevent and address problem behavior, and early intervening services.”


This “new” and explicit focus on school climate and safety, classroom discipline and early intervention, and student engagement and peer interactions has kicked off a free-for-all among the many experts who work in these areas. Some experts say that their frameworks are required by ESEA—which is not true as every relevant term in the law is written in generic, lower-case terms (e.g., positive behavioral interventions and supports, multi-tiered systems of support). Other organizations point to state laws that similarly require generic approaches (e.g., social and emotional learning) that they, nonetheless, have embedded in their titles or missions.

To make sense of it all, educators need to (a) go “back to the future,” and (b) then look at the emotional and cognitive-behavioral science of student self-management (the “ultimate” goal).

Relative to the former, it is important to understand that, historically and functionally, the most generic term for a schoolwide discipline program (emerging from research in the early 1990s) is “schoolwide positive behavioral supports.”

Relative to the latter, a synthesis of the social, emotional, and behavioral research-to-practice has identified five interdependent components as essential to developing the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills that students need to learn, master, and apply from preschool through high school.

These five components are:

Positive Relationships and School/Classroom Climate. If anyone has lived in or experienced a toxic environment—at home, in the workplace, or at school—then you know the impact of climate on learning, behavior, attitudes, social interactions, and your own mental health.

Effective schools consciously and systematically develop, reinforce, and sustain the productive and prosocial relationships—among both students and staff—that create positive school and classroom climates. This requires student and staff buy-in, as well as sustained planning, training, reinforcement, and evaluation.

Positive Behavioral Expectations and Skills Instruction. Students—from preschool through high school—need to know the social, emotional, and behavioral expectations in their classrooms and across the common areas of the school. These expectations need to be communicated proactively (i.e., what they need to do), rather than reactively (i.e., what they need not do). They also need to be behaviorally specific. For example, rather than asking students to be “responsible, safe, and respectful” in the hallway, we need to teach them to have their “Eyes forward, hands by their sides, walk to the right, with their mouths closed.”

Thus, just like a basketball team, we need to behaviorally teach and practice expected skills with our students… so that they can eventually demonstrate and apply these skills automatically and even under stressful or emotional conditions.

Functionally, this means that our schools need to set aside time for social skills instruction, and then embed the skills into actual classrooms and group activities, and cooperative and project-based instruction.

Student Motivation and Accountability. For the skill instruction described above to “work,” students need to be held accountable for demonstrating positive and effective social, emotional, and behavioral skills. But to accomplish this, students need to be motivated to perform these skills.

Motivation has two components: Incentives that motivate students to make good choices, and consequences that students avoid by making good choices. But critically, incentives and consequences must be meaningful and powerful to the students.

Indeed, too often, schools create “motivational programs” for students that involve incentives and consequences that the students couldn’t care less about. Thus, students need to be involved in identifying and “reality checking” school and classroom incentives and consequences—both at the individual and peer group levels.

The latter is important because some individual students are strongly influenced by peer pressure. Thus, if the peer group supports and reinforces positive and prosocial student interactions, individual students will be both motivated and accountable to these expectations.

Consistency. Consistency is a process that results from effective strategic planning, good communication and collaboration, sound implementation and evaluation, and ongoing consensus-building coupled with constructive feedback and change.

Critically, when staff are inconsistent, students feel that they are treated unfairly, they sometimes behave differently for different staff or in different settings, they can become manipulative—pitting one staff person against another, and they often emotionally react—some getting angry with the inconsistency, and others simply withdrawing because they feel powerless to change it.

To be successful, staff and students need to demonstrate consistency across the first three components described above.

Applications to All Settings and the Peer Group. This last component focuses on the application of the previous four components to all settings and peer interactions in the school. In the latter area, the focus is on preventing peer-related teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression.

To summarize: To implement a successful school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management “system”—in general and relative to ESEA’s new requirements—districts and schools need to seriously consider the evidence-based blueprint above. The blueprint is significant in that it effectively addresses issues related to teasing and bullying, as well as poverty and trauma, disproportionality and restorative practices, and the multi- (three-) tiered systems of support required in the law.

This blueprint has been successfully implemented in thousands of schools across the country since 1990, and for 13 years, it was the State Improvement Grant model for the Arkansas Department of Education.

Below is a brief YouTube clip summarizing its implementation in Arkansas. In addition, the blueprint’s implementation has been discussed, step-by-step, in my Corwin Press book, School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management: A Positive Behavioral Support Implementation Guide.

If you would like a free Study Guide to this book: CLICK HERE.

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Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a Corwin author and a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement—from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see www.projectachieve.net). One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management. You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net).

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