The best way to reduce aggression in school is to teach children how to handle conflict on their own so they don’t need our help. Simultaneously, it is our duty to discipline children for causing harm to others.

Disciplining aggressive students is serious business. The way we discipline children determines the way they identify what they did wrong, determine how they will behave in the future and formulate how they will discipline their own children when they become parents and perhaps someday educators.

Unfortunately, some of the things schools do in the name of discipline often causes more harm than good. A growing belief in our country supports eliminating bullying through “zero tolerance” policies. This belief and resulting policies require us to immediately and severely punish children when they are mean to other children. However, these responses are a major reason why bullying has become an increasing problem during the same period of time that schools have become aggressive in implementing zero tolerance policies to eradicate bullying.

If we want children to learn to behave morally, it is essential that we discipline them morally.

Many people think discipline is a synonym for “punishment.” It isn’t. Discipline is a synonym for “education.” Punishment may be part of the disciplinary repertoire, but to effectively teach good behavior, our methods must be moral. This lesson will provide guidelines for moral punishment that leads to positive learning.

Punishment has several purposes. The following are three most important.

  1. To deter future wrongdoing.
  2. To have violators make restitution to those they hurt.
  3. To reform violators so they will become better people who don’t want to repeat their misdeeds.

For punishment to be moral and effective, it must fit the crime. That is the meaning of the phrase, “an eye for an eye.” If a person pokes out someone’s eye, the judge would require the him to pay restitution of an amount that fairly compensates the injured person for the loss of their eye, meaning lost wages, health care expenses and compensation for suffering. The statement establishes an appropriate range of compensation in order to make the sufferer whole again.

The law would also seek to reform lawbreakers by making them feel remorse for their crime and realize the wrongfulness of their action.

If the punishment is TOO LENIENT, it accomplishes none of these purposes. It will fail to deter crime because crime will “pay.” It won’t make sufficient restitution to those negatively affected. And the violator won’t recognize the gravity of what he/she did wrong because the judgment or restitution would be of less value than the injury incurred.

On the other hand, if punishment is much more severe than the crime, it may deter crime and make restitution, but it will not make the violator a better person because it is unfair. Rather than feeling remorseful, the violator would feel like a victim of the system and possibly want revenge.

Only when the punishment fits the crime is it moral and effective. Punishment will deter crime because crime won’t pay. It will make sufficient restitution to the violated. The violator will recognize the gravity of what he/she did because we he/she is made to suffer to a similar extent. He/she is less likely to be angry with society because he was treated fairly.

Unfortunately, the punishments, or “consequences” as many people prefer to call them, that schools administer are frequently immoral and ineffective. They are typically unrelated and/or far worse than the offense.

Let’s say you and I are kids in school, and I’ve been knocking your books out of your hands. In most school districts today, the mandated punishment is suspension, and after a couple of suspensions, expulsion from school.

But how are suspending and expelling related to what I did to you? How do they help make me accountable for my actions?

In this case, no relationship exists between the offense and the punishment. Furthermore, suspension and expulsion do not make restitution to you. And what’s being done to me is much worse than what I’ve done to you. How do we know that? Ask yourself, “What would I rather have done to me: have my books knocked out of my hands a few times, or be kicked out of school altogether?” As unpleasant as it is to have your books knocked out of your hands, expulsion from school is much worse.

Rather than leading me to feel remorseful to you for knocking your books out of your hands, I am furious with you and the school for punishing me so harshly. So, I want revenge against you and may do something worse than messing with your books.

What would be a fitting punishment? How about having me carry your books for a while? It would humiliate me as I humiliated you. I would make it up to you by making your life a little easier, and I would realize what I did wrong because a relationship exists between what I did to you and what is done to me in return.

Furthermore, when we implement punishments, we should not do it with anger but with regret. We should say,

“We wish we didn’t have to do this to you, but since you’ve been knocking Johnny’s books out of his hands, you will now have to carry Johnny’s books between classes for the next two days [or whatever time frame is decided on].”

It is necessary for us to punish students for hurting others. But remember that the punishment should fit the crime.

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