The Call for Compassionate Discipline

The Call for Compassionate Discipline

By Jim Davis Ed.M., MA
Mentor and mentee together


The October edition of Educational Leadership focuses on compassionate discipline. Though the concepts might seem paradoxical, it is clear that both compassion and discipline are needed to get systems of education back on track.

Students need support. Rates of anxiety and depression have taken a dramatic upturn since the winter of 2020. Many students are still trying to find their footing, develop routines, and return to some sense of “normal”.

Without a firm sense of normal, some students are acting out. Educators report experiencing a “new kind of frustration” caused by “severe lack or focus” and “[lack of] respect” for teachers and school. School discipline is changing and teachers report feeling “disappointed,” since so many of their challenges are driven by the desire to “adjust for students who don’t seem to care.”

 And while behavioral management is certainly in order, care might be the perfect place to start.

An old adage suggests that learners do not care how much you (the educator) know unless they know how much you care. The sentiment is as true now as it ever was. After all, discipline without care can be cruelty. Minimally, it’s ineffective. Discipline with a heart, however, might be what current students need.

 Anthony Rebora, Editor in Chief of Educational Leadership, notes that the demonstration of compassion can be a challenge. Noting that it “isn’t just about trying to be ‘nicer’ or more accepting. [Compassionate discipline] is hard work, predicated on proactive planning, intentional shifts in practice, and self-reflection.”

 Compassionate discipline includes relationship building and high-level SEL skills. It requires empathy and heart, but it does not include “accepting poor behavior and letting students off the hook.” Discipline is essential. So is compassion. They do not sit against each other. Rather, their combined energy is perfect for this post-pandemic moment.

Polarity Management

Barry Johnson has been leading the charge on polarity management for decades. This includes recognizing that two ideas that sound like polar opposites might both be beneficial. Navigating the energy of two positive poles is challenging but essential, as moments like these are nearly constant in education.

 For example, can the food in school vending machines be delicious and nutritious? If it does not taste good, students will not want to eat it. If it is not nutritious, a school will be working against its own values of health and wellness. Too often, decision-makers burdened by countless tasks default to one of the poles, which is why we see school vending machines full of Cheetos and Gummy Worms.

 It is possible that school leaders shift to one of those poles because of the very nature of school. As Johnson suggests, “virtually all of our ‘problems’ in formal education have one right answer, [so] we automatically shift into that way of thinking when a ‘problem’ occurs at work,” which is rarely appropriate.

 In this post-pandemic moment, teachers find themselves managing polarities at every turn. They want to be both tough and kind. They want to be accommodating and hold students accountable. They want to meet students where they are to provide support and take students to a higher level through thoughtful challenge.

 Teachers are aiming for both compassion and discipline. Managing those poles is difficult and necessary.

 Start with Yourself

 Compassionate discipline begins with the leader of the space. In the classroom, it is the teacher. On the field, it is the coach. At home, it is the parents.

Emotion regulation during uncertain times is a tall task. Leaders, that’s what we signed up for. We must model the behaviors that we want to see in our students, including patience and poise.

 We must show our students that we care. We must support them. We must model the best that SEL has to offer, be clear about the behaviors we expect in our spaces, and we must hold students accountable to those expectations.

It will be a lot of work, but it will be worth it. Leaders, you got this.

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