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Handling School-Related Discipline Incidents

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

From time to time, more often for some children than for others, children may be disciplined at school. When this happens, parents may learn about the discipline incident from children, or from the school. It is important that parents consider that each party (e.g., the child, the school) will likely see the events leading up to the discipline incident differently. To gain the most objective understanding of what has occurred, parents will need to listen to both the school's version of events and the child's as well and try to put together from these multiple sources what actually happened. It's important for parents to be able to listen to children's versions of problem incidents, without automatically siding with their child against the school and, vice versa, to be able to listen to the school's version of events without automatically siding with the school against the child. It is entirely possible to love one's child very much without also blindly assuming that they are blameless.

kids at schoolParents with concerns that a situation involving their child was handled badly by the school should, if possible, talk directly to the school staff members who were involved in disciplining the child so as to learn their side of the story. Often, direct communication can clear up the problem. Making a formal complaint about the behavior of school staff should only occur after more direct avenues have been exhausted. Parents should do their best to not make negative comments about school staff in front of children so as not to undermine the staff's position of authority. Students don't need to like their teachers, but they do have to respect them and follow their instructions so that order can be maintained in the classroom. Parents should reiterate their expectation that children will follow the rules at school.

Whether or not punishments or consequences of discipline are deserved, discipline events are opportunities for parents to help their children learn to better cope with problems. While talking with children about the incident, parents can talk about choices children made and how those choices affected the outcome. Parents can also help encourage children to think creatively about how they might better handle their problem situation in the future so that it doesn't result in a future discipline event.

Should discipline problems at school become frequent and chronic, it may be the case that the remedies and consequences being put in place by the school to prevent recurrence are inadequate. In such cases, parents should consult with an appropriate mental health professional such as a child psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. The school district may employ a school psychologist who can be consulted on such matters, or parents may wish to seek out an independent assessment. A mental health professional will be able to assess, diagnose and treat any symptoms that may be interfering with children's school functioning, such as problems with sleep, appetite, mood or anxiety, substance abuse, eating, etc. Please see our Children's Mental Illnesses and Disorders topic center for more information on the types of mental and emotional issues children may face.