A new study, published in American Psychologist, examines the impact of official infractions given for minor misconduct, or minor infractions, on students in the American school system. Researchers found that minor infractions negatively impact adolescents who demonstrate a strong attachment to school as a form of support, contribute to increases in adolescents’ misconduct, and are also disproportionately given to African-American students, as opposed to white students.
These findings are concerning as schools in the United States tend to rely on punitive discipline policies as a way to manage student behavior. The results suggest that these discipline tactics are not only ineffective but contribute to racial inequalities and the very behaviors that these modes of punishment are trying to deter.
Rebellious, risky behavior is common in teenagers, as it provides them with a way of gaining a sense of independence from adults, as well as acceptance from their peers, both of which are crucial to adolescent development. Adolescents may break minor, inconsistently enforced rules at school such as violating dress codes, using their cell phones, or joking around during class in an attempt to test boundaries, assert a sense of autonomy, and to impress their peers. Although disruptive to the classroom, minor misconduct may be fundamental to healthy adolescent development.
The U.S. school system typically takes a punitive approach to discipline, imposing official disciplinary actions, such as infractions, suspensions, or detentions, on students who violate rules to deter future misbehavior. While intended to manage classroom behavior, current research demonstrates that disciplinary action has negative consequences. Suspensions are given disproportionately to African American students and to predict worse outcomes in life, including involvement in the criminal justice system.
A key takeaway from the research findings is that current methods of addressing student misbehavior are ineffective, and in fact, harmful to students. The authors suggest that replacing a punitive approach to discipline with interventions that help build positive student-teacher relationships is crucial to resolving this problem. They offer the Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline program as a potential alternative, as this approach encourages a more active student role in the classroom, through promoting the co-creation of rules by teachers and students.
Additionally, this study highlights the racial disparities present within the educational disciplinary system and shows how discrimination against African American students can contribute to an increase in future defiant behavior, which in turn, can put them at risk for future criminal justice involvement.
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