Discipline: zero tolerance vs common sense

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


My son's school seems to have no disciplinary policy. He says that when students do something wrong, the teachers just tell them off and nothing else happens. He has told me about some serious incidents and now I am worried for my son's safety. What can I do about this?

Schools vary in their approach and response to acts of misbehaviour. Philosophies vary from a liberal stance bolstered by encouragement and positive reinforcement, to more Draconian regimes in which punishment and mortification are the main concerns.

Each school has an internal system that should be universally and consistently applied. But even if it does, this is not always made explicit to parents, and may not be obvious from the perspective of an outside observer.

Most parents are happy that their children's schools deal with disciplinary matters sensibly, appropriately and in a timely manner. But if you are not one of them, the first thing you should do is approach a school authority to ask some direct questions.

Start with finding out if there is a policy. If it's a written document, ask to see a copy. Look for how positive behaviour by students is rewarded by incentives that appeal to them and actually act as an incentive. Whether it be house points, stickers, bonus points or small treats, try to reassure yourself that these things work in context. You could even talk to your son's friends to get their views.

If there is no written policy, ask about the common understanding between staff and students. Then speak with teachers to see whether the rhetoric is matched by actions on a daily basis. You'd be amazed by how even a short visit to the school can give you a real feel for how well things are going, how responsibly students behave and how teachers interact with their students.

Next, check the consequences students face in school if they misbehave or break the rules. Punishment is not necessarily a bad thing as students need to know that they may well lose privileges or miss out on something they normally look forward to.

But the past cannot be changed. So, ask about how students are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour and whether they plan to respond more appropriately in a similar future incident.

Who is actually responsible for discipline? Are teachers encouraged to know their students and model and reinforce good behaviour patterns? Or is your son's school a place where teachers abrogate responsibility and send miscreants to the principal, or their delegate?

An excellent behaviour policy focuses on students' own responsibility for their behaviour and to reflect on, and learn from, any mistakes they might make.

If students only behave when they are being watched or closely supervised, then they will never learn why it is important to follow rules and social conventions. This will hamper their ability to form productive relationships in adult life.

Behaviour problems in Hong Kong schools are not as extreme as in some jurisdictions. There are rarely reports of chairs flying through windows or teachers being physically assaulted.

But bullying, even though sometimes not overt, can be just as damaging to a child's self-esteem and confidence. Although you have mentioned what you consider to be dangerous behaviour, you should not underestimate the power of quieter yet destructive types of behaviour.

A good school will take the health and safety of its students seriously and will be happy to talk with you about your concerns. They may value information you give them and adapt or change what they do.

Children learn best in a secure environment, and if your son is fearful in any way, that might affect his academic progress.

If, in the end, you do not get satisfactory answers or responses to your questions then it may be time to seriously consider other options.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school