To Refer or Not to Refer... THAT is the Question
by Jan Fisher
The typical large middle school has approximately 2500 to 5000 referrals to the office per year for discipline problems that occur within the classroom (Jones, l993). A high school has more; an elementary school may have fewer. The bad news is these totals remains constant year after year. If we can agree than an effective disciplinary intervention is one which causes the behavior in question to self-eliminate, what does that tell you about referring to the office? It is pretty convincing evidence that it doesn't work. It is quite possibly the most overused and abused disciplinary intervention we have! When you stop to think about it, it makes you wonder why we continue this practice. Doesn't anyone ever ask, "Is this working?" Apparently not.
If I were to give you one word of advice about using the office to handle classroom discipline problems it would be, "Don't." There are several reasons for this:
1. Everytime you send a student to the office for a minor discipline problem, the message that accompanies it is "The teacher can't handle this." You lose your credibility bit by bit, referral by referral. You have just made a public announcement that you failed with your discipline strategies. Students see you as ineffective. Discipline problems escalate.
2. The same message that is sent to students---"The teacher can't handle this."---is also sent to the administrator, colleagues, and parents. Highly effective teachers rarely need to refer a student. Most of the referrals are made by fewer than 5% of the teachers. When a teacher sends students day after day to the office for disciplinary intervention, the administrator will ---and should--- investigate the problem.
3. The principal or office staff does not have the necessary information to effectively handle the student. The teacher is the only one who has full knowledge of the student, the situation and the context of the problem and is the one best equipped to solve it.
4. The office personnel, including the principal, have their own jobs to do. They do not have time to take care of every discipline problem that breaks out in a classroom. If there are five or six teachers who habitually make referrals for behavior problems, students begin to stack up on the bench outside the principal's office. That is the beginning of the revolving door. Student goes in, principal asks what the problem is, principal admonishes student, principal sends student back to class. There is not time for counseling or determining appropriate consequences. The principal is frustrated. The teacher says "We get no support from this principal. He just sends the kids back for me to handle." The student is delighted to spend some time chatting with friends and observing the events going on in the often highly entertaining office. And, in the process, he managed to have a bit of exercise and miss 20 minutes of algebra! The student won the battle---and will likely put forth tremendous effort to assure that he has the same opportunity tomorrow.
5. There are, at times, serious discipline problems at the school which require the involvement of the principal. If the office is filled with students who have minor behavior problems, it limits the availability of the administrator to work with the severe and chronic cases. The administrative and counseling staff need time to plan and implement strategies that will be successful and effective in changing the behavior of persistently disruptive students. It is in these situations where their efforts are most needed, both to work with the student and to support the teacher. It is everyone's responsibility to assure that the referral process is used judiciously.
6. You have no control over what happens in the office. I can remember sending a girl to the principal once for misbehavior. Within five minutes, she was back in the classroom, all smiles. She had been asked to be school messenger and take an important message to all the teachers. Some consequence! Or,another time when a student was sent to the office, the principal felt sorry for him. The two had a little snack together that the principal prepared in his microwave. When the word got around about the high-jinks in the office, behavior disintegrated among class members who wanted a piece of the action. Carrying messages and snacking with the principal are great positive reinforcers. I learned my lesson: handle my own discipline!
Is there an appropriate use of the administrative or counseling staff in the handling of discipline? Of course. For the student with severe problem behavior, the principal should be part of the intervention team. The team (teacher, parent, counselor, special teachers) should decide together what is in the best interest of the student. And, together, the team should implement the plan. This should be a coherent and consistent plan, collaboratively designed, to change, not just punish, a student's inappropriat e behavior.
Students whose behavior is harmful or dangerous must be referred to the principal immediately: anyone with a weapon, for example, or with drugs or alcohol. These offenses are not only serious, they are illegal. The principal needs to be involved, especially if it may become necessary to call police or social service agencies. Use of the office for severe discipline problems should be part of a school-wide discipline plan and the types of behaviors that are to be referred should be explicitly identified.
Beyond the above examples, principals and counselors can be advisors to the teacher in the area of discipline. They can assist you to devise a plan, they can meet with you and the parents, or with you and the student. But, it should be apparent to all that YOU are the authority. Abdicating that is not serving anyone well, especially the student.
It is to everyone's advantage that the principal be kept informed of any persistent discipline problem. If the principal is contacted directly by the parent following an intervention by you, s/he needs to know the background of the case and exactly what occurred. You can relay the information in person or by note, but being proactive in the communication is essential. No one likes surprises, especially the principal! And, you can't be supported by an administrator who doesn't know about the problem.
To be an effective classroom manager, you should have a discipline plan of your own that is based on best practices for changing the behavior of students. This means you set clear expectations, you design procedures so students can meet those expectations, you teach students exactly how to meet the expectations and you give specific feedback on performance. If there are consequences for misbehavior, they are established and implemented by you. Teaching appropriate social behavior is as much the job of a teacher as teaching academic content. You are expected to have effective skills in management so you can handle all but the most severe problems within your classroom. You will find you have great credibility and respect when you demonstrate your competency in this area. And, you will have fewer discipline problems and disruptive students when YOU are in charge.