What Is School Discipline?

Last year, Mississippi schools used corporal punishment 4,300 times — and the impact affects more than the students experiencing the abuse. According to one parent in Madison County School District, her son’s perception of safety in school changed after seeing another student get paddled in his classroom. This is a prime example of harsh school discipline practices, which can harm students’ social, emotional, academic, and in some cases, physical health. These practices must be reformed.  

“To create physically safe and emotionally supportive environments for all students, schools must adopt evidence-based approaches such as restorative justice that can be used to build and repair relationships while also holding students accountable for their actions” 

In general, school discipline refers to the rules and strategies applied in school to manage student behavior and support students in developing self-management skills. Informed by national, state, and local laws, school discipline encompasses a wide range of policies and practices — from those that are positive and evidence-based in supporting holistic development, such as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); to practices that are most harmful, including discriminatory codes of conduct, expulsions and in- and out-of-school suspensions, corporal punishment, seclusion, restraint, and other punitive and exclusionary measures.


School discipline policies are broadly intended to foster a high-quality learning environment by maintaining safety in the classroom; however, far too often, schools adopt measures that harm a student’s social, emotional, academic, and in some cases, physical health and well-being.  

To create physically safe and emotionally supportive environments for all students, schools must adopt evidence-based approaches such as restorative justice that can be used to build and repair relationships while also holding students accountable for their actions. When positive discipline policies and practices use a race-equity lens and are fairly implemented, these efforts can not only create safe and inclusive learning environments, but also support students’ holistic development. 

The Impact of School Discipline

School discipline policies and practices are a critical part of creating a school’s overall climate. Choosing harmful practices can result in short and long-term negative impacts on students’ social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD), whereas other, evidence-based practices can support a students’ holistic development and well-being.  

Although the rules may be intended to be applied equally regardless of a student’s race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability status, or other personal characteristic, harmful school discipline policies are often disproportionately used on underserved students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities. Harsh discipline practices, such as corporal punishment, restraint, and seclusion can result in serious and life-threatening physical injuries. These and other practices, such as hardening measures (e.g., metal detectors and school police) and exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions), create even more academic and psychological harms and have been linked to the school-to-prison pipeline.  

While districts and schools are supposed to reserve these various school discipline policies for serious offenses, many also employ these measures for minor and subjective infractions, including dress and hair code violations, talking in class, truancy, tardiness, “willful defiance,” and more. In many instances, students of color and students with disabilities are targeted for these minor offenses in ways that attack their cultural identity and strip them of their rights to a safe, healthy, and inclusive learning environment. 

Improving School Discipline Beyond Covid-19

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on students’ mental health and well-being. The National Center for Education Statistics found that 56% of school leaders said the pandemic led to increased classroom disruptions from student misbehavior. And 48% said it led to more acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff.  

Even though school leaders have reported a dramatic uptick in students “acting out,” it is not without valid reasons. Whether it’s the devastating impact of losing a loved one, or the disruptions to routines, relationships, and learning environment due to months-long quarantines, the pandemic resulted in economic and health challenges, increased stress, social isolation, and anxiety for students. It’s no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic deeply affected student behavior in school.  

As reports demonstrate, school staff has had increasing challenges with responding to student behavior. While stricter school discipline policies are broadly intended to foster a safe and manageable learning environment, discipline is far too often used in ways that further harm students’ social, emotional, academic, and in some cases, physical and mental health and well-being. 

How to Evaluate a State’s School Discipline Policies

School discipline practices are determined by policies at all levels — federal, state, district, school, and even in individual classrooms. State leaders can have strong influence in how districts adopt and implement school discipline practices and policies by: 

  • Creating clear goals
  • Adopting evidence-based guidance and policies
  • Publicly reporting discipline data

In 2022, building on Ed Trust’s 2020 seminal report titled, Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Through and Equity Lens, in partnership with CASEL, Ed Trust released Is Your State Prioritizing Social, Emotional, and Academic Development?, a 50-state scan that shows how states support the social, emotional, and academic needs of students in their discipline policies, as well as four other key policy areas: 

  • Professional development
  • Rigorous and culturally sustaining curriculum
  • Student, family, and community engagement
  • Wraparound services

Educators, advocates, and policymakers at all levels of government can use the 50-state scan to evaluate how their state’s school discipline policies compare to other states in holistically creating safe, supportive, and inclusive environments for students. 

Implementing Fair and Positive Discipline at the Local Level

A crucial part of implementing positive discipline practices with fidelity is ensuring all adults in schools and districts develop a race equity lens with which to implement those skills. A long history of research in school discipline shows that disproportionate disciplinary outcomes for students of color are not due to differential rates of behavior, and that the role of discrimination and bias in discipline outcomes must be taken seriously. Furthermore, research shows that using an approach that is racially and culturally conscious is the key to addressing disparities in discipline. A race-equity approach should therefore be embedded in all actions districts take to address discipline policies and practices.  

For actionable guidance, district leaders can use the toolkit from the Alliance for Resource Equity (ARE), a partnership between Ed Trust and Education Resource Strategies. ARE has developed a series of tools and guidebooks that outline specific actions to create a more equitable student experience, starting with a diagnostic tool that identifies areas for growth in a district’s current policies and practices. Then, district leaders can then reference the guidebook on creating a positive and inviting school climate that demonstrates how to further these goals. In particular, district leaders should consider the following key question in the ARE diagnostic tool and guidebook:  

Does each student experience a safe school with transparent, culturally sensitive, and consistently enforced rules and discipline policies?  

Decisions at the local level can ensure that state and federal discipline policies are implemented with fidelity or can even go beyond current policies by utilizing better or more evidence-based practices. District leaders have the power to set equity-focused policies and develop educator capacity for implementing positive discipline practices. These actions can create positive and inviting school climates where students feel safe and are held accountable for their actions in ways that best support their social, emotional, and academic development.