What's the Best Way to Discipline a Student?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A teacher from the inbox, Mary Cornwell-Wright, responds to the story of the female student who was flipped out of her chair by a high-school resource officer (subsequently fired):

Adolescent rebellion is a tale as old as time. The adults involved unnecessarily escalated the situation into a defiant standoff between a student and authority figures. The student didn’t want to back down because there was an audience of her peers.

Solution: Remove the peers.

Now the only people left in the classroom are the student and an authority figure. Call a counselor or trusted teacher plus the principal, then give the child the choice to comply now with a lesser consequence or continue the standoff with a greater consequence. The longer the adults have to wait, the greater the consequence. Without an audience, nearly every kid complies sooner rather than later. If she still refuses, call the family.

As a teacher I’ve been through this exact scenario many times. The girl matched each escalation because she didn’t want to lose face, but with no other kids in the room she would have no one to impress. Follow up is in-school suspension so that classmates know there’s a consequence for this behavior and will have limited interest in re-creating it (plus the consequence is not staying at home playing video games.)

The downside of not having students in the room is the lack of cellphones that could potentially record abusive behavior by authorities. But maybe that abuse would be extremely less likely if the absence of students deescalates the situation—unless a student is obstinate anyway, of course. Maybe body cams are the answer: recording the situation without students involved as spectators. Any educators out there have similar experiences or suggestions to share? Email hello@theatlantic.com.