Shadow discipline is just what it sounds like—discipline that happens where you can’t see it. Also known as “informal discipline,” shadow discipline doesn’t happen in the literal dark, but it does happen in ways and places that go unnoticed, unreported, and untracked.
Shadow discipline is often purely punitive—lacking redirection or appropriate social modeling—and a recent survey suggests it disproportionately affects children with special needs and students of color. Shadow discipline is no good for any of our kids, but it’s especially damaging to our more vulnerable populations.
So, what is shadow discipline, exactly?
Examples of shadow discipline include unreported out-of-school suspensions (parent pickup), silent lunches, exclusion from recess, sending a child to a separate room, and embarrassing or shaming a child as way to curb unwanted behavior.
The primary distinction between shadow discipline and the more commonly known exclusionary discipline is the reporting. With exclusionary discipline, incidents like in-school and out-of-school suspensions, disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs), and expulsions are reported and tracked. Shadow discipline is not.
In Texas, a study surveyed a sampling of educators, parents, and students about shadow discipline. The study showed that many students are punished over and over with no formal tracking of the behavior or its consequences.
The most common form of shadow discipline was the taking away of recess. 65% of parents reported that their child had been disciplined in this way. This a worrisome statistic given that it is now widely acknowledged that recess is critical for children to release energy and socialize and play in an unstructured environment with their peers. My son has an ADHD diagnosis, and absolutely the last thing he would ever need would be to have his movement and imagination further restricted. He experiences enough of that sitting at a desk—if he was being disruptive in the classroom, removing recess would only exacerbate the problem.
Other disciplinary methods reported by parents were the use of cool-down rooms (58%), the removal of after-school activities (50%), parent pickup (49%), shaming or embarrassing the student (47%), and isolated or silent lunch (46%). 27% of parents surveyed said their child had been made to stand outside of the classroom, and of that group, 33% said their child had lost the equivalent of a day or more of classroom time to this punishment.
Interestingly, of the educators surveyed, 77% said they did not find shadow discipline to be an effective method to permanently change a student’s behavior. About the same number reported they didn’t believe such discipline improved academic outcomes.
Why shadow discipline can be especially harmful to our kids with special needs and children of color
The Texas survey focused mostly on the impact shadow discipline might have on children with disabilities. But, given that research shows students of color are given harsher punishments for the same offenses committed by their white peers, virtually all the pitfalls of shadow discipline would affect students of color as well, so we need to keep that in mind.
Parent pickup is a commonly used and highly problematic form of shadow discipline. It’s like a suspension, except it’s not recorded. The Texas survey reported that administrators often encourage parents to pick their child up rather than to suspend the child since parent pickup stays off the student’s record. Though it may sound like it, this actually isn’t a good idea. First, if parent pickups aren’t recorded, these informal suspensions could become more frequent, leading to missed school on the part of the child and repeated hardship to families when parents must drop everything at work to come pick up their child.
Second, schools may use parent pickup as an ongoing solution rather than try to explore potential underlying issues of a student’s negative behavior. This leaves a child vulnerable to more future punishments, missed learning time and ability to interact with peers, and ultimately, it’s a hit on their academic performance. How can a child hope to learn if they’re not in the classroom?
This isn’t to say that some of these discipline methods should never be used as a last resort for dealing with difficult behavior (in conjunction with other positive methods). Teachers have to balance the needs of all students, and sometimes removing a child from a situation is the only way to de-escalate in the moment. The problem comes when these punishments are used prior to attempting other interventions. And, for students with disabilities, these types of punishments tend to create more problems than they fix.
Not only that, but federal law guarantees students with disabilities a right to a free and appropriate public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, states that after 10 instances of exclusionary discipline, a student must be assessed to determine whether the behavior stems from their disability.
According to the Texas study, of those parents whose kids had been disciplined via parent pickup, 95% of those kids had a disability. If parent pickups aren’t being recorded, these kids who legitimately need help could very well be slipping through the cracks. Kids who need a true behavioral intervention, a diagnosis, a 504 plan or IEP or other aid, may be denied that critical assistance guaranteed them under federal law.
But kids without disabilities are negatively impacted by shadow discipline too. Excluding kids from classroom activities removes important social interactions with peers, causes hardship for families (when parents have to leave work), and causes schools to ignore underlying needs, potentially funneling children into the school-to-prison pipeline.
And because this discipline is off the record, it leads to inaccurate data reporting about discipline, leaving schools susceptible to relying too much on exclusionary discipline as well as troublesome inconsistencies in discipline for children of color and students with disabilities compared to their white peers without disabilities.
What we need to do instead
Again, most educators surveyed (77%) said they believed shadow discipline is ineffective as a long-term solution. So, what did they think works instead? Behavior contracts, support from parents, intervention with counselors—but all of these require more cooperation within the wider network. In other words, teachers need help.
Implementing more intensive interventions that are targeted to an individual child requires a net of support and a cultivated social framework that places value on cooperation and selfless thinking. It requires a village.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, when it comes to discipline, the goals of educators is two-fold: (1) to maintain a safe, orderly, and productive learning environment, which often does require discipline to correct unwanted behaviors, and (2) to instill self-discipline in their students. This second one—self-discipline—is really, really hard, and can’t be accomplished by a single individual.
Good discipline is about more than instilling fear of consequences. Though consequences (exclusionary discipline) are often necessary to curb a child’s behavior, the goal is never to get a child to make decisions based in fear or avoidance. These are called external controls and are not a solution for correcting misbehavior in the long run—unless your goal is for the child to learn to operate under a “don’t get caught” mindset.
Self-discipline should be the goal for our kids. For kids with disabilities that impact their impulse control, shadow discipline simply does not accomplish this goal. It’s important to make sure that, in the first place, every disciplinary action is recorded so that a kid having major issues doesn’t slip through administrative cracks and miss important assessments that may benefit them and ultimately address their behavior in a more positive, long-term way. It’s so important that these kids receive constant social modeling of what appropriate behavior looks like. Sending them home or sticking them in a room by themselves does not accomplish this.
My son who has ADHD struggled terribly through elementary school. Most of his teachers were incredible, patient with his disruptive quirks and open to accommodating his needs, and we are so grateful for that. I know his teachers worked hard to redirect his behavior when it probably would have been a lot easier on many days to send him in the hallway to sit by himself.
My son is in middle school now, and thriving, and I know it is because he has always been supported by a community of caregivers, teachers, and administrators who cared about his long-term development and were intentional in their plans to make sure he succeeded. Every child deserves this kind of patience and support, but especially kids from our most vulnerable populations. And shadow discipline definitely isn’t the way to get us there.