If you venture back deep enough into your memory bank and make a withdrawal or two, you’ll probably come up with a few school rules that, while they seemed to make sense at the time, don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny as an adult.

At my elementary school, for instance, there was a solid yellow line down the middle of every hallway. You were supposed to walk on said yellow line. If you were not walking on said yellow line and a teacher or administrator caught you, you could open yourself up to a suite of punishments.

Reasonable authority figures would kindly remind you and send you on your way. The more vindictive ones would issue a detention summons.

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Back then, I thought, “Well, sure. Teacher says I’m supposed to walk on this line, so that’s what I’m going to do.” Now I think, “I guess it was a way to keep the kids from running around all over the place…but was a literal line really necessary?”

It’s like that all over. Shorts that are too long (for boys) or too short (for girls). Prohibitions against hanging out in groups of more than three or five during free time. Loitering regulations that prohibit getting to campus too far ahead of school or sticking around too late after the final bell rings.

Even if these seemingly arbitrary rules are put in place with the noblest of intentions, strict implementation and draconian discipline can derail a student’s educational experience and seem needlessly harsh to kids, even to the point where they might work as more of an enticement to bad behavior than a deterrent.

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More rules can backfire in that it can be perceived from the kids as being an overly authoritarian type of climate,” says University of Delaware College of Education professor George Bear, PhD, who researches how schools come up with their discipline structures and what sorts of effects they have on students. “You’re picking on every little thing. I’ve been at schools where they’ll post a litany, just a huge list of rules. It’s overkill. It was like a prison: They’re watching every little thing the students do.”

We talked with a couple of experts on student behavior, school rules, and punishment structures to see which strategies work best, which ones don’t seem to work at all, and the fine line teachers and administrators have to walk between keeping the peace and over-legislating their students.

Who comes up with these things, anyway?

When you see some of these rules presented out of context, you start to wonder how anyone could consider them reasonable.

Here’s a minor sampling from a Reddit thread on the subject:

A teacher collapsed in class and went into full cardiac arrest. The student who called 911 was suspended because school policy stated an [administrator] had to make that decision.”

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No high fives allowed in middle school. Giving a high five meant a detention.”

I got a detention once for exiting through the wrong doors. The doors were not an emergency exit or anything. Just doors that were closer to my bus.”

The school installed a traffic light in the cafeteria, and when the light was red, all the kids had to be completely silent. I have no idea why we had to be silent during most of our lunch but we did.”

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We had a variation on the traffic light at my elementary school, except the lunchroom monitor just turned off all the lights in the cafeteria when she wanted us to be quiet, and she didn’t turn them back on until everyone complied and she scolded us for being so loud. Sometimes, if she was feeling especially vindictive, we had “silent lunch.”

Sitting in the near-dark, eating, unable to talk to our friends lest we reap the wrath of the monitor—it didn’t exactly engender goodwill among the student population.

Research shows that, if the rules are too harsh, if they’re perceived by students as being unfair, they lose respect for the authority and the climate is perceived as being a negative, authoritarian, non-supportive type of climate,” Bear says. “There are mistakes on both extremes. If you have a permissive environment with no rules, you’re going to have chaos. If you have an environment in which you have a bunch of rules, how harsh they are perceived by students is what often determines whether they’re accepted by students in the school climate.”

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The ultimate governing authority comes from all sorts of places, Bear says.

Sometimes the rules stem from the school level. That’s where you get most of your day-to-day peacekeeping. A lunchroom traffic light here, a yellow line down the middle of the hallway there.

Higher-level guidance can come from the district or the school board—the bulk of the rules and regulations, the codes of conduct that your teachers tuck into your binder on the first day of school and make your parents sign.

Sometimes, the guidance comes from elected officials at the state or federal level. The further away the source of rules and consequences gets from the individual school level, the more opportunities open up for overly harsh punishments.

Bear, for instance, recalls an incident in which his nephew was suspended 10 days for bullying. The superintendent said the severity of the punishment was out of his hands: It was a mandatory suspension from the school board.

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What they don’t quite understand is one day of suspension would have been just as effective as 10 days,” Bear says. “There is no research showing that lengthier suspensions are more effective than short-term. You’re denying the kid 10 days of education. You’re making the kid bitter. You’re making the parents extremely bitter. Sometimes there is this false belief that the harsher the punishments, the more effective. It’s not.”

Tools of the Trade

Ruth Herman Wells is the director of Youth Change Workshops, a company that puts on training sessions throughout North America for educators on how to manage difficult children and teens in their classrooms. Teachers and administrators have to walk a fine line between being fair to students who are misbehaving and still fulfilling the needs of the ones who are acting how they should.

Through more than 20 years running the workshops, Wells and her staff have found that teachers don’t get much training in this aspect before entering a school setting professionally.

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“Teachers are woefully, incredibly, amazingly undertrained on the behavioral issues,” Wells says. “Teacher training today looks a lot like it did in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The typical teacher training tends to be about 80 percent content, on academics and curriculum, then 20 percent on the human factor. If you ask a teacher how many days they’ve had dominated by content, they just laugh. Their days are dominated by bad behavior.”

“Schools continue to prepare teachers for Beaver Cleaver and the 1950s. You talk to teachers, they’ll tell you they’ve got Beavis and Butthead. We’ve got a profound mismatch going on.”

When a teacher feels he or she is losing control, Wells says the natural impulse is to start piling up rules to regain some sort of order. That’s not the way to go. That’s where you start seeing the perceived arbitrariness that students rebel against.

The key is consistency from the early part of the school year. If you want students to raise their hands before they speak in class, lay down that expectation during the first week of school. If you start off without that and try to implement it later on, that’s probably not going to turn out very well. There is no reset button.

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These kids read teachers like open comic books, and they play them like cheap violins,” Wells says. “That is not a slam on teachers whatsoever. It’s a reflection on how some kids work to be in charge of the classroom and undercut the teacher. Being strict and having lots of rules won’t compensate for uncertainty. The kids will get that neon flashing sign, and the rules and strictness become like a whisper.”

Teachers and administrators have to be flexible. They have to take each situation on its merits and really put in the effort to get at the underlying factors that led to the behavior.

Wells uses the example of two kids who get in trouble for hitting a classmate. The first does so because he just likes hitting people. The second does so because he is experiencing a lot of stress from a challenging situation at home.

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The first kid would be better served by specific punishment for the behavior, but punishment would only go so far for the second kid. He needs more attention paid to the preceding actions.

“Almost any teacher knows five billion ways to teach a youngster to add,” Wells says. “No matter what learning issue that child presents, that teacher has an arsenal of tricks and tools. They don’t have the same arsenal of tricks and tools for behavior. We give them a wide range. There is no one-size-fits-all intervention. We routinely teach that one size fits all fits no one.”

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Federal and state “zero-tolerance” policies, originally conceived in the 1990s as ways to deter students from bringing weapons to schools, sometimes work counter to school leaders’ abilities to take each case on its merits. That’s where you get instances of students being suspended for bringing a butter knife to school to cut a pear, for example. Or the second grader in Maryland who was suspended for biting his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.

The part that I see often missing in some schools is they don’t address ways to prevent the behavior from reoccurring, other than through punishment,” Bear says. “They don’t teach the kids self-discipline. Instead, they teach the kid simply not to get caught. Kids learn there’s no other reason not to misbehave. If they’re not going to get caught, the behavior is okay. The better schools really look at it as sort of a joint responsibility in terms of preventing behavior problems. The kids are responsible, but the schools are also responsible.”

Be kind.

One of the schools at which Bear worked had only one rule: “Be kind.”

“When I first went there, I thought it was kind of silly,” Bear says. “Then I realized how the principal implemented it, and it was very effective. That one rule applied to almost everything. When you backtalk the teacher, when you bully, you’re not being kind. The kids also learned what kindness is.”

For you Matilda fans out there, think less Miss Trunchbull and more Miss Honey.

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In Bear’s mind, a two-pronged approach works best when coming up with a discipline framework for a school and its students. One, emphasize the connection between the students and the teachers and administrators, as well as a connection to the school itself. Two, as Wells said, be mindful of the circumstances surrounding the behavior rather than the behavior itself.

“Some schools really emphasize trying to teach the kids social and emotional competencies that are associated with what I would refer to as self-discipline: empathy, perspective, social decision-making, conflict resolution, anger management skills. Good schools teach all kids that. The really good schools also try to teach kids who [frequently misbehave], they work even harder to teach them those skills. They work harder on teacher-student relationships and monitor behavior better in the hallways. They supervise better and develop connections with the kids.”

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Leniency does not have to equal chaos. When a school cultivates a good atmosphere, there’s less of a need for rule upon rule upon rule.

“In no way am I advocating against punishment,” Bear says. “Punishment works, just by definition. It decreases inappropriate behavior. But you need punitive techniques combined with more positive techniques. Those, I think, are really tied to relationship-building, support, showing that it’s a joint endeavor, that we’re both going to work to prevent the behavior problem. Often, that behavior is going to get better.”

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