The recent suspensions of several Sonoma County middle students should be a wake up call regarding zero tolerance as a viable school discipline program.  A zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct.

The middle school students were reprimanded for what was described as taking only a sip from a soda can laced with alcohol.  Suspension was the end result for all students involved. The question that needs to be answered: Is zero tolerance conducive to a middle school student’s brain development?

The primary goal of any effective discipline program, particularly with middle school students, is that the program is developmental as well as educational.

For example, a 13-year-old’s brain is capable of higher order thinking. They can take the perspective of the group  (school) so long as there is a buy- in to their thinking. The buy-in has to do with empowerment by allowing for a student’s input in the creation of rules and consequences of their school’s discipline program.

The problem with zero tolerance is that it is black and white and associated with concrete thinking or that of a 7-to 11-year-old’s brain.  That is, adults make the rules and consequences and the students must follow. Conversely, adolescence is a stage of development dominated by conformity to the group. Their brains (hippocampus) are willing to conform to the group if they have a relationship with the group or school. The buy-in is having the opportunity to be a part of the rule-making and consequences representing the group or school.

We teach algebra to older kids and not basic mathematics because the adolescent brain has the ability to entertain more those two operations at a time. Therefore, to stimulate higher order thinking we need to address what their brains are capable of doing.

The same should be true with school discipline or school rules. Zero tolerance actually retards a middle school student’s brain because it is developmentally inappropriate.

Conversely, the reason many 4th graders have difficulty with long division is because they are required to think abstractly as they perform three plus operations, including times tables.  Again, the 7 to 11-year old age group sees the world in black and white, which is why they often define rules and laws as fair virus unfair. Interestingly, the reason some middle school students break the rules is became they see rules as fair versus unfair.  However, if they were a part of the rule-making and consequences of their school’s discipline program, they might see the world abstractly and support school rules.

If educators and parents are to set up a viable discipline program for middle school students it must be developmental or something their brains can attach to and secondly, educationally sound, reflecting at least the beginning stages of responsible citizenship.

To contact Dr. Sortino, e-mail davidsortino@comcast.