Part 5 : Creating inclusive classrooms – Punishments & discipline

Positive approaches to discipline have a protective effect on neurodivergent students. Discipline should be used to teach, not to punish.

This is the last article on the series outlining the impact teachers have on the outcomes of neurodivergent students, especially those with ADHD. There is a lot of research in this area, but more importantly there is still a crucial need to update the outdated educational policies and systems to reflect the outcomes of that research. 

It is evident with more teacher burnout and less people coming into the profession, educators at every level need more support, tools and resources to do one of the most important jobs in our community – help guide and prepare our kids to be happy and successful adults.

In part 4 of the series we discussed how teachers can create inclusive classrooms by considering classroom norms. Classroom norms naturally flow into how teachers discipline and motivate their students. This final article discusses punishments and proposes different approaches to discipline for inclusive classrooms.

Before diving into discipline, it’s important to first highlight that teachers who understand a child’s sensory profile, self-regulation abilities and executive functioning skills are better equipped to maintain a calm and regulated classroom. Why? Because in most cases, what we observe as challenging behaviour is actually dysregulation. It takes an empathetic and curious teacher to distinguish between a stress response, or an attempt to gain additional sensory input, or a symptom of underdeveloped skills from purposeful behaviour. 

The research shows that when it comes to children, the majority of “misbehaviour” has nothing to do with premeditated mischief and more to do with unmet needs. The challenge, and it is indeed a challenge, is to identify what set in motion the behaviour so that the child can access the right support and adjustments.

Discipline – small changes with big impact

Changing how schools see and implement discipline is a slow and difficult process because it relies on top down, state-wide department changes. However, there are small changes that teachers can implement immediately starting by re-evaluating outdated and harmful punitive measures.

Name on the board

Shaming practices like displaying a student’s name for everyone to see when they break a rule is unnecessary and damaging beyond student trespasses. Parading a child’s misdemeanours in front of their peers in the classroom extends to their relationships outside of the classroom. 

One study found that when camp teachers praised kids’ strengths, those kids were liked more by their peers. This was especially true for kids with ADHD, who also got fewer negative comments from peers. However, when teachers corrected kids in front of others, those kids got fewer likes, even if they didn’t regularly act out. But when teachers corrected kids quietly, it didn’t affect how much they were liked. Basically, how adults treat kids in front of others can impact the way peers feel about them.

  • A better option would be to have a discrete signal that tells the student that they are not doing the right thing, or have a quiet word to understand what is going on and either reiterate expectations or help the student regulate.

Sit alone at a desk or outside 

When a teacher removes a child and places them away from the whole class, they are taking away the opportunity for connection, understanding and repair. In addition, regularly sending student’s away from the classroom for misbehaving further increases gaps in learning.

We can’t deny the evidence showing that disabled students are disproportionately impacted by restraint and seclusion. We can’t ignore the research that children with neurodevelopmental disabilities are often excluded and experience more loneliness than their typically developing peers, which results in a negative impact to mental health, behaviour, and psychosocial/emotional development, with a likely long-term impact in adulthood.

  • A better option would be to have the student sit next to the teacher who is in the best position to address the problem with the child. It’s in these moments that a teacher can use discipline to teach a child rather than send them away to punish.

Self-evaluation sheets 

As part of the disciplinary process, teachers tend to give students a form where they evaluate their “behaviour”. A common evaluation sheet asks that the child rate themselves using a happy smiley, neutral smiley, and sad smiley against the following statements:

  1. I try my best
  2. I listen carefully and follow directions
  3. I stay on task and focus on my work
  4. I am organised and ready with materials
  5. I actively participate in class
  6. I am kind and respectful to others
  7. I wait for my turn to speak and talk at appropriate times

You can’t make a child do better by making them feel worse about goals they can’t meet. 

  • A better option would be to use a different set of self-evaluation questions to understand what is getting in the child’s way and identify supports required. For example:
  1. I’m feeling my best
  2. I can understand and remember instructions
  3. I know how to start and finish tasks
  4. I feel comfortable asking for help
  5. I feel safe and accepted in class
  6. I have what I need to stay calm
  7. I can write my questions/thoughts/ideas down so I don’t interrupt

Punishing the whole class because of one student

A good way to ensure a student’s social connections are damaged is by punishing all students when one has not met expectations. Not only does this strategy shame the student, it also punishes the kids that shouldn’t miss out on activities or breaks. Shaming doesn’t teach the student what to do, it just makes them feel guilty about what they did wrong.

Evidence on collective punishment shows that although you might see initial compliance, it does not have positive long term effects. Rather, it increases future problematic student behaviour because the misbehaviour is a symptom of disengagement. Collective punishment increases the risk of social exclusion and in turn the student’s disengagement.

  • A better option would be to talk to the student separately from the rest of the class. This approach not only helps preserve peer relationships, it gives the student space to be honest and for the teacher to talk about options for doing better next time.

Taking away recess or lunch

Kids need to run and play to regulate their bodies and brains, when we stop them from doing that we are not giving them the opportunity to do the exact thing they need. 

The benefits of play for children have been well documented by educational psychologists over the years. The British Psychological Society said in the 2014 position paper Children’s right to play  “Withdrawing break time opportunities for play in school should never be used as a punishment (e.g., for misbehaviour or completing unfinished work), nor the threat of withdrawal be used to control children’s behaviour.”

  • A better option would be to deal with the incident. In situations where there is a safety issue, the walk and talk option is ideal. This just means the student gets to walk with the teacher on playground duty and have a chat so that they are supervised but also get a physical break.

Rewards as punishments

Teachers use rewards like stars, merit cards, awards, class points, etc, to recognise “good” students.  Drawing on research from hundreds of studies, Alfie Kohn presents a different perspective on rewards backed by evidence that when you reward a child for doing something they enjoy, they produce inferior work. Kohn also explains that when you use rewards to motivate behaviour, you are also creating the expectation of a reward when something is done. This not only destroys intrinsic motivation but it also becomes a method of punishment when the child doesn’t get a reward.

Schools that use a token system for “good behaviour” are also creating a mechanism for punishments because withholding a reward is the other side of a punishment coin. What is most difficult to accept is that teachers use these token systems to refuse students who haven’t collected enough points, the opportunity to attend class and school-wide fun activities and excursions. We have to question, exactly what this is teaching that child and doing to their self-esteem and how it impacts their social connections? There is no chance to repair, there is only a long stretched punitive action, making it so far removed from the offences that it means nothing to the child. 

  • A better option is to give the students the opportunity to learn the skills to do better and for the school to find ways to understand how to support them better.

As for how to reward and motivate students, Kohn raises three key strategies “The first C is content. Far less interesting to me than whether a student has learned what he was supposed to is the question, “Has the child been given something to do worth learning?” If you ask me what to do about a kid being “off task”—one of our favorite buzzwords—my first response is going to be, “What’s the task?” If you’re giving them garbage to do, yes, you may have to bribe them to do it. If the kids have to endlessly fill in the blanks on dittos, you’re not going to get rid of rewards or threats anytime soon.

The second C is community: not only cooperative learning but helping kids feel part of a safe environment in which they feel free to ask for help, in which they come to care about one another as opposed to having to be manipulated to share or not be mean. Some of the outstanding work on creating caring communities is being done by the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, California.

The third C is choice: making sure that kids are asked to think about what they’re doing and how and with whom and why. You know, kids learn to make good choices not by following directions but by making choices.”

Inclusive frameworks

Positive approaches to discipline have a protective effect on neurodivergent students. Let’s rephrase that: positive approaches to discipline have a protective effect on ALL students.

Two school-wide frameworks to consider include:

  • Restorative Practices 

    Conflicts are unavoidable, but teachers can use trauma-informed restorative practices to address disagreements and support positive interactions, this can include mediation or reflection exercises to resolve conflicts and promote accountability, self-awareness and self-advocacy. Restorative practices’ primary focus is on repairing harm and restoring relationships rather than using punitive measures. The process encourages students to understand the impact of their actions and to take responsibility for them.

Schools can be places of academic and personal growth, and discipline plays an important part in teaching boundaries and protecting students and educators. However, more needs to be done to further support students’ wellbeing. Kids need to be explicitly taught social and emotional skills like self-awareness, empathy, and responsible decision-making. They need to have opportunities to practise and apply these skills, and they need adults who believe that they do well if they can. 

Creating inclusive classrooms takeaways

In summary, the series on teachers’ impact on neurodivergent students tells us that educators can change the long term outcomes of children. There are 5 takeaways:

  1. Seek knowledge about a student’s neurological differences to activate empathy 
  2. Prioritise teacher-student and peer-peer relationships
  3. Adapt delivery of curriculum and resources to address variability in learning rather than disability
  4. Rewrite classrooms norms to support needs and protect wellbeing
  5. Use discipline to teach, not to punish


  1. Enhancing Teachers’ Capacity to Manage Classroom Behavior as a Means to Reduce Burnout: Directed Consultation, Supported Professionalism, and the BASE Model – Molly Dawes, Brittany I. Sterrett, Debbie S. Brooks, David L. Lee, Jill V. Hamm, Thomas W. Farmer, 2024
  2. Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness in Children with Neurodevelopmental Disabilities: A Scoping Review – PMC
  3. No one is going to recess: How children evaluate collective and targeted punishment
  4. (PDF) Peer-peer relationships: A key factor in enhancing school connectedness and belonging
  5. Restorative Schools Australia
  6. From Reaction to Prevention
  7. Strike one hundred to educate one: Measuring the efficacy of collective sanctions experimentally – PMC
  8. “I want to help kids like me be heard!” A survey about schooling from the perspective of adolescents with ADHD
  9. Teacher Behaviors Toward Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Predict Peers’ Initial Liking and Disliking Impressions in a Summer Camp Setting | Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology
  10. Review: typically-developing students’ views and experiences of inclusive education
  11. Teacher behavior and peer liking and disliking: The teacher as a social referent for peer status.
  12. Effects of disability type, prior contact, and school setting on attitudes toward peers with disabilities among Saudi female students aged 7 to 12 years – PMC
  13. Reviewing the literature on integration
  14. Creating Classroom Rules for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A Decision-Making Guide
  15. What Successful Teachers Do in Inclusive Classrooms: 60 Research-Based Teaching Strategies That Help Special Learners Succeed
  16. How Inclusive Interactive Learning Environments Benefit Students Without Special Needs – PMC
  17. Social Acceptance in Inclusive Classrooms: The Role of Teacher Attitudes Toward Inclusion and Classroom Management
  18. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Classroom Management Strategies and Classroom Management Programs on Students’ Academic, Behavioral, Emotional, and Motivational Outcomes – Hanke Korpershoek, Truus Harms, Hester de Boer, Mechteld van Kuijk, Simone Doolaard, 2016
  19. EDUCATORS & SCHOOLS – Dr Ross Greene CPS
  20. Restorative Practices, Affect Script Psychology and the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning
  21. Children’s right to play | BPS
  22. A Longitudinal Examination of Withholding All or Part of School Recess on Children’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior: Evidence from a Natural Experiment | Early Childhood Education Journal

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