A Principal’s Case for Choosing Certainty vs. Severity

cc licensed flickr photo by Simon Shek: http://flickr.com/photos/simon_shek/75913596/

Working with students, and being in the principal’s office, I know there are often many different viewpoints about how we should deal with individual students.  I have certain philosophies on this that I believe help lead students in the right direction, and also help build relationships with students, parents, and staff in the process.

My mentor, our school division’s Associate Superintendent, shared a phrase with me that I have put into my bag of tools and use on many occasions when talking with staff and students.  The saying is, “Certainty vs. Severity.”  The “certainty” in any situation is that students are CERTAIN that their misbehaviour will be addressed fairly and in accordance with our school’s values.  Severity, on the other hand, is an outdated way of thinking and acting about student disciplinary issues.

Severity (an outdated way of thinking)

It was once believed (including by me), that when students “mess up” they need to know there will harsh consequences. Furthermore, that knowing this will somehow ENSURE the student would NEVER make the same mistake again. This heavy-handed approach does not lead to the student quitting the behaviour. In the majority of cases, it does not help to build any type of relationship with the student. The student may end up fearing the consequences of messing up again, but his or her fear does not guarantee improved behaviour.

A Case for Certainty

Establishing a rapport. It is important to me that I have a rapport with students before I deal with their disciplinary issues. The principal as a “boogeyman” is not how I want to be identified. Instead, I am a principal who cares and respects the integrity of each person in the school. I work diligently to get to know students by visiting classes, for example. Students know who I am, and more importantly, I know them.  Establishing this type of rapport with students helps when they visit my office. They know I will listen and work with them to help solve their problems; and no matter what the outcome, the students know I care for them.

Due diligence. Collecting information and coming to an equitable solution is essential under the principle of certainty. When an incident occurs, I talk with each student involved individually. This approach allows me to understand each of the different perspectives involved.  My first question to students is “Why are you here?”  With this question, I help students focus on the situation and not me.  Students must be provided the opportunity to speak and share their version of the event.  Being diligent throughout the endeavor demands I gather all the pertinent information from all of the participants–this could entail several conversations with various students.

Gathering information is essential to making determinations about consequences. My second question to students is “What would be fair?” When we talk about consequences for misbehaviour, students will typically suggest disciplinary actions that are WAY WORSE than I would have ever suggested.  Together, the student and I, identify a resolution and consequence that more often than not has students saying “thank you” when they leave my office (which is much better than being thought of as a “boogeyman”!).

Dependence upon the community. After meeting with students, I typically speak with the parents or guardians about the situation. I depend upon the primary adults in the students’ lives to support their children in all instances, even when a little trouble arises. I want parents to be aware of what has happened in the situation.  Sometimes I call the parents during the meeting with their child. I pursue this course so they can be a part of the solution, especially if there are special circumstances.  The majority of parents are thankful for the opportunity to know what is going on with their child at school; while I appreciate having the opportunity to depend upon parents when issues arise affecting their children.

Teachers are the other key community members I depend upon to uphold the principle of certainty. Teachers who work with the students involved are always part of the conversation.  Teachers often deal directly with conflicts in their classrooms. They definitely have the strongest relationship with the children and have built a strong environment of trust.  This is something that I am very thankful for and certainly makes my day-to-day job easier.

Understanding the Whole Child

Student disciplinary incidents are fairly low at my school. Repeat offenders are few and far between.  Is our system perfect?  Nothing is perfect, but I believe that it is pretty good. Ultimately, when operating from a perspective of certainty it is important to

  • Listen to the child and give them the opportunity to work through their problem,
  • Help the child figure out how he or she could have constructively handled the conflict,
  • Trust students are more often than not, trying their best to do what’s right,
  • Accept responsibility as guides in the lives of our students,  and
  • Treat each child and situation as unique.

Understanding the whole child (emotional, intellectual, social, etc.) is a key element in my enacting the principle of certainty over severity when addressing disciplinary issues in my school. Establishing rapport, collecting information, and promoting community involvement in our students’ lives are the three essential tasks I believe address disciplinary issues under the principle of certainty. If we adopt these practices we can be certain that even when conflicts occur, we are still helping our students grow into responsible adults.


  1. I like your holistic approach to finding clarity surrounding discipline issues. It seems to prevent all parties from acting from a reactive place. One thing I might add is that part of the reason your approach is so successful, is that you have a consistent and predictable system in place. All parties involved, parents, students and teachers all know what to expect from you. This leads to a general feeling of safety and generally lessens tension. Keep up the good work!

    August 18, 2010
    • It definitely helps but it does take time to discuss with many parents because there are times when they believe the “hard line” approach will work best. We need to nurture our students and work through their mistakes as opposed to getting a “pound of flesh” for what they have done.

      Thanks for your comment!

      August 18, 2010
  2. Jen Alexander said:

    Thank You! Finally someone who can put into words how I feel about student discipline. I am the one and only assistant principal at my school. I started last year, replacing someone who, from what I hear, believed more in the Severity line of thinking. This makes me a feel a lot better that I am not the only one who thinks this approach works!

    August 18, 2010
    • Not only does it work, but it is what I believe to be right. People must always be treated with dignity, especially children. You are on the right path!

      August 18, 2010
  3. Lyn Hilt said:

    I have a very similar philosophy when it comes to discipline. I very purposely spent my first year as principal getting to know my students on a personal level. I want them to like me! Consider how much easier it is to have a serious conversation about your behavior with someone you like and respect, rather than with someone you fear! Students trust me and know they can come to me to discuss their classmates, concerns, or even their teachers. (It also helps to have a Nerf basketball hoop set in my office. 🙂 I encourage this honest discussion and also want them to know that because I trust and hold them in high esteem, I will be sad and disappointed if they choose to make decisions that may impede their own or others’ learning. Children genuinely do not want to disappoint those that care about them- they want approval. Teachers and administrators alike need to develop rapport with students from day 1.

    We do not have a lot of office referrals at our school, but I do notice the students that are referred to me usually do not have a strong rapport with the referring teacher. It’s easier to send the child elsewhere to be someone else’s problem at times… and I welcome that opportunity to consider that child “my problem.” 🙂
    At our school there is an understanding that once the decision is made to send the child to my office, I get the final say about what consequences may or may not result. Choosing to relinquish control over the situation means just that – no longer being able to control the outcome of the situation. This is why most teachers prefer to take ownership of student discipline situations and skillfully handle them in their own classrooms.

    My last point is that every situation should be treated on an individual basis. I do not believe blanket discipline policies can ever be successful. Consistent and fair is not always equal. Communicating your decision-making process to parents, and involving them in that process, can help alleviate any of their concerns about discipline problems not being treated rigorously enough.

    August 18, 2010
    • Lyn,

      I appreciate that you worked on getting to know your students and building that relationship with them. I think that is so essential to working with students. Having that relationship with them lends to you putting your arm around their back as opposed to a finger in the face. I really appreciate your comment and REALLY appreciate your thoughtfulness when dealing with students. Thanks for your comment!

      August 19, 2010
  4. It continues to be striking to me how strongly we share a common philosophy we have here at Connected Principals! This is wonderfully expressed.

    We can only help students grow if we are in relationship with them, a relationship of trust, rapport, and communication. Severity doesn’t promote this relationship, quite the opposite. When students make mistakes, even serious ones, it is still our obligation to foster their growth, and so your approach it not only more humane and more thoughtful, it is and will be more productive.

    Some of the most common words in student discipline– character, honor, honesty, even discipline itself– make me bristle; to me they too often connote a stern-ness, a severity, and a black and white, right and wrong, way of viewing the world that fails to engage with and respond to the complexity and messiness of the emotional and social disarray that so often accompanies student misbehavior.

    Thanks George!

    August 18, 2010
    • I totally agree Jonathan about how we have so much in common with our philosophies. It is great that we have a place where we can share these ideas with one another and the world and really move our schools forward by focusing first on how we can ensure students are respected, cared for, and listened to in our schools.

      Thanks for your comment! I have really enjoyed reading your posts!

      August 19, 2010
  5. Karen Szymusiak said:


    In every post I sense your advocacy for all children. Discipline (severity) only perpetuates the notion of big people and little people. Our children deserve more than that. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    August 18, 2010
    • It is not only because I am in the field of education that I want to look out for these kids, but I really just generally enjoy the way kids make people (including myself) feel. How can you not be an advocate! Thanks for your comment 🙂

      August 19, 2010
  6. George – Love the post. I will definitely share it with my Associate Principals who do the bulk of the disciplinary work here at BHS. Not surprised at your approach. The “old school” methods of screaming and yelling to make an example of a student and “punish” them so they will think twice about the next time are ineffective and insensitive.

    Students need to be held accountable, there is no doubt. Involving the students in a respectful conversation about the incident and how reparations should be made to the school community epitomizes accountability.

    Thanks for the post!

    August 19, 2010
  7. dcollins said:

    I’ve certainly experienced and tried various forms of discipline throughout my career. I find it hard to believe that I once looked up to a senior admin who could make student cry using his voice. The “discipline issue” is definitely one reason I took a new job last year to head up an alternative school for high school students. Most kids sent to the office had an underlying stressor and the bad behavior was just a symptom – divorce at home, Dad away working in the oil patch, not enough food-sleep-attention . . . There was never enough time to help the student work through these difficulties. Now that I work with at-risk students my discipline duties haven’t decreased but I now longer see them as discipline. We call it counseling. Our most common consequence for breaking rules is that the student takes a break from school. “Your kicking me out for not coming to school?” one kid yelled at me. For our building, school is a privilege. Most students come back after a day or two. One came back nearly two months later. I understand this would not work at my past schools but it does hand responsibility back to our students.

    August 20, 2010
  8. David Truss said:

    Years ago as a teacher, I went to chat with my vice principal about something silly one of my rambunctious but really ‘together’ boys, Darryl, did at lunch. When I got there another boy was leaving. This other boy was known to the office, and known to police. His mother was, among other things, a drug dealer and he was her link to the school.

    I’ll always remember what my vice principal said to me then… He said, “This job has given me a new respect for the kid I’d never want to be”. He went on to describe how he would ‘trade places’ with Darryl, but not in a million years would he ever want to trade places with this other boy.

    Now I always remember that when I deal with a kid in my office, I usually have no idea how his or her parent deals with similar situations. I don’t know what baggage they bring from other parts of their lives. And most importantly they deserve to be dealt with in a dignified way.

    As I read your post, what I really got the sense of was that every child left your office with their dignity… something severity seldom leaves a child with.

    August 21, 2010

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