Alternative Discipline was always SEL!

John Hannigan
Social Emotional Learning
10 Minute Read
April 18, 2022

Schools have made tremendous progress changing the narrative of school discipline through the use of our alternative discipline framework, but were thrown a serious curveball with the COVID-19 pandemic shifting priority structures in schools. As students returned to in-person instruction, their behavioral needs have intensified; the impact of trauma from the pandemic (isolation, loss of loved ones, parent loss of employment, increase of domestic violence and substance abuse) on students and teachers, as well as the increase in educator burnout, has resulted in some schools reverting back to traditional, exclusionary practices.

As educators, we do a great job identifying the absence of specific academic skills impeding a student’s ability to succeed in a particular content area—for example, a non-fluent reader needing additional support with vowel blends and digraphs or a student unable to recall basic math facts, procedures, rules, or formulas hindering their success in math. However, when it comes to behaviors, we suddenly attach labels, such as acting out, being disruptive, or being lazy. Why is it that our focus shifts from a student demonstrating gaps in learning based on the absence of a specific skill, identifying those skills, and providing support through teaching these skills to get that student back on track with reading or math; yet, when we identify students demonstrating specific behaviors, we don’t view it as a student requiring the necessary instruction needed to learn a specific Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skill to reduce or eliminate undesirable behaviors?

We respect and appreciate the comprehensive definition and science of SEL from that has been derived from extensive research in this area. defines SEL as a process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. The CASEL 5 are the five areas highlighted: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. If you are implementing alternative discipline correctly by assigning our restorative, reflective, and instructional components, you will in fact be teaching essential SEL skills too!

Restorative: Provides opportunities for the student to restore relationships between themselves and stakeholder(s) they have affected due to the behavior incident (apology, student contracts, community service, restitution, circles etc.).

Reflective: Provides opportunities for students to reflect about the decisions they made that led to the discipline (reflection sheets, role-playing, scenarios, interviews, etc.).

Instructional: Provides teaching opportunities for students that target the function of the behavior and helps them learn the skills needed to not engage in such behaviors again (behavior lessons, social skills, teaching opportunities, behavior exams, etc.).

Below you will see how each component from our alternative discipline framework aligns to each of the five SEL competencies. We also recognize these skills are addressed in multiple components, but wanted to give you a visual example of the relationship between the two.

What SEL skills are these components helping to address?


If you believe in alternative discipline and SEL, we’ve created a short checklist to prepare for effective implementation. We wish we had this checklist as a reference when we began implementation as site administrators.

We felt an urgency to write the second edition of our book, Don’t Suspend Me!, to provide encouragement to continue this essential work now more than ever. This second edition includes additional lessons learned from our implementation of this work over the years, strategies to increase ownership among staff, and over 25 additional alternative discipline forms and strategies.

Jessica and John Hannigan , "Alternative Discipline was always SEL!" , as originally published on Corwin Connect, 04-18-2022, https://corwin

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

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