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Study: Catholic schools forge greater self-discipline in students


A new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests Catholic schools somehow foster greater self-discipline and self-control in young students than public and other private schools.

As someone who attended Catholic school from first grade through high school, I was interested in the findings. The study grew out of the increased concern over student misbehaviors and inequitable classroom discipline. 

A conservative-leaning Washington-based advocacy group that publishes and supports research on K-12 education, Fordham asked researchers to address two questions: 

1. Are children in Catholic elementary schools more self-disciplined than similar students in other schools, as measured by their likelihood of arguing and fighting and ability to control their temper, among other things? 

2. Is the relationship between Catholic school attendance and self-discipline stronger for certain types of students? 

Analyzing two waves of nationally representative data on elementary school students collected as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, researchers found: 

Students in Catholic schools are less likely to act out or be disruptive than those in other private or public schools. 

Students in Catholic schools exhibit more self-control than those in other private schools or public schools. 

Students in Catholic schools, regardless of their personal characteristics or backgrounds, exhibit more self-discipline than students in other private or public schools.

The study comes with caveats. Among them: Despite constructing a plausible control group, the authors say there may be unobservable differences between Catholic and other private school students. Ratings of students’ noncognitive skills were generated by teachers, whose judgments are subjective at some level. 

But the researchers still believe their findings suggest schools that value and focus on self-discipline will do a better job of fostering it in their students.

While unclear exactly how schools foster self-discipline, the researchers contend: 

But it seems likely that both direct and indirect methods play some role in Catholic schools’ success—and that at least some of these methods are transferrable to other contexts. For example, an explicit focus on self-discipline might be reflected in a school’s curricula, whether formal or informal. Similarly, a school’s discipline policy could enumerate any number of approaches whereby teachers and students could forestall bad behavior. Alternatively, higher levels of self-discipline may be fostered implicitly—for example, through educators’ daily interactions with students in the classroom or via well-chosen and well-managed extracurricular activities with mentors or other adults who model self-discipline. With a bit of effort, more non-Catholic schools could adopt such practices and be intentional about their implementation. Indeed, some “no excuses” charter schools are already doing so. 

They also suggest the religious emphasis plays a role, saying: 

The most obvious feature that Catholic schools and similar faith-based schools have in common is their focus on religion — including such specifically Judeo-Christian values as humility, obedience, kindness, tolerance, self-sacrifice, and perseverance. It is difficult to pin down how or why these values may influence a child’s behavior when encountered in this context. Perhaps students are more likely to internalize such values when they know they are loved not only by their teachers but by their Creator, or when they perceive that misbehavior may have eternal consequences. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Regardless, one thing is certain: Religion can mold hearts and minds in ways that suspensions, restorative justice, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports can’t begin to match. That doesn’t mean that such secular approaches—and schools—don’t have their place. Of course, they do. And so, do character education, ethics classes, and civics, all of which can contribute to the development of self-discipline. School leaders should choose the options that best suit their kids and culture. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.