A Principal's Case for Choosing Certainty vs. Severity

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  Severity, on the other hand, is an outdated way of thinking and acting about student disciplinary issues.

Severity (an outdated way of thinking)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. Great post. Just wondering – high school, middle school or elementary? Large, middle or smaller school size? Type of socio-economic backgrounds? Not that these change how you deal with students or build rapport but it does change how well you get to know students, how easily it is to build rapport, how involved parents can be, etc. Having been a principal in a number of different schools, my experiences have been different in relation to a number of these factors.

    Understanding the whole child is KEY, as you say, to what we do. Without it, we really cannot be effective in what we do. Bandaids can stop some bleeding but if you've had an arm severed, you need more than a bandaid!

  2. Actually, I work with three different school sites that are all attached, grade K-12. I do agree with you that it is different for these ages; the way we guide and talk with a grade 1 student is definitely a lot different than that of a grade 12 student. The socio-economic backgrounds are very diverse as well, hence the reason why we definitely look at the whole child. I find that if anything was ever the same when dealing with these kids, that would throw me off more! I always expect the unexpected.

  3. mnantbu

    Nicely stated, George. I tried to live by this when I was a Principal as well. It is amazing the response when you listen to kids. I felt proud, when I was leaving the job, a few of the 'trouble kids' were sad to see me go and wondered what would happen the following year. Maybe some would think the response was because i was 'soft', I like to think it was by listening and caring and trying to work with people, not just severely punishing )even when that is what you felt like doing!).

    • It is funny that you used the term "soft" as I was reflecting on this post this morning and the same term popped up in my head. It is interesting that people sometimes believe that, but it is more important that students feel like they are listened to, and sometimes, that is all that is needed to make things right. I always say that when you start telling the student what they have done wrong, they tend to lose focus on the action, and focus on how much they think you are a jerk. Totally defeats what we are trying to do.

      Thanks for the response 🙂

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  8. David Donahue

    Thank you! As someone who is graduating soon with my degree in Admin, this is the biggest issue I’ve been reflecting on. I found this very helpful.

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