Self-Discipline: The Catholic School Advantage

A recent study finds Catholic schools outpace their public counterparts, in fostering this key student attribute.

Above, students pray at the Trinity Academy outdoor Shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, the site of the school Eucharistic procession. Below, Michael Moynihan instructs students in the classroom at The Heights.
Above, students pray at the Trinity Academy outdoor Shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, the site of the school Eucharistic procession. Below, Michael Moynihan instructs students in the classroom at The Heights. (photo: Courtesy of Trinity Academy and The Heights schools)

NEW YORK — A national study came out May 31 that concluded that Catholic schools are better at teaching self-discipline than public schools.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that Catholic school students, compared to public-school students, were less disruptive and exhibited more self-control. They exhibited more self-discipline, regardless of background.

Theresa Bivona, the principal of St. Clare of Assisi Catholic School in the Bronx, New York, was not surprised.

“We teach the whole child. Public schools teach all the academic subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic. We teach that, but we also teach the spiritual. We believe that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. We teach respect for self and others,” said Bivona.

When asked if she had ever seen a child transfer in from public school with behavioral issues and improve after being in Catholic school, Bivona said that she “sees it all the time.”

“We had one girl come in last year in the sixth grade from public school. She was very rough around the edges; never said ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ I had her come into my office many, many times. I would explain to her that she was in a different environment now. I never gave up on her,” she said.

Bivona also held many meetings with the student’s parents. During the following year, the girl made a huge “turnaround” with improved behavior. At a certain point, the girl discovered that someone had posted something very negative about the principal on social media.

“This girl came into my office and told me that she felt bad about ‘snitching,’ but she alerted me about it because she knew it was wrong,” said Bivona.

The incident was immediately investigated, and the student was commended for her actions.

“She had really grown up so much,” said Bivona.

The Fordham study claims to know little about how Catholic educators foster noncognitive skills such as self-discipline.

“However, most potential explanations fall into one of two categories: First, improved self-discipline could be driven by an explicit focus on self-discipline-related themes at the school or classroom level,” said the study. “Second, higher levels of self-discipline may be fostered implicitly. For example, research suggests that Catholic school personnel demonstrate an ‘ethic of caring’ that fosters stronger community values in schools, and it seems highly plausible that they are also models of self-discipline.”


Key Factors

Catholic educators interviewed for this story believe that self-discipline comes from several factors: the extent to which parents are involved, the way in which discipline is fostered, the dress code and the authentic Catholic identity of the school.

“We engage not just the students, but also the parents,” said Michael Moynihan, the headmaster of the upper school at The Heights in Potomac, Maryland. “Parents are the primary educators of their child. If you want to help the child, you need to work with the families.”

At the Heights, the school has a program of intentional parent formation: monthly coffee meetings with the headmaster, a parent lecture series, social events for the parents and teachers, and something they call the “Heights Forums,” an online resource featuring articles, podcasts, book reviews and other inspirational tools for parents.

“Efforts of self-discipline become a collaboration between the parents and the school,” said Moynihan.

When it comes to discipline, Elizabeth Mitchell, the director of development, dean of high-school students and teacher at Trinity Academy in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, believes the approach cannot be reactive.

“My father’s approach to discipline [Robin Mitchell, the founder and headmaster of Trinity Academy] is that the best discipline is not reactive but is found in the expectation,” said Mitchell.

At Trinity Academy, students are told what is expected of them with care and respect.

“They are treated as peers and adults. They have been respected first. It does something to them internally and translates into wonderful behavior,” said Mitchell. At Trinity, there is no demerit system or penalty system.

“We have really well-behaved students: to the extent that we take them every year to Rome on pilgrimage and have never had problems,” Mitchell.

One of Mitchell’s students, Beatrice, a ninth-grader whom she coaches in field hockey, said, “When you have a teacher whom you respect, you want to show that what they think you are capable of is true.”

Another student, Mara, a fourth-grader, said, “We want to behave because we have good teachers who love us.”

Much depends on how the adults treat the students.

“It takes a mature adult to know the potential that is inside a child. All of us become what someone sees in us,” said Mitchell. “The teachings are implicit.”


Dressing Up

Dressing up in uniform seems to contribute to the self-discipline of the students at such Catholic schools. It sets a tone of mutual respect between the students and the teachers. It also puts the school body in the mindset that they are expected to do their best every day.

“I have the girls take off makeup. There is nail polish remover in my desk. We don’t allow anything ‘trendy.’ I tell them if they want to be trendy, it has to be on weekends,” said Bivona.

At Trinity, the teachers dress up for the students every day. The men wear suits and ties, and the female teachers wear dresses. At the Heights, the high-school students wear a coat and tie.

When the Catholic identity permeates the entire school and teachers take religious formation seriously, schools seem to be more successful in teaching self-discipline, too, because a Catholic ethos is fostered.

“The chaplains at The Heights do a fantastic job. They have confession available every day. We have daily Mass, which is optional, at 9:50am. Our school has a rich sacramental life. In religion class, our students are given practical components for how to live the faith. We stress that the spiritual life is for everyone. When this happens, things fall into place. Faith is a dock to weather storms,” said Moynihan.

Not all schools that call themselves “Catholic,” however, truly live and teach the faith. Some have a weak identity, which can have a negative effect on student’s behavior.

“The authenticity of a school’s Catholicism and behavior go hand in hand. It takes saintliness, maturity and sacrifice to achieve this. Our feeling is, if we teach AP Calculus, our religion classes must be taught at that level, as well,” said Mitchell.


Virtue Formation

Virtue formation is an integral part of Catholic education, whether it be implicit in the school’s reading list or talked about explicitly in the classroom.

“At Trinity, we are teaching virtue through the ‘Alive to the World’ program. This program teaches virtues through stories. We do one hour a week, and the kids really love it. We teach the lessons of: how to keep your word, how to return things you borrowed, how to treat others’ property, etc. All of the values we teach come from a place of logic,” said Mitchell.

The Thomas B. Fordham study concluded, “In general, schools tend to excel at the things they value. Moreover, because Catholic schools are unabashedly religious, they expect their students to conduct themselves according to Christian principles and to recognize that doing otherwise has both immediate and potentially eternal consequences.”

For a Catholic education to be real, Catholic educators believe that teachers have to remember the value of every child and believe in each one.

Said Mitchell, “We need to offer a Catholic education which is worthy of the child placed in our care. It is a sacred trust. When Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day, he wasn’t there with a list of rules. He believed in young people, and they showed up.”

Sabrina Ferrisi writes from New York.