New study finds Catholic school students have better self-discipline

A Catholic education doesn’t just help foster better spiritual discipline; it can help to improve a student’s self-discipline, too.

At least that’s what a recent study conducted by the University of California Santa Barbara found. According to associate professor Michael Gottfried’s and doctoral student Jacob Kirksey’s findings, Catholic schools help to instill better self-discipline among their students than public schools and other private schools.

It was the first study of its kind, and its directive was to answer two questions. One: Are children in Catholic elementary schools more self-disciplined than similar students in other schools, as measured by the likelihood of arguing and fighting and ability to control their temper, among other things? And two: Is the relationship between Catholic school attendance and self-discipline stronger for certain types of students?

Gottfried and Kirksey analyzed nationally representative data collected by two Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies conducted in 1999 and 2011 that examine child development, school readiness and early school experiences. Each cohort comprised 15,000 to 17,000 kindergartners who attended public schools and 1,000 to 2,000 who attended non-public schools, of whom close 50 percent attended Catholic schools.

Their analysis revealed three key findings: Students in Catholic schools are less likely to act out or be disruptive that those in other private or public schools; students in Catholic schools exhibit more self-control than those in other private or public schools; and finally, regardless of demographics, students in Catholic schools exhibit more self-discipline than students in other private schools.

The authors tried to construct a plausible control group, but they did take into account the fact that because parents often make a conscious decision to send their children to Catholic schools, there may be other unobservable differences between Catholic and other private school students, meaning the overall findings could be slightly biased.

Even so, the authors of the study came to a few main conclusions about Catholic schools. They determined that schools that value and focus on self-discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children, and assuming that the results of the study reflect a “Catholic Schools Effect,” they suggested that other schools consider both explicit and implicit methods to replicate it.

“Since Catholic school doctrine emphasizes the development of self-discipline, it seems likely that Catholic schools devote more time and attention to fostering it,” the authors wrote. “If other schools took self-discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they would likely have to spend less time, energy and political capital on penalizing students for negative behaviors.”

Since Catholic school doctrine emphasizes the development of self-discipline, it seems likely that Catholic schools devote more time and attention to fostering it.”

Additionally, they spoke into the religious aspect of a Catholic education and its power to positively influence a child’s behavior.

“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,” the authors wrote. “Perhaps students are more likely to internalize such values when they know they are loved not only by their teachers but by their Creator […] Religion can mold hearts and minds in ways that suspensions, restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports can’t begin to match.”

Featured image by Jason Weinrich

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”