It is so easy to do things the way they’ve always been done. I believe this is true for a couple of reasons. For one, the way things have always been done is comfortable and known. Doing things differently requires questioning the way they’ve always been done. It requires extra steps of thought and planning. Secondly, doing things the way they’ve always been done is habit. Most of the time we aren’t even aware we’re doing things the way they’ve always been done. (Which is clearly related to the first reason.)
I tend to pride myself of not doing things the way they’ve always been done. Quite possibly I pride myself a bit more than I deserve. The area in which I think this is the greatest challenge for me is in dealing with student behavior (actually, it’s a challenge for me as a teacher and as a parent). It’s both reassuring to know I’m not alone and painful to realize how many of us teachers are doing what has always been done in responding to students.
Yet even though today’s teachers are trained to be sensitive to “social-emotional development” and schools are committed to mainstreaming children with cognitive or developmental issues into regular classrooms, those advances in psychology often go out the window once a difficult kid starts acting out. Teachers and administrators still rely overwhelmingly on outdated systems of reward and punishment, using everything from red-yellow-green cards, behavior charts, and prizes to suspensions and expulsions.
I haven’t used red-yellow-green cards in fifteen years and behavior charts are a rarity for me. I also don’t do prizes. So I guess it could be worse.
Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children’s behavior problems, these standard disciplinary methods often exacerbate them. They sacrifice long-term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short-term gain—momentary peace in the classroom.
That’s what I think I do. I respond in the moment, too quickly, aiming for ‘momentary peace in the classroom’ rather than for what is best for the child. The piece I’m quoting here is from Mother Jones, What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong? It goes on to discuss the idea that we should be helping students learn self-control rather than imposing our control on them. That’s where I fail far too often.
Which begs the question: Does it make sense to impose the harshest treatments on the most challenging kids? And are we treating chronically misbehaving children as though they don’t want to behave, when in many cases they simply can’t?
That fits my beliefs. Children will make choices that don’t show kindness, respect, or safety at times. They are human. Adults do the same. But sometimes, too often, we as schools and teachers are asking students to behave in ways that are completely inappropriate or even impossible for them, at least at that moment. Punishing them for that is unreasonable.
The article continues on to discuss the work of Ross Greene (I just checked out a couple of his books to learn more). The biggest idea is to talk with students when they are not behaving in respectful, kind, safe ways. Ask them why. Figure out what is going on with them. Making assumptions about a child’s behavior and choices will almost always lead us down the wrong road. Listening to a child can take time (which is one reason I think it doesn’t happen enough) but will give us invaluable insight.
The CPS (collaborative and proactive solutions) method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships—especially with the most disruptive kids—and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems. For instance, a teacher might see a challenging child dawdling on a worksheet and assume he’s being defiant, when in fact the kid is just hungry. A snack solves the problem. Before CPS, “we spent a lot of time trying to diagnose children by talking to each other,” D’Aran says. “Now we’re talking to the child and really believing the child when they say what the problems are.”
Three of the students in my classroom that have the greatest challenges at school when it comes to behavior rarely have those problems with me. I realized in the first few days of the year that they would face such challenges and worked hard then to build strong relationships with them. It has done wonders. All three are awesome kids but I’m not sure folks in the cafeteria or specials can always see that. I have one other student I didn’t identify immediately and didn’t spend the same time and effort on relationship building. I regret it daily.
Like the Long creek guards, staffers at Central were skeptical at first. When an enraged second-grader threw a chair at educational technician Susan Forsley one day, her first instinct was to not let him “get away with it.” But she swallowed her pride and left the room until the boy calmed down. Later, she sat down with him and Principal D’Aran, and they resolved that if he felt himself getting angry like that again, he would head for the guidance office, where he’d sit with stuffed animals or a favorite book to calm down. Forsley eventually learned to read his emotions and head off problems by suggesting he take a break. “Is giving him a consequence—suspending him, calling his grandparents—is that going to teach him not to throw chairs?” she asks. “When you start doing all these consequences, they’re going to dig their heels in even deeper, and nobody is going to win.”
Children are smaller than we are but they are not nearly as different from us as we like to think. Treating them as human beings rather than as something unrelated to us makes quite a difference. I think that’s really all it is. Take a moment to think about how you would like to be treated in a situation. Would it help if your boss yelled at you when you messed up? Would it help if you were removed from your peers? Would it help if you had a visible-to-all sign of how you were doing at work (the way red-yellow-green cards do)? if you stop to think about it you will likely decide it’s a bit too humiliating. Don’t do that to children either. I promise to keep trying to treat my students with respect. I expect to fail some, but I’ll keep setting that goal every day with every kid.