Discipline Ourselves First

Discipline.
Classroom management.
Expectations.
Rules.

I have complicated relationships with all of those terms. Too often I feel schools and teachers define those ideas as being about controlling students rather than helping students learn to be responsible for themselves. (I feel this is true because I know I’ve done it and will likely do it again and again even as I try hard to avoid it.) Also, note, I’m not saying students need to learn to ‘control themselves’ instead of us controlling them. Control is another term, when talking about students having control, that is complicated and often used poorly.

When I read about schools doing ‘innovative’ things when it comes to discipline I am immediately skeptical. I expect, and sadly am often right, that what the schools are doing looks more student-centered or innovative, but is really simply a twist on the traditional and doesn’t actually upend anything that matters. It isn’t actually innovative.

Mindfulness is one example of this. I am a strong believer in what mindfulness can offer our students but only if it is done in a way that respects and trusts them. There are many schools using mindfulness as a tool to keep kids more compliant with rules and expectations that are unreasonable. Kids are taught to practice mindful breathing rather than get upset. But sometimes they should be upset! Sometimes their reality is unfair and absurd and they shouldn’t have to learn to deal with it calmly.

So when schools are unwilling to question their structures and the adults in the building are unwilling to analyze their beliefs and biases, then ‘innovative’ behavior ideas are of little interest to me. It’s unsurprising, given that attitude, that I was hesitant to read this article, One Ohio School’s Quest to Rethink Bad Behavior: Rather than enforcing a top-down mandate, the school trains teachers in the science behind trauma and leaves the rest up to them. The subtitle did give me hope as understanding how trauma affects students (and adults, if we stop to think about it) is an important piece for teachers to have.

This quote also gave me some hope.

“If the focus is on what the adults are doing, that’s where you get the bang for your buck. We can control what the adults do,” explained Olympia Della Flora, the school’s principal, when I visited this spring. “How are [the children] going to learn a positive way of dealing with conflict if we’re not the ones showing it?”

There’s a lot to unpack there and I have many thoughts about it, most of them positive.

Every adult in the building has received training on how children respond to trauma. They’ve come to understand how trauma can make kids emotionally volatile and prone to misinterpret accidental bumps or offhand remarks as hostile. They’ve learned how to de-escalate conflict, and to interpret misbehavior not as a personal attack or an act of defiance. And they’re perennially looking for new ways to help the kids manage their overwhelming feelings and control their impulses.

The article does address the fact that many punishment systems in schools impact students of color far more than white students. That’s an important piece to acknowledge. It goes back to the first quote and focusing on the adults.

Managing student behavior has long been seen as a student issue. I believe it is as much, or even more so, an adult issue.

Sometimes it is because adults don’t know how to support children who are facing/have faced trauma.
Sometimes it is because adults take behavior personally.
Sometimes it is because school policies are harming children.
Sometimes it is because adults have biases that impact how they view children and what they expect.

Children are learning and growing and facing challenges. They are children. As the adults in the building and in their lives we have to act like adults. We have to recognize that we are a player in this issue and our beliefs, actions, and language impact the children. We have to look at ourselves first.

(There is a second article that is almost a photo essay. I saw it first. I think that may have increased my skepticism.)

Leave a Reply