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Education Opinion

Detention Detente

By Emmet Rosenfeld — August 29, 2008 3 min read

In my new job as Dean of Students, one of my concerns is discipline. Fielding questions from faculty and discussions with my new boss have helped crystalize a philosophy about an aspect of school life that, as a classroom teacher exclusively, I never had to think that much about.

To foster a consistent and effective school-wide system of discipline, we will talk about proactive strategies on an ongoing basis. Teachers should feel comfortable that they have the resources they need to help children learn to manage their own behavior effectively, thus creating a shared classroom environment where students can learn and teachers can teach under positive, safe conditions.

That said, detention is in the tool box but would only be used at the end of a long chain of incrementally escalating interventions, and in a context where relationships have been purposefully built by the teacher.

The backdrop for this proactive stance is our pedagogy itself. We don’t teach with our back to the room and turn around to find Johnny hitting Suzie; we are engaged with our students, using the Smartboard and interacting in such a way that allows proximity (I can tap Johnny’s paper to redirect his eyes, or touch Suzie’s shoulder to remind her about the “count to ten” strategy we discussed earlier).

The relationships teachers build with students are also important. We differentiate when appropriate to keep kids fully engaged, and know students well enough to anticipate, or at least respond with a prompt correction, to off-task behavior. We are explicit about and teach behaviors as well as academic skills (“This is what I expect when we go to the assembly,”); we understand from a developmental point of view what our kids can and should do at their age and allow for age-appropriate responses and mistakes. In short, there is a plan.

With heightened awareness of students and behaviors comes the ability to anticipate trouble spots (transitions, kids who can’t concentrate well when they sit near each other, etc). Other relationships also help us manage trouble spots: these are the connections we’ve built with parents, what we call the Family-School Partnership. Hopefully after a number of positive interactions, we can feel comfortable having more difficult conversations with parents, enlisting their help where appropriate to correct behaviors or limit rewards.

Detention itself enters the picture as a form of time-out. It is a removal from normal school life, and is the logical consequence for repeatedly transgressing agreed upon limits. By logical consequence I mean it is the result we impose in the rule-based community of our school that is analogous to the natural consequences one might encounter in the world beyond our walls. Touching hot things hurts; of course we want to protect kids from harm, but the lesson teaches itself. Consistently defying behavioral norms also hurts: that is the message of detention. The pain is removal from the group and the privileges—to learn, to have fun, to play—that come with it.

Detention should not be assigned in anger or without a progression of proactive steps starting at the classroom level. As Dean, I hope to become involved with or at least aware of this escalation well before its terminal point. I can help teachers in discussing strategies along the way, and by talking to students who don’t seem to be responding to classroom interventions. This conversation might be informal, if the situation warrants. When a teacher feels the need to escalate consequences in a more serious way, an Honor Code Referral is appropriate.

An Honor Code Referral is an official intervention in which a student will engage in a reflective exercise under the supervision of the Dean, in writing or orally, that makes explicit how their actions have violated the Honor Code. Students will be asked to consider the way in which their actions have affected others, and to frame an apology of words and an apology of action. Last, appropriate logical consequences will be established should the infraction recur.

The only recourse after temporary removal from school life is a longer removal from school life, such as suspension. Therefore, of fundamental importance is the idea of a continuum of responses grounded in the context of a well-managed classroom where kids engage not only in learning but in monitoring their own behavior. With clear communication of expectations to the student, partnership with families, and open lines between teacher and Dean, in most cases detention won’t be needed. This approach keeps students at the center, and makes teaching and learning the main thing.

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