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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

The Counterproductive Ways Schools Punish Kids...

By Peter DeWitt — September 24, 2013 4 min read

As educators, we should also make sure that our first line of defense is to look at our teaching practices to see if there is something we can do differently instead of always expecting the child to be the one to change.

Students misbehave. They just do. They should not be expected to be perfect day in and day out. Whether we like to admit it or not, there are many adults who misbehave...and break the same rules we expect students to follow. Perhaps they have sidebars in meetings or use their cell phones to text when we know that they would berate their students for doing the same thing.

Children make mistakes and have bad behavior from time to time. It may be due to their home life, a medial issue or a social-emotional issue. It may also just be due to the fact that they are young and don’t know any better. When it happens at school, it can be used as a learning lesson or they can be disciplined in an effort to make sure it never happens again. That sort of punishment happens a lot.

In January, on the Bridging Differences blog, Alfie Kohn wrote

By definition, to punish is to deliberately make someone suffer, either because a primitive version of justice seems to demand it (If you do something bad, then something bad must be done to you.) or because it's assumed that punishment will teach you a lesson. The premise here is that when we make you unhappy by forcing you to do something you find aversive, or by preventing you from doing something you enjoy, you'll become a better person."

I recently had a conversation with a parent (not where I am a principal) who told me that her son, who is diagnosed with ADD, has been having some behavior issues at his elementary school. I know the parent. She is a friend of mine. Her son is not doing anything violent, just having moments where he taps his pencil, doesn’t finish his class work and argues with peers. His mom and dad are working with him at home by providing parameters.

However, she was frustrated because her son lost recess four days in a row and was sent to the “Porch” during class, and she was never informed. The porch is a desk set far away so the child can’t disrupt his peers. You know...the one typically placed by the teacher’s desk or out in the hallway. I usually refer to that as separating him from general population. The only issue is that someone can be sent to the porch while still being able to make noises from that destination. What does the porch really do? It seems like the modern day “dunce cap.”

From an outside perspective, although this school has a “no excuses” policy, I wondered why a child with a diagnosis of ADD would lose recess for four days in a row. How does taking away recess from a ten year-old with hyperactivity issues sound like a good idea? They clearly never read this article (Not just child’s play: Don’t take away recess, docs argue) published by NBC News.

In Kohn’s guest post he wrote,

It's crucial to question not only the effectiveness of punishment--in fact, it can never buy us anything more than temporary compliance, and it does that at a disturbing cost--but the beliefs that often underlie it: that kids are basically bad and will do terrible things without the threat of punishment hanging over them, that punishment is the best (or even only) way to socialize children, that the only alternative to punishment is permissiveness, that it's an appropriate way to express love and care, and so on. As you know, many kids, too, have internalized some of these myths, which may be even sadder than encountering them in adults."

A More Responsive Classroom
I get it. Adults work with students many hours during the day, and sometimes for years at a time (i.e. Looping, self-contained classrooms, etc.). Adults can become very frustrated with behavior, but perhaps instead of being reactive with negative discipline that doesn’t work; we need to be more proactive with teaching strategies and interventions that do work. Maybe, just maybe the discipline issues are a cry for help that instruction needs to change.

On the Responsive Classroom website they say,

As they learn to negotiate social expectations, children test limits, get carried away, forget, and make mistakes. In fact, having these experiences--and seeing how adults respond to them--is one way children learn about how to behave. Just as when we teach academics, we can use students' behavioral mistakes as opportunities for learning."

The Responsive Classroom provides the following tips:
Stop the misbehavior and reestablish positive behavior as quickly as possible
• Maintain children’s dignity
• Develop children’s self-control and self-regulation skills
• Help children recognize and fix any harm caused by their mistakes
• Demonstrate that rules help make the classroom a safe place where all can learn

Even more helpful to those tips, the Responsive Classroom also offers the following suggestions:
“Visual and Verbal Cues - Once teachers have modeled expected behaviors and given children opportunities for practice, a visual or verbal cue will often stop a misbehavior and help a child get back on track.
• Increased Teacher Proximity - Sometimes all that’s needed to reestablish positive behavior is for the teacher to move next to a child.
• Logical Consequences - Logical consequences are another strategy that teachers can use to stop misbehavior while helping children see and take responsibility for the effects of their actions. Logical consequences differ from punishment in that, unlike punishment, logical consequences are relevant (directly related to the misbehavior), realistic (something the child can reasonably be expected to do and that the teacher can manage with a reasonable amount of effort), and respectful (communicated kindly and focused on the misbehavior, not the child’s character or personality).”

In the End
If we want students to learn how to get along with one another and show some compassion for others, then we should probably show some compassion to them. Sending kids to the porch or denying a child recess does not help build the social-emotional skills of students.

I understand that kids need to have “grit” and learn that there are expectations in the classroom. It would just be nice if we could teach kids the tools they need without punishing them in harmful ways. As educators, we should also make sure that our first line of defense is to look at our teaching practices to see if there is something we can do differently instead of always expecting the child to be the one to change.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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