School & District Management Opinion

Discipline: Responding to Bad Behavior in School

By Deborah Meier — January 29, 2013 6 min read
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Dear Alfie,

As I read some of the responses to the blog, I have more and more sympathy for your viewpoint. The idea of a disguised punishment—the “thinking chair” with Teddy Bear—reminds me of many similar ideas coming from people I admire and respect (like Responsive Classrooms).

And as I read the comment from “jyatvin” on natural consequences, I think to myself: If they are natural, than we don’t have to intervene as teachers at all—except to prevent consequences that are disproportionate or dangerous!

But then I realize how mad I am at the bankers and hedge-funders who haven’t been punished—naturally or unnaturally. (See this report in The New York Times Business section about pre-meltdown conversations at Morgan Stanley.)

My friend Brenda Engel was telling me about living in France when her children were young and on leave from one of Cambridge’s very progressive schools. They told her how delightful it was to have teachers who weren’t interested in their opinion of their teachers and who were allowed (so to speak) to be righteously indignant at adults.

Is my in-between position perhaps the least productive—the worst of both paths? Might it cause, as you suggest, confusion? I don’t think so. I think it creates a conversation about who got hurt, who wasted whose time, and what provoked it that has a lot to say about the appropriate response to it.

So let me take up what may underlie our disagreement, other than the fact that I’ve developed my approach in response to classrooms in which I taught and schools in which I was the principal (and to whom teachers sometimes sent kids, and parents sometimes called to complain about injustices done). You are right that it’s partly a strategy to gain the trust of kids, teachers, and families. To convince them that we are safe adults to leave their children with and who share their view that there are definitely things children should not be able to do—or at least do with impunity. (See more about Mission Hill this Thursday online, in the first of 10 video “chapters” about the school, at ayearatmissionhill.com.)

The way I feel about those hedge-fund-banker types. Lock ‘em up. Or worse.

What and how should I respond to a student who is making another child’s life miserable? First, I must be able to promise the victim that I will put a stop to it. Even if it means taking a kid to a so-called “thinking” space. My office, etc. I once “home-schooled” (in my office) three wayward pre-teens who were making life in their classroom impossible. I said they could return to their classroom as soon as they convinced me that they’d act differently. (I first got their families’ support.) I told them I was not sure what would convince me, but I also assured them that I would see that they each kept up with the class’ formal assignments. It worked. Was it a “natural consequence” or a punishment? The class consolidated after their departure, and as they returned, one by one, they fit themselves back into a newly defined culture.

Sometimes teachers sent kids to me or another teacher when they had had “enough.” We had them fill out a form (based on our five habits of mind) which we kept; as the basis for adult conversation, plus DATA. Occasionally I thought the teacher had reacted in haste. And I sometimes returned a copy of the form plus a note to the adult who sent him/her (more hims than hers) to me. I “enjoyed” the kids who said they had been sent for “talking.” Hmmmmm. “Tell me more ...” I responded. But I also realized after a while that the “offense” was rarely the actual offense. Rather it was the student’s response to a rather trivial “reminder” (would you pick that up from the floor?) that initiated a set of inappropriate responses that finally led to ... something like a punishment.

We had a terrible incident at Mission Hill once which, by the time we realized and intervened, had gotten totally out of hand because the kids THOUGHT we knew and were not intervening, so ... They were as angry at us as we were at them. They were so sure we had eyes everywhere and knew everything!

Students in elementary, and maybe middle school too, are eager for strong and powerful and all-knowing adults. Because, like very small children, they count on us to create the safety they need in order to take risks. They know that, in fact, they’re NOT our equals. As my daughter once reminded me when we got into an argument, it’s “unfair” because of course you know how to argue better than me and have more facts to call on!

We are, hopefully, wiser, more knowledgeable, and (in the case of younger children) stronger physically. We have more power, and power can be useful. It’s a waste of energy to tell kids we aren’t—or actually counter-productive.

I get into arguments with my friends in the “free school” movement about whether a school that prepares the young for democracy must also give every student an equal vote on decisions made. I think the best of such schools often rest on either charismatic leaders or clever manipulation—plus parents who feel the same way the free school does. Even adult decisions can be democratically delegated to wiser persons.

Yes, it helps to be authoritative, not authoritarian. And that starts with the principal’s relationship with the rest of the staff, teachers relationships with nonprofessional staff, our collective relationship to families—one by one. That’s where we start, that’s our bottom line (and it’s not always easy). It’s hard work to show kids what a democratic adult community might be like.

In such adult-to-adult situations respect requires being treated and treating each other as equals, not only in aspiration but in the everyday here and now. We want kids to witness this in practice day in and day out. We want them to know that we are responsible not to diminish the status of the adults in their family—because weak and helpless adults are not good for kids, and therefore not good for us either. And we want the kids treated respectfully, as adults-in-training, apprentices—with a greater voice and vote as time goes on and as their expertise grows—and hopefully their judgment does, too.

Schools are places that encourage young people to want to become powerful adults in communities of powerful adults. They should also be places (trickiest of all) where they do not easily allow even good adults to treat them shabbily, shame them publicly, or otherwise abuse their power. Or at least have internal self-defenses against such behavior. That requires a setting in which “objecting” is possible, where effective ways to do so are available. They may sometimes feel properly ashamed of their actions, but they should not have to experience imposed shaming and pretend they like/deserve it.

I’m working on my ideas as I write. We all also wrote columns home weekly, had regular staff AND FAMILY discussions so that we could together appreciate the dilemmas that come with legitimate power. I’m imagining, as I write, that you and I are in such a staff meeting.

Where do we diverge? How might we compromise? How might we persuade each other?


P.S. Since we promised parents we wouldn’t keep secrets from them, we also couldn’t use “calling home” as a threat. And students need to know that we can’t promise to “keep secrets.” (If the parents are really abusing their child we should call Children’s Services, etc. ) We want them to see “calling home” as a helpful way to resolve problems and that we can also help with those secrets. When we succeeded—as we mostly do and did—it takes one less “tool” of power away from us. But it adds another power: bringing family and school together to help a youngster.

WATCH Part One of “A Year At Mission Hill” on Thursday, Jan. 31: ayearatmissionhill.com.

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