This post is by Melissa Daniels, Director of High Tech Middle Chula Vista in California.
Think back to your middle school years. What are your most vivid memories? Chances are, they aren’t about pre-algebra, essay-writing, or world history. Most likely, you have memories of friendship struggles, relationship drama, teen angst, and the other consequences of that new surge of unfamiliar hormones. While we educators are focused on creating deeper learning experiences for our students as they relate to academic growth, our pre-teen and teenage students are often consumed by the social and emotional challenges of becoming young adults--and sometimes these challenges result in questionable behavior choices.
At our school, we approach discipline issues through the lens of deeper learning. While the modern definition of discipline is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience,” we choose to embrace the Latin roots of the word, which refer to learning and knowledge. We view students’ behavior choices as opportunities for learning and growth, rather than occasions for mere punitive measures, which most often do not result in the outcomes that we would want for our students.
So what does this approach to discipline look like? Take Chris for example. When Chris came to us in the 6th grade, he took some time to transition to our school culture. One day, while playing dodgeball at break, he exploded with anger. He shoved and hit several of his peers, and his angry eruption was seen by dozens of students on the field.
We could have suspended Chris for a several days. But we wondered, “What would Chris learn by staying at home?” Instead, we chose to keep him at school, though he was separated from his classroom community for three full days, due to severity of his actions. During this time away from the community, our social-emotional learning coordinator, Charley, worked to help Chris reflect on his actions and regain the trust of his classmates. On the day following the incident on the field, Charley devoted the entire day to addressing the situation through restorative conversations. He unpacked the situation with Chris, helping him to reflect on what happened, what he was feeling in that moment, what he was feeling now, and how he might have dealt with his anger more productively and safely. Following this personalized restorative work with Chris, Charley then facilitated one-on-one conversations between Chris and each classmate whom his actions affected, including the students who had merely witnessed his eruption and felt unsafe. Through this work, Chris began to deeply understand how his actions impacted his classmates, and he developed new strategies for dealing with his anger.
For the next two days, Chris interned as an assistant in a Kindergarten classroom. At the end of each day, I had a chance to debrief with Chris and the Kindergarten teacher, who reported that Chris had been a mature and dedicated assistant. When asked what was challenging about his day, Chris said that the hardest part keeping the Kinder kids from hurting each other at break. I asked Chris why he bothered to intervene. He looked at me, confused, and then replied, “Because I had to keep them safe!” When I recently asked Chris to think back to that experience, he reflected, “I liked [being a Kindergarten assistant]. Instead of you guys just telling me to stop hitting, I had to help younger kids stop hitting, so I understood both sides of the situation.”
As I reflect on Chris’s learning experience, I am reminded of the tenets of deeper learning, which include problem-solving, collaboration, effective communication, and self-directed learning, among others. Through Charley’s restorative work with Chris, he developed his problem-solving skills by brainstorming alternative responses to his anger. He practiced effective communication in his many reflective conversations with his peers. He developed his collaboration skills by reflecting on what it meant to be a good teammate and classmate. And through all of this, he became a more self-directed learner in that he gained strategies for monitoring his emotions and using his setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. Now in 7th grade, Chris is a valued member of his classroom community and rarely struggles with his anger in the way that he did in 6th grade.
Though our social-emotional work with students most clearly relates to the four tenets of deeper learning above, I would argue that it has a significant impact on students’ ability to master academic content and develop an academic mindset--the two remaining tenets of deeper learning, as defined by the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning initiative. As mindset researchers such as Eduardo Briceno and Camille Farrington have asserted, it is critical for academic success that students must feel like they belong to a learning community. We strive for our social-emotional work with students to underscore their belonging to our learning community and thus to have a direct impact on their success in the classroom.
Critics of our approach might argue that without a more punitive consequence (such as an out-of-school suspension), it is as if “nothing happened” to the student and they “got away” with their unsafe behaviors. We would argue that a great deal “happens” to the student when they engage in this sort of restorative work; in fact, deeper learning happens. It is hard work to spend hours engaging in honest reflections with an adult, having restorative conversations with peers, building empathy by mentoring younger students, and learning from one’s mistakes. It takes time and energy, and is by no means easy on the students, or the adults support them. Indeed, it is rigorous work, and we believe it results in deeper learning.
When asked about our approach to discipline, Chris reflected, “I think it’s good. At my old school, they would have just suspended me. But at this school, we work things out and think of more reasonable consequences.” We do, in fact, “work things out,” and it is through this rigorous work that our students engage in deeper learning, not only in the classroom, but in their own social and emotional growth.
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