A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, [principal Jim] Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:Some aspects of the article put me off a bit – some of it tends toward the propagandistic (does in-school suspension really take place in a “quiet, comforting room” where you can “talk about anything with the attending teacher”?), and I’m not sure we need concepts like “toxic stress syndrome” and the “trauma-sensitive classroom movement” to discuss basic ways of treating other people with dignity. But the system it describes seems to get a lot of things right. Its focus on engaging the kids as thinking, feeling human beings who might have articulatable reasons for acting the way they do is a vast improvement over an approach that sees kids as nothing more than collections of behaviors that can be modified through the right combination of rewards and punishments. (Notice, for what it’s worth, that Lincoln High says that its approach cut the number of disciplinary measures significantly, as opposed to, say, increasing them thirteen-fold.)
“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?”
. . .
“We began focusing our concern on what we know that’s going on that might be causing behavior in a kid,” versus what type of punishment to mete out.
When a kid erupts in class, teachers intervene quickly. “A kid that I have a really great relationship with might blow up,” says [teacher Erik] Gordon. “So, I step out of the classroom with that kid and ask: ‘What’s going on? Because that was really intense.’ I know that something is bumming this kid out, because normally, we really enjoy each other.”
. . .
Instead of talking [in staff meetings] about disciplining problem kids, they focus on why that teen’s having problems, develop a plan to help the teen, and make sure to follow up.
In the last two years, the Lincoln High staff has noticed that the kids’ ability to regulate their own emotions has dramatically improved. “There’s not near the number of huge emotional explosions that there used to be,” says Gordon. “Even the way the kids interact with each other is more subdued.”
They way the kids see it is that the teachers have chilled out.
I do think even relatively humane approaches to discipline like this one (Collaborative Problem Solving is another) would benefit from more explicitly acknowledging an elephant in the room: kids are made to attend school, whether they want to or not, and are given no say in the rules that govern them there. Few us of would not chafe under those conditions. Some degree of resistance might even be a sign of intelligence.
In approaching discipline, I wish schools would try to follow at least these five principles:
1. Treat people the way that you would like to be treated in their place.
2. Do not treat children differently from adults unless you have sufficient justification, and do not be too quick to assume that you have sufficient justification.
3. Be conscious of the fact that kids in school (and out, for that matter) have been deprived of much of the freedom that adults take for granted, and that that might affect how they feel and act.
4. Be conscious of what your actions model about the relationship between authorities and the people they govern.
5. If a child is not meeting your expectations, do not assume that the problem is with the child, rather than with the expectations.